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Thursday, Sept. 15, 2005

New revenge of the giant Heike crabs

Special to The Japan Times

The term shin kabuki, literally "new kabuki," describes a genre of plays created from the early Meiji Era (1868-1912) through World War II by prominent playwrights such as Shoyo Tsubouchi (1859-1935), Kido Okamoto (1872-1939) and Seika Mayama (1878-1948). Until the preceding Edo Period (1603-1868), classic kabuki plays had been produced by in-house scriptwriters affiliated to major kabuki theaters. However, the 1893 death of Kawatake Mokuami, the last of those writers, marked the end of that centuries-old system.

News photo
Onnagata actor Nakamura Shikan as Tamamushi in playwright Toyoshige Imai's reworking of Kido Okamoto's "Heikegani (The Heike Crabs)" (1911) PHOTO COURTESY OF KABUKIZA THEATER

Mokuami was amazingly prolific, crafting 360 plays, both realistic and historical, during his time with kabuki theaters such as Shintomiza (where he wrote for the actors Ichikawa Danjuro IX, Onoe Kikugoro V and Ichikawa Sadanji I). In fact, the scope of Mokuami's oeuvre was so comprehensive that he in effect exhausted all the themes possible for kabuki at the time, leaving no space for any other aspiring writers.

In contrast to Mokuami, those who followed him into the kabuki world did so through personal relationships with actors rather than official affiliations with theaters. Influenced both by the Western theater that was introduced to the country in the 19th century, and also by a nationwide movement to reform traditional theater, they wrote shin kabuki plays that -- while using traditional kabuki dramaturgy -- attempted to capture modern ways of thinking and introduce characters reflecting the modern spirit.

In September, the Kabukiza Theater in Ginza starts its evening program with a remarkable example of shin kabuki, "Heikegani (The Heike Crabs)" written in 1911 by Kido Okamoto.

Okamoto wrote "Heikegani" at age 39 from childhood memories of a popular Edo picture book in which a young fisherwoman encounters the spirit of Tamamushi, a Heike court lady from the Heian Period (794-1185). Inspired by the illustrations of Tamamushi in the book, the playwright created the character of a proud, modern woman who is unwilling to passively accept others' choices and is prepared to use violence to achieve her ends.

Yet Tamamushi's passion drives her to madness, causing her to kill her own sister and the man her sister wants to marry. Ultimately, it leads her to her own self-annihilation.

"Heikegani" is a one-act play that runs for just over an hour. It begins with narration by Kayoko Shiraishi that is beautifully illustrated by a slideshow. Shiraishi recounts the famous story of the Genji warrior Nasu no Yoichi in the fierce 1185 Battle of Yashima between the Genji and Heike clans. Nasu no Yoichi shot an arrow through a fan held by Tamamushi, so foretelling the fall of the Heike clan at Dannoura (the Inland Sea) the following month.

The play opens as Ugetsu (Ichikawa Sadanji), a Heike general-turned-Buddhist-monk, comes across three children on a beach overlooking Dannoura, who have caught a kani (crab). They call it heikegani (Heike crab) because the markings on its red shell remind them of the contorted faces of the Heike warriors as they perished in the recent offshore battle. After convincing the youngsters to release the crab, he meets Tamakoto (Nakamura Kaishun), Tamamushi's younger sister, who now makes her living through prostitution.

Tamakoto has been disowned by Tamamushi (Nakamura Shikan) because of her involvement with Nasu no Yogoro (Nakamura Hashinosuke), Nasu no Yoichi's younger brother. Tamamushi is obsessed with destroying the Genji clan, Nasu no Yoichi included, and has been performing a nightly ritual that is attended by seven heikegani. Dressed in a ceremonial costume, she pledges revenge to the giant crabs as she calls them by prominent Heike names. On stage the crabs are manipulated by stagehands covered in black who make them crawl realistically in front of her shabby veranda.

When Tamakoto brings Nasu no Yogoro to Tamamushi to obtain her permission to marry him, Tamamushi serves them sake she has poisoned by cursing and soaking heikegani meat in it. As the young couple feel the effect of the poison, she strikes them with her ceremonial fan made of hinoki (cypress) until they die.

In the final, haunting scene, Tamamushi, her red trousers dragging behind her, walks into the roaring sea during a raging storm, led by one of the heikegani.

Originally presented at the Naniwaza Theater in Osaka in 1912, "Heikegani," being both morbid and moving, has remained popular for almost a century, and has been staged in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka 15 times. The new "Heikegani" is directed by Hayaru Fukuda, noted for his work in the modern theater. His stage is attractively set, showing the beach near Dannoura from two strikingly different vantage points in the opening and final scenes. Meanwhile, the musical accompaniment of gagaku instruments, such as biwa and koto, blends in with the recorded sound of waves.

Okamoto's original script in classical Japanese has been reworked by Toyoshige Imai, the playwright who successfully produced the script of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" presented at the Kabukiza two months ago. Though elegant and beautiful, the original lines tended to be long and rhetorical. Here, Imai has maintained Okamoto's literary tone, while at the same time simplifying it for modern audiences.

As one of the three outstanding performers of Tamamushi, in this role Nakamura Shikan, 77, shows the quintessence of the art of onnagata (a male kabuki actor playing a female part). A designated living national treasure, he subtly varies the tone of his voice to give a superb delivery of his lines. Carrying on the artistic lineage of Nakamura Utaemon V (1865-1940), his grandfather, Shikan performed Tamamushi in 1979 and 1991, before the role was passed on to his son Fukusuke in 1997.

With the reworking of the script by Imai, Shikan is particularly happy to have been given the chance to re-create "Heikegani" and take on the role again. He says, "I believe that this play has become easier for the Japanese audiences of today to appreciate," and hopes that as it is currently being staged at the Kabukiza, it will continue to appeal to future generations of kabuki actors and audiences.

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