Ōishi Saigo no Ichinichi at the Kabuki-za

This is a film blog, right, so why I am writing about a kabuki play?

I don’t know much about kabuki, really. I learned a bit about it in a theater or literature class or two and have been to a few one act performances at Kabuki-za over the years, by myself and with visiting family from abroad. I even ended up going to see a Kabuki play on film at the Togeki, which is almost just across the street from the Kabuki-za. “You know the actual kabuki theater is down the street, right?” said the person at the ticket window.

My basic understanding of kabuki is that it is a form of theater that was born and developed in the Edo period. Going to the theater was a day long experience at the time, with audiences enjoying elaborate plots and staging. Kabuki survived through the various cultural changes of the Meiji and postwar eras and now, when you go to Kabuki-za one or two acts from many different plays are performed throughout the day.

My wife and I decided to spend an evening at the Kabuki-za. So, without looking at what was being performed I bought two tickets and we went inside. There are three acts/segments of a full modern kabuki performance, with two rather long intermissions between them, when the audience can have something to eat at one of the restaurants inside the theater, purchase souvenirs, go to the restroom, etc. The first act came from Kanadehon Chushingura, the most famous Edo-era rendition of the famous story of the 47 Ronin, who spent years planning and ultimately avenging their lord with the expectation that even with success they would have to give up their lives as a result. This was a typical Kabuki play, with styled sword fights changing scenery, mistaken identities, and dramatic death scenes. The second act is a famous scene Ninokuchi Mura from the play Koi Biyaku Yamato Orai. This scene, where a father unexpectedly meets his son who is on the run from the law, is another typical Edo period drama grounded in issues of giri (duty) vs ninjo (emotions), where the father must decide if he can meet his son even though he is duty bound to turn him in if he ever does. The scene itself is set in a snowy mountain village, complete with falling snow throughout. Even the stagehand, who often come out in a kabuki play dressed to assist with costume or set changes in the middle of a performance, was dressed all in white to blend in with the snow scene rather than the usual all black.

Then the third act came, entitled Ōishi Saigo no Ichinichi (The Last Day of Ōishi), which from the very start seemed a bit different. First, although (obviously) still a kabuki play, the staging and costuming was just a bit less ornate and stylized than a usual Kabuki play. Then, there was the story itself, which included fairly modern discussions on not letting fame get to one’s head and acting on ones first impulse was important. There is the fairly straightforward plot whose one act of hidden identity is quickly discovered and the discovery in and of itself being not much of a surprise. Finally, there was the fact that what was being presented, although the third act of the night, was in fact an entire self-contained theater piece, rather than a single act of a larger play.

What was being performed was another version of the Chushingura story, but instead of one written in the Edo period, this play, Ōishi Saigo no Ichinichi, or the Last Day of Ōishi, was one play in the larger Genroku Chushingura cycle, a series of 10 kabuki plays written by Seika Mayama in the 1930s. Mayama was a “modernist playwright“, among other things, who was active in the late Taisho and early Showa periods up until World War II.

Still, this is a film blog and I am writing about kabuki? Well, Mayama was contracted to Shochiku. You know, the film company that produced a series of films about a certain itinerant peddler. Shochiku also owns the Kabuki-za and has been involved in kabuki from its start. In fact, Yoji Yamada himself has directed a few Cinema Kabuki films for Shochiku, as well.

Shochiku also produced the film version of the Genroku Chushingura cycle in 1941, directed by none other than Kenji Mizoguchi. New York Times film critic calls the film “one of the great political films of all time. He also states it is a “nearly four-hour-long adaptation of the classic early-eighteenth-century historical episode,” which, I would gather, somewhat fails to take into account the modern source material of Miyama’s cycle, that Mizoguchi started with and how it is different from how it had been presented in the past. In a summary of a presentation by Mayama expert Dr. Brian Powell in the Fall 1998 ( Vol. 15, Iss. 2) issue of Asian Theatre Journal, James Brandon writes that Mayama “transformed kabuki drama in several ways: the dense dialogue of his plays “demanded an intellectual engagement from audiences” that old kabuki plays did not; productions starring Ichikawa Sadanji II at the Tokyo Gekijo encouraged a more educated audience to attend kabuki; and by interweaving elements of the old stagecraft he maintained the interest of traditional kabuki fans as well.”

The relationship between Mayama’s new kabuki play and Mizoguchi’s film adaptation, the relationship between new Kabuki and the development of film, Mayama’s plays themselves and Mizoguchi’s adaptation, these are all things I am looking forward to learning more about in the future. Dr. Powell, who is working on an English translation of Mayama’s Genroku Chushingura cycle, published a book on Mayama I am now interested in reading, as well.

For now, though, I hope to be able to watch this new Kabuki play, the Last Day of Ōishi, with all this in mind. It is playing daily at the Kabuki-za in the Ginza every night until Sunday November 25th. You can either purchase advance tickets for the full three performances, which begin at 4:30, or you can attempt to purchase a single act ticket to see only Ōishi Saigo no Ichinichi, sales of which begin everyday at 6:50 for the 7:45 to 9:05 performance.