Japan's Kabuki: in an electronic age, a vivid reminder of tradition

The Japan Society is celebrating its 75th anniversary with grandeur - specifically by sponsoring a four-week American tour of Japan's Grand Kabuki.

The company of 77 includes 26 actors and 30 musicians. Among the casts for samplings from seven Japanese classics are eight stars who have never appeared together on the same program. Three members of the troupe are Living National Treasures: actors Nakamura Utaemon and Nakamura Kanzaburo and singer Kiyomoto Shizutayu.

The gorgeous theatricalism and exquisite artistry of the productions provide vivid reminders of traditions that still survive and even thrive in Japan's age of electronic and automotive eminence. The three pieces that opened the two-week engagement at the Metropolitan Opera House ranged from a 17th-century Kabuki favorite and a Kyogen comic farce, to a 1919 Kabuki adaptation of text from a tragic No drama.

''Narukami'' (''The Thunder God'') is a typical mythical tale recounting how, by her wiles, Princess Kumo-no-Taema (literally Break in the Clouds) breaks the spell of the holy but vengeful recluse Narukami. Narukami has imprisoned the god of rain, thus causing a prolonged drought. With boundless resources of delicate guile, actor Bando Tamasaburo's alluring princess melts the hermit's heart and preys on his masculine frailty.

Having discovered the secret of releasing the rain god, the princess triumphantly completes her mission. Whereupon, in the fashion of such fables and of Kabuki transformations, Narukami turns into a menacing thunder god bent on pursuing the temptress who has tricked him.

Besides the central duel between the royal intruder and the recluse (Ichikawa Ebizo), ''Narukami'' calls on the comic services of Nakamura Kangoro and Nakamura Sukegoro as a pair of acolytes (whose characters in translation mean ''White Cloud'' and ''Black Cloud''). It's all richly colorful and archaically symbolic in a lighthearted way.

''Migawari-Zazen'' (''Substitute for Meditation'') is a broadly comic piece in which an errant husband (Nakamura Kanzaburo) attempts to deceive his sternly suspicious wife (Nakamura Tomijuro) only to fail miserably and farcically. Kanzaburo lavishes all of his immense resources of comic mime on the philandering and sometimes tipsy spouse, while Nakamura Fukusuke performs the services of the droll menial in the middle.

''Sumidagawa'' (''The River Sumida'') provided the deeply moving finale of the long opening program. Adapted in 1919 from a well-known No play, this lyric combination of sung text and poetic movement tells the tragic story of Hanjo, a deranged mother (Utaemon), wandering the bank of the Sumida River in search of a son who has been kidnapped by slavers.

Hanjo encounters a kindly boatman (Kanzaburo), who recognizes her plight and tells her how local villagers nursed such a kidnapped child whom slavers had abandoned. With the recognition that this was indeed Hanjo's little son, the boatman ferries her to the child's grave.

In Utaemon's extraordinary performance - delicate, quietly distraught, touching the deep wellsprings of emotion - ''Sumidagawa'' becomes a distillation of grief. The woman's sorrow is matched by the tender solicitude of Kanzaburo's little boatman.

In contrast to the rich colors, the splendid scenic effects (including the magnificent pine-tree greenery of the second piece), and the dazzling fabrics of the kimonos that mark the production as a whole, ''Sumidagawa'' is an elegy of muted tones, subtle blues and greens, to heighten the melancholy mood. At his entrance, Utaemon carries the branch of a flowering tree. In this great actor's hands, it is a bough of tears.

The changing programs at the Metropolitan Opera House are accompanied by a simultaneous translation by the Oriental scholar Faubion Bowers. A limited number of headset receivers are available for rent.

The Grand Kabuki will remain at Lincoln Center through July 10. Then the company will perform at the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tenn. (July 13-18), and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington (July 20-25).

The visit not only provides a marvelously rich theatrical experience. It is a signal event in Japanese-American cultural relations.

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