An introduction to one of the oldest music styles in Kabuki: Kato-bushi

Edo Joururi: The Iki of Kato-bushi And The Allure of Sukeroku

Text by Miyama Kojuro

It had been my dream to see Sukeroku from directly in front of the hanamichi. Sukeroku is the name of the main character of Sukeroku Yukari no Edo-zakura, the most popular of the Kabuki Juuhachiban plays that form the repertoire of the Ichikawa Danjuro family. The setting is the Yoshiwara district of Edo, and even last year the play was performed to great acclaim at the name-taking ceremony of Ichikawa Ebizo XI. The roots of Kabuki lie in the Kyoto area, but this play takes place around Edo, and its lively depiction of the character and spirit of the Edokko have made it synonymous with Edo Kabuki as a whole. In order to see Sukeroku from directly in front of the hanamichi, one must be on the actual stage itself. Thus it was that I decided to apprentice myself to a master of Kato-bushi, the style of music which accompanies Sukeroku.

It was as a middle schooler that I first saw Kabuki. Finding myself immediately drawn to it, I joined the Kabuki Research Club when I entered university, and took lessons until the necessities of adult life forced me to put aside my hobbies until my 30s. When I found the time again, I immediately made it my goal to observe and participate in Sukeroku from the stage.

When one thinks of Kabuki musical styles, one first thinks of Nagauta, Kiyomoto, Tokiwazu, and Gidayu-bushi. In fact, when taking Kabuki as a whole, the Kato-bushi style is a decidedly minor presence today, remaining in use only for Sukeroku. But for nearly 300 years it has been the unwavering rule that Sukeroku be performed in Kato-bushi. And even today, when the music begins and that first distinctive vocal call is heard, it is as if the theater is transported back to an Edo of the past. It was because I loved this feeling of being transported that I was so taken with Sukeroku.

For seven years I studied shamisen under a wonderful teacher,Yamabiko Karyou, and earned my license (or “natori”, in which a stage name is taken in acknowledgment of the maturation of one’s craft). It is difficult to describe my feelings when I finally saw Sukeroku enter the stage from directly in front of the hanamichi. I felt as if I understood for the first time the meaning of the words “Edokko no iki”. And yet, it remains difficult to describe precisely what the words “Edokko” and “iki” mean. They signify a certain breeziness of spirit, characteristic of one who lives in the moment. Yet this definition feels inadequate. I am reminded of the words of Ando Tsuruo, a writer who loved Kabuki and other traditional Japanese arts. Ando was himself an “Edokko”, yet disliked putting on “Edokko” airs. On one occasion Ando took the stage to narrate Sukeroku (in Joururi one does not say “sing” but typically uses the word “narrate” instead, although a large part of the recitation is in fact singing). Andou tells of how, watching Sukeroku make his appearance onto the hanamichi from the vantage point of the stage, he was taken with a feeling as if he was witnessing the personification of the spirit of the “Edokko”.

Sukeroku takes place in the storied red-light district of Yoshiwara. Together with the sensuality of this setting comes a wiff of vulgarity and moral corruption. But Sukeroku does not make a big deal about these things. It is part of the Edokko spirit to eschew vanity and to endure hardship without showing it, and I believe it is this spirit that is captured best in the Edo Kabuki, and Katou-bushi, of Sukeroku.

Kato-bushi and Ichikawa Danjuro, April 18, 2007 (photo by courtesy of Kato-bushi Masumikai)

The Ichikawa Danjuro clan has been paying its respects to Kato-bushi for nearly 300 years (Kato-bushi itself dates from 1717). In the introduction that proceeds a performance, it is customary for the actors to turn toward the musicians and say “Respected members of the Kato-bushi Masumikai¹, please begin”. In doing so they turn their backs to the audience, an act which is an exception among exceptions in the highly formalized world of Kabuki theater.

What is more, another peculiarity of Sukeroku is that laymen are allowed to participate in the narration. Indeed, while there are always some among the performers who are professionals and have earned their name and license, many of the narrators are in fact amateurs (heads of corporations, retirees), or “Sukeroku Natori”, who have received a special exception allowing them to perform only Sukeroku (it should be noted that no such exceptions are made for the shamisen players, who must always be professionals). Despite this, in the Nagauta and Kiyomoto styles of accompaniment the musicians are not referred to as “respected members [onrenchu]”, but simply as “members [renchu]”. In addition, when “Sukeroku Natori” take the stage it is customary that the practice of a professional musician earning a salary be reversed, and so the “Sukeroku Natori” hand out lavish gifts for the privilege of performing. It is, however, considered uncouth to brag about the size of one’s gifts.

Kato-bushi Masumikai performance (photo by Niida Masashi)

Kato-bushi Masumikai performance (photo by Niida Masashi)

Kabuki, as one of the most representative traditional theater arts of Japan, is often thought to be a realm of specialized professionals. And this is generally true. It should be known, however, that there are exceptions, as in the case of Sukeroku and its Kato-bushi accompaniment. Kato-bushi is an area about which the general public knows little. In our next installment I would like to touch on some more of its mysteries.

Translated from Japanese by Kazuo Ohno

1 Kato-bushi Masumikai: taken from the name of Masumi Kato, originator of Kato-bushi, the Masumikai is a society of practitioners of Kato-bushi.

About the Author:

Miyama Kojuro

Born Tokyo, 1941

A Natori of Kato-bushi, he is also a certified public accountant. He acted as a narrator in the name-taking performance of Sukeroku by Ichikawa Ebizou XI.

Read more about Kato-bushi in DBDBD.

Here is a YouTube video clip of a Sukeroku Yukari no Edo-zakura (Sukeroku Yukari: The Flower of Edo) performance at the University of Hawaii in 1995.
The actors are: R. Kevin Doyle (light blue Kimono), Brian Watanabe (as Sukeroku) and Aaron Anderson (samurai).

Maybe you can get an idea what this piece is about.