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Great Masters

Kongoh Tadaichi (Ukon Ujishige) (1815-1884)

A Man of Ingenuity

Kongoh Tadaichi is known as the creator of the stage effect chisuji-no-den, in which the spirit of Ground Spider (performed by the leading actor) throws a number of spider threads, in the second half of the Noh drama, "Tsuchigumo (Ground Spider)." He was one of the meritorious persons who played a significant role in transmitting Noh from the last days of the Shogunate to the beginning of the Meiji era, although he was not as well known as Umewaka Minoru or Hōshō Kurō. At the time of the Meiji Restoration (1868), he had a Noh theatre in Azabu, central Tokyo. With that as his base, he devoted himself to Noh with his son Kongoh Taiichirō. When the Noh community faced a critical moment of its life, he gave performance opportunities to actors of different schools, such as Kanze Kiyotaka, Hōshō Kurō, and Umewaka Minoru, all of whom often appeared on Kongoh Tadaichi's stage. According to his grandson Kongoh Ukyō, Tadaichi seemed to be on excellent terms with Kanze Kiyotaka, at that time head of the Kanze school. Kiyotaka frequently came to visit him, and Tadaichi always talked over drinks with him and amused himself by holding forth on the art.

Kongoh Tadaichi was born in 1815 (Bunka 12). He was called Suzunosuke in his childhood, though after he grew up he called himself Ukon Ujishige. After the Meiji Restoration, he changed his name to Kongoh Tadaichi. During his childhood, people were not anticipating that the Shogunate would come to an end. Although it was a hard time for Noh actors when luxury was strictly prohibited in the Tenpō reforms, the family of the Shōgun was still behind the Noh community. A large number of performances were held, and actors in every school were closely occupied with the art while their livelihoods were secured. In the meantime, Tadaichi established his style of the art, and became the 22nd generation head of the Sakado Kongoh school.

In 1853 (Kaei 6), Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy arrived in Japan at Uraga Harbor aboard a black-hulled frigate. It was clearly the start of a critical situation. Kongoh Tadaichi was then focusing on creating variegated stage effects that would usher in a new phase in his school, and eventually in the Noh community. It is said that he was innately quite nimble-fingered. He was a man of ingenuity with an inquiring mind, thus he made a series of new devices in the actual programmes. In 1855 (Ansei 2), Tadaichi performed "Tsuchigumo" in a program held in Edo Castle, and threw a number of white threads for the first time. The audience were so surprised with the scene covered over with the white threads, that the performance created a sensation. He created a lot of special stage directions, including shiro-gashira in "Kokaji," in which he wore a wig with gray hair instead of the normal one with reddish hair. When he was forty-one, he received an award from the family of the Shōgun for his mature accomplishment in "Higaki."

The effect of spider threads was later adopted by every school, and has taken root deeply in the performance of that play. The original version of chisuji-no-den in the Kongoh school has been in great demand since the Meiji era, and is frequently performed by Tadaichi, his son Taiichirō, and his grandson Ukyō. The Kabuki actor Onoe Kikugorō 5th also started using a similar stage effect, after he learned it from watching the play by the Kongoh school. It is rumored that Kikugorō received private lessons, however, the truth is that before adopting the stage effect, he visited the actors backstage at a program of the Kongoh school. The story was then amplified in the telling.

Kongoh Tadaichi also had great skill in making masks. It was a usual for the actors in each generation in the Sakado Kongoh family to make their own masks, and some of them even became experts and produced distinguished masks. As Tadaichi was deeply attached to the school, he made masks himself. He must have been a master at woodwork, as he even made several long swords and the like. He also made a mask donned by himself as the nochi-shite in "Tsuchigumo." In one episode of his mask making, he named a mask "Kumo-beshimi" (ugly spider mask) because he made it while watching a spider through a magnifying glass. Unfortunately we cannot see the mask now because it was burnt in a fire. He also excelled in the study of Japanese classical literature, and worked as a Shinto priest. He was surely a man of versatile talents and face.

After the beginning of the Meiji era, Tadaichi continued to devote himself to Noh, although he was already in his old age. He even took all of the leading parts in five different plays in a day, which you will never see these days. He performed a remarkable number of plays before he died in 1884 (Meiji 17). In 1878 (Meiji 11), he performed "Okina" and "Yōrō" at the opening of a new Noh theatre in the Imperial Palace in Aoyama. He was undoubtedly an indispensable actor for important programs of the time. In the meantime, however, he and his family suffered a fire and lost many of his family’s stage items, including costumes, masks, and even his family’s newly reconstructed stage. The destruction by fire affected the mind of his son Taiichirō, who was regarded as Tadaichi's successor. Taiichirō himself died only three years after Tadaichi passed away. Subsequently, Tadaichi's grandson Ukyō underwent all sorts of hardships. The fire was quite a reversal of fortune for the Kongoh family. It may be because of the accident that there are not so many accounts of his achievements left now. We should properly recognise Tadaichi's contributions to Noh.

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