Two women, a ghost and a very big fish

by Rei Sasaguchi

An abridged version of Tsuruya Nanboku IV’s 1809 play “Okuni Gozen Kesho no Sugatami” is being presented at the National Theater in Tokyo until Tuesday under the title “Imayo Kasane Kesho no Sugatami (Kasane Putting on Her Makeup).”

The actors praying for success at Yutenji Temple in Tokyo

The original work is unbelievably confusing in plot — a combination of “Tenjiku Tokubei,” which Nanboku adapted for the kabuki stage in 1804, and the legend of Kasane, which was popular in Edo during the 17th and 18th centuries.

It has been reworked by 37-year-old scriptwriter Toyoshi- ge Imai into an appealing play in three acts and eight scenes, moving the focus away from the tragic story of Okuni Gozen (here treated as a prologue) to the drama of Kasane and her husband, Yoemon.

The play is directed by veteran kabuki specialist Ginsaku Tobe. Fukusuke Nakamura, 40, takes lead roles as Okuni Gozen, Kasane and Okuni’s young lover, Motonobu. Nakamura’s younger brother, Hashinosuke, 35, plays Yoemon. Many special effects (shikake) have been devised by stage magician Mr. Maric, for whom “nothing is impossible.”

The plot revolves around a stolen painting and the spirit of an angry woman. After the death of Lord Sasaki Yorikata, his mistress, Okuni Gozen, steals a valuable heirloom painting of a carp. Yorikata’s younger sister, Icho no Mae, and a young retainer called Motonobu, to whom Icho is betrothed, go secretly in search of the missing treasure.

When the play opens, Okuni, who is also in love with Motonobu, is hiding in the house of her servant, Sehei (Kichiya Bando). When she hears of the engagement of Motonobu and Icho no Mae, Okuni is greatly disturbed; and when she reads Motonobu’s letter to Lord Hosokawa Katsumoto, reporting that he approached Okuni in order to retrieve the lost painting, she explodes with anger. Sitting before her makeup mirror, she is transformed into a monster.

In spirit form, Okuni travels to the Gangoji Temple in Nara, where Motonobu and Icho no Mae (Komazo Ichikawa) are staying, and there she furiously attacks them. In the nick of time, Motonobu’s retainer, Matahei, dashes in and subdues the angry ghost with an image of the bodhisattva Kannon.

Okuni retreats, and as the temple building crumbles away, her figure turns into a skeleton dressed in a red kimono. The act ends with a fantastical scene in which the ghost of Okuni travels through the dark sky with an ominously red full moon, dancing in the air and playing with fireflies flickering over the fields.

The retainer, Matahei, has been living in Osaka under the name of Yoemon, married to the geisha Kasane, despite the opposition of Kasane’s mother, Myorin (Shikimatsu Nakamura), mistress of the Izutsu teahouse, who disdains him for his poverty. He learns that the precious painting is in the hands of the pawnbroker Rihei (Kichigoro Nakamura) but has no money to retrieve it. A rich merchant named Sukeshiro (Tozo Nakamura), who is interested in Kasane, instead manages to steal the painting from the pawnbroker. The next day, Sukeshiro visits Myorin at the teahouse and asks her to let him marry Kasane.

When Kasane returns home, anxious to help Yoemon raise the 300 gold pieces needed to buy the painting, she begins to make herself up in front of the mirror, echoing the horrific earlier scene with Okuni. Myorin then brings in the skull of Okuni, her votive tablet and folding mirror, which she has acquired from her older brother, Sehei. (With these three objects, the spirit of Okuni can be transferred to Kasane).

Myorin urges her daughter to accept Sukeshiro’s proposal, and Kasane agrees to marry him on condition that he give her 300 gold pieces for a dowry. When Yoemon comes in, Kasane tells him she wants to break up.

They quarrel, and Yoemon leaves. Kasane writes him a letter to explain that she is marrying Sukeshiro only to get the money for Yoemon. As she looks at herself in Okuni’s folding mirror, light gleams in the empty sockets of Okuni’s skull, its jaw moves, and it flies and strikes Kasane’s forehead.

Now possessed by Okuni’s vengeful spirit, Kasane goes to ask her fellow geisha Kosan (who is, in fact, Icho no Mae in disguise) to take the letter to Yoemon. As she does so, she is suddenly swept with a furious rage. She chases Icho to the bank of the Kizu River, and there strikes her down. Yoemon rushes to the scene and kills Kasane on the spot. When Icho recovers her wits, however, she hands Kasane’s letter to Yoemon. Reading it, Yoemon realizes Kasane’s true intentions and is filled with bitter regret.

A confrontation follows at his house between Yoemon and Sukeshiro. The ghost of Kasane appears again and attacks Yoemon. Yoemon’s aunt, Oriku (Shikan Nakamura), realizing that Kasane’s ghost is fortified by the jealous spirit of Okuni Gozen, cuts herself and pours her own blood over Okuni’s folding mirror to exorcise the ghost.

The play ends with Yoemon fighting Sukeshiro in the basin of a waterfall flowing into the Kizu River. Sukeshiro drops the painting, and it turns into a real carp 2 meters long. After killing his adversaries, Yoemon struggles with the giant fish in the water, and when he strikes it with his sickle, the carp returns safely to the scroll, bringing peace at last to the house of Lord Sasaki.

Finding it “challenging” to perform two distinctive female characters obsessed by love, Fukusuke portrays Okuni in the stylized jidaimono style of acting and Kasane in the realistic sewamono style. He demonstrates his great skill in onnagata acting when his Okuni or Kasane becomes jealous — while changing his facial expression, he makes his voice hoarse and frightening. Hashinosuke supports Fukusuke with his performance as Yoemon, and Shikan, 73, contributes to the work of his two talented sons in the part of Yoemon’s courageous aunt.

Fukusuke, his brother Hashinosuke, director Tobe and scriptwriter Imai visited the monument to Kasane’s memory at Yutenji Temple in Tokyo’s Meguro Ward to pray for the success of “Imayo Kasane Kesho no Sugatami” just before the start of rehearsals.

The temple is that of the renowned Buddhist monk Yuten (d. 1718), whose prayer, according to legend, saved the spirit of Kasane. The monument was dedicated to Kasane as the heroine in Tsuruya Nanboku’s 1823 play “Kesakakematsu Narita no Riken,” another version of the story, when it was revived in Tokyo in 1926.