Honor through death for the 47

Shinbashi's Enbujo Theater revives samurai epic

by Rei Sasaguchi

“Chushingura (The 47 Loyal Retainers),” the most famous kabuki play on thetheme of revenge, is being staged at Tokyo’s Shinbashi Enbujo Theater this month.

En’ya Hangan (played by Kikugoro Onoe) commits seppuku as his chief retainer (played by Danjuro Ichikawa) looks on.

Taking title roles in the program are prominent actors Uzaemon Ichimura, Kikugoro Onoe, Danjuro Ichikawa and Sadanji Ichikawa. Kikugoro’s son, Kikunosuke, Danjuro’s son, Shinnosuke, and Tatsunosuke Onoe tackle their assignments with great enthusiasm, competing courageously with their elders.

The Enbujo is dedicating the production to Tatsunosuke’s grandfather, Shoroku Onoe, who died in 1989, and to Kikugoro’s father, Baiko Onoe, who died in 1995. Both gave outstanding performances in “Chushingura” during the second half of the last century.

“Chushingura” centers on a historical incident that took place on March 14, 1701, during the Edo Period. Lord Asano of Ako (a domain in the southwestern part of Hyogo Prefecture) attempted to kill the shogun’s chief steward, Kira, who had maliciously insulted him, in Edo Castle.

Lord Asano was ordered to kill himself by seppuku on the same day, whereas Kira was not punished at all. On Dec. 14, 1702, 47 of Asano’s former vassals broke into Kira’s residence and killed the man who had brought calamity upon Asano, his house and all his followers.

After two months of debate and temporizing by shogunate officials, the 47 loyal knights were ordered to likewise commit seppuku, but their heroic deed of revenge so appealed to Edo townspeople that it has since been repeatedly dramatized.

The ultimate bunraku version, “Kanadehon Chushingura,” was adapted for the kabuki stage in Edo, Kyoto and Osaka in 1749. “Chushingura” has retained its popularity in the intervening 250 years.

Under the Tokugawa regime, it was forbidden to use the real names of characters in bunraku or kabuki plays that covered topical subjects. Accordingly, playwrights disguised their themes as historical tales. “Chushingura” was therefore set in 1338 instead of 1701, and the names of the characters were changed to those of the 14th-century heroes familiar in “Taiheiki (Tales of Wars in the Nanboku Era).”

Lord Asano is therefore called En’ya Hangan and the shogun’s chief steward, Kira, is called Ko no Moronao. No one, of course, was fooled, but since the letter of the law was observed, the censors stayed their hand.

The play opens with the scene celebrating the reconstruction of Hachiman Shrine in Kamakura by Ashikaga Takauji to commemorate his becoming shogun and the destruction of his archenemy Nitta Yoshisada.

The hot-blooded daimyo Momoi Wakasanosuke (Ta- tsunosuke Onoe) and the quiet En’ya Hangan (Kikugoro Onoe) have been ordered to entertain Takauji’s younger brother, Tadayoshi, who has come for the dedication of the helmet worn by the defeated Gen. Yoshisada.

Symbolically dressed in black, Ko no Moronao (a remarkable performance by Sadanji Ishikawa) makes advances to Hangan’s beautiful wife, Kaoyo (Shibajaku Nakamura), but his efforts are obstructed by Wakasanosuke. Annoyed, Moronao decides to kill the old man.

Realizing Wakasanosuke’s intention, his chief retainer, Kakogawa Honzo, bribes Moronao in time to make him change his attitude toward Wakasanosuke. His amorous approaches rejected by Kaoyo, the old man turns his fire on her husband when he arrives late at the castle. Moronao taunts Hangan viciously until the gentle Hangan loses control; he attacks Moronao on the spot, but, held back by Honzo, fails to kill him.

While “Chushingura” is based on this incident, Lord En’ya Hangan (Asano) appears only briefly at the beginning, and the rest of the lengthy play deals with subplots.

The real lead is Hangan’s chief retainer, Oboshi Yuranosuke (Danjuro), who spends his time at the Ichiriki teahouse to mislead the shogun’s spies regarding his real intentions; and Hayano Kanpei, who has been excluded from the party Yuranosuke organized to avenge Hangan’s death but who later manages to redeem himself.

Kikugoro learned the part of En’ya Hangan from his father Baiko, who was unsurpassed in this role. Young Kikunosuke tackles the demanding role of Okaru for the first time, and his performance is reminiscent of his eminent grandfather, Baiko, who had a high reputation. Tatsunosuke, on the other hand, plays Okaru’s older brother, Heiemon, in the style of his late grandfather, Shoroku.

The play climaxes in the scenes of the 47 men achieving their ultimate goal 21 months after the death of En’ya Hangan. Led by Yuranosuke, they battle their way into Moronao’s well-guarded mansion and take his head. The play ends as the 47 loyal knights march quietly to the tomb of their lord, carrying the severed head of Moronao.