Undying loyalty in ancient China

Ennosuke dazzles audiences with "Shin Sangokushi II"

by Rei Sasaguchi

Ennosuke Ichikawa is presenting his latest “Super Kabuki” production, “Shin Sangokushi II (New Record of the Three Kingdoms, Part II)” at Tokyo’s Shinbashi Enbujo Theater through May, leading members of his personal troupe including Danshiro (his younger brother), Ukon, En’ya, Emiya, Emisaburo and Shun’en.

Ennosuke Ichikawa

Super Kabuki, which features fast-paced action and spectacular theatrical stunts, was created by Ennosuke in 1986 in an effort to reinvigorate kabuki and make it more relevant to modern audiences. It retains classical kabuki acting and staging techniques, such as tachimawari (fight scenes), striking mie poses and elaborate kumadori makeup, but uses original scripts and background music along with an arsenal of high-tech special stage effects.

“Shin Sangokushi II” is Ennosuke’s eighth Super Kabuki production, and follows on from “Shin Sangokushi I,” which ran for nine months in 1999-2000. Set in third-century China with a script written by Kensuke Yokouchi, the story is based on the lengthy Chinese historical novel “Sanguozhi Yanyi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms),” written by Luo Guanzhong during the 14th century, which was in turn based on “Sanguozhi (Record of the Three Kingdoms),” a collection of tales of the warlords and statesmen of the Chinese kingdoms of Wei, Wu and Shu, who vied for supremacy amid the chaos surrounding the fall of the Han Dynasty in A.D. 220.

The hero of Ennosuke’s “Shin Sangokushi I” was Liu Bei, who claimed descent from the fallen house of Han. He made himself ruler of the kingdom of Shu (modern Sichuan) in 221, supported by his military advisor Zhuge Liang, known as Kongming, and his trusted generals, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei.

Kongming (Ennosuke Ichikawa) battles the southern barbarians (above). He takes leave of his protege Jiang Wei (Ukon Ichikawa), bidding him to carry on the struggle (below).

Liu Bei contended with Sun Quan, who ruled the kingdom of Wu in the south, and the ruthless and powerful Cao Cao, who founded the new state of Wei in north China in 215.

In “Shin Sangokushi II,” Ennosuke focuses on Liu Bei’s advisor Kongming, and his role after Liu Bei’s death in 223 as prime minister supporting the heir, Liu Shan. Kongming continued to pursue the dream he had inherited from Liu Bei and, with a sense of mission, waged war against the kingdom of Wei to the north, where Cao Cao died in 220 and was succeeded by his son Cao Pi.

“Shin Sangokushi II” is a series of dazzling battle scenes in three acts and 20 scenes, with authentic Chinese-style tachimawari performed by 19 members of the jingju troupes of Jilin and Shanxi provinces, led by Sha Lijin, a 17-year-old wudan actor specializing in tachimawari.

The play opens with Kongming’s successful military campaign against the barbarians in the Yunnan region, led by Meng Huo (En’ya), which takes place in 225, two years after Liu Bei’s death. It traces a complex but exciting series of intrigues, campaigns and battles among the successors of the first generation of heroes celebrated in “Shin Sangokushi I.”

In 234, feeling that his health is failing and death is approaching, Kongming goes to the capital of Wu to propose an alliance against Wei. Sun Quan rejects the alliance, but promises not to attack Shu while Kongming is campaigning against Wei.

Returning to Chengdu, Kongming prepares for his final campaign with an elaborate trap for the Wei forces. Then, while leading his troops against the Wei in 234, Kongming dies at Wuzhangyuan, resigned to his fate.

Kongming is regarded in Chinese and Japanese tradition as the epitome of a loyal minister, equally brilliant in military strategy, diplomacy and civil administration and unfailingly loyal to his liege lord Liu Bei. In “Shin Sangokushi II,” however, scriptwriter Yokouchi has portrayed Kongming less as a superhero than as a human being, generous and understanding toward the younger members of his staff, and above all, faithful to the woman he once loved.

In “Sanguo Yanyi” Kongming is already married when, at 27, he leaves his home in Nanyang to work for Liu Bei, but in “Shin Sangokushi II,” Kongming leaves his lover Cuilan (Emiya) behind, promising that he will return to her when he has fulfilled his duty.

Kongming remains unmarried throughout his life, while Cuilan gets married to another man and dies, leaving a pretty daughter named Chunqin (Emiya) and a good-looking son (Ukon), who, as Jiang Wei, becomes Kongming’s right-hand man. Cuilan’s two handsome children are at his side when Kongming dies peacefully at Wuzhangyuan. In the grande finale Kongming makes a flying exit with Cuilan, who reappears to guide him to heaven.