The tall tale of an unholy trinity

by Rei Sasaguchi

Celebrating the 35th anniversary of its establishment this month, the National Theater of Japan is presenting in its entirety Kawatake Mokuami’s 1860 kabuki masterpiece “Sannin Kichisa (Three Men Named Kichisa).”

This sewamono (realistic play) in five acts and 11 scenes, set in mid-19th century Edo, deals with three extraordinary characters who made their living through robbery, murder and extortion. It amply demonstrates Mokuami’s skill in constructing dramas that are exceedingly convoluted in plot.

The story revolves around 100 gold ryo made from the sale of a precious sword that was stolen from the house of Obo Kichisa’s father by Denkichi, the yakuza-like father of Osho Kichisa (Koshiro Matsumoto).

The play opens in Ryogoku by the Sumida River. Juzaburo (Tamataro Nakamura), a young clerk working for the wealthy antique dealer who sold the sword, is contemplating drowning himself because he has lost 100 ryo belonging to his master.

Shortly after, on the evening of setsubun (the eve of spring), Ojo Kichisa (Somegoro Ichikawa, Koshiro Matsumoto’s 28-year-old son), who always uses feminine guise, robs a pretty streetwalker called Otose (Komazo Ichikawa) on the bank of the same river. He takes from her exactly 100 ryo — a sum that she was trying to return to a customer, Juzaburo, who mistakenly left it with her — and dumps her into the Sumida.

No sooner does Ojo have the money that Obo Kichisa (Baigyoku Nakamura), a handsome and melancholic man with a samurai background, steps forward and tries to rob Ojo in turn.

Just as the two men are about to begin fighting, Osho Kichisa appears. He breaks up the fight and is consequently entrusted with the 100 ryo. The three men pledge themselves to brotherhood on the spot, unaware that they are related in peculiar ways.

Later the same night, Ojo’s erstwhile victim Otose is pulled from the waters by greengrocer Kyubei (Koemon Matsumoto), the real father of her attacker — and the adoptive father of Juzaburo, the young man she has been hoping to find. Juzaburo himself has been saved from committing suicide by Otose’s own father, Denkichi.

Otose and Juzaburo fall in love, unaware that they are really twin brother and sister, and on account of their illicit love their older brother, Osho, kills them in the end.

Osho visits his father Denkichi, but is spurned by him. Leaving in haste, Osho conceals the package of 100 ryo in the Buddhist altar in the house. Finding the money, Denkichi tosses it out onto the street in disgust, where it is picked up by a passerby. Before long, Obo has snatched the money back. When Denkichi persistently tries to borrow money from Obo, the latter murders him.

Several months later, Obo is pursued by the police and seeks refuge at Kichijoin Temple where Osho lives. When he realizes that Denkichi, whom he killed, is the father of his friend Osho, Obo decides to kill himself. Ojo, hiding out at the same temple, vows to kill himself alongside Obo because he feels responsible for the misfortune brought upon Denkichi and his own father, Kyubei.

As the two prepare for their double suicide, however, Osho hurries in with the severed heads of Otose and Juzaburo, whom he has slain in the nearby cemetery. Osho urges Obo and Ojo to flee while he submits the heads to the authorities as those of his friends.

The play ends in a most spectacular fashion, as the three battle the police during a snowstorm. After giving the 100 ryo and the retrieved sword to Ojo’s father Kyubei, to restore the honor of Obo’s samurai family, the three Kichisa decide to die together to atone for all the wrong they have done.

Mokuami, who spent 50 years of his life writing kabuki, focused on the men who made their living via unlawful means. As seen within the moral framework endorsed by the shogunate, however, Mokuami’s heroes are not villains but rascals, resigned to their own violent fates and to the laws of cause and effect.

Koshiro Matsumoto, who plays Osho in this month’s production, says he always finds Mokuami’s works exciting to perform since each character is so well-written. Mokuami’s heroes, he says, wouldn’t hesitate to carry out the most atrocious deeds, yet they are loyal to their friends and act according to their sense of giri (obligation).

Mokuami’s sewamono also appeal to audiences with their use of eloquent, rhythmic lines, splendid miseba (theatrical highlights) and often humorous characterization.

But “Sannin Kichisa” has been cherished by the Japanese over the past century and a half chiefly because of Mokuami’s compassion for the struggles of ordinary people during the turbulent close of the Edo Period.