Still treading the boards after 1,100 years

by Rei Sasaguchi

To commemorate the 1,100th anniversary of the death of Sugawara no Michizane, the celebrated Heian-Period scholar-politician, the National Theater is presenting “Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami (Sugawara Certifies a Disowned Disciple to Perpetuate His Line of Calligraphy).” One of three bunraku masterpieces created in 1746 by Takeda Izumo and collaborators, the play will be performed in its entirety through May 26.

Michizane (845-903) was a prodigy who, at age 11, surprised his scholar father, Koreyoshi, by composing excellent Chinese-style poems. He served at the court of Emperor Uda, and after being appointed Kurodo no To (Head of the Imperial Officers) in 891, he continued to rise fast, competing with Tokihira, son of the influential Fujiwara no Mototsune. Emperor Uda trusted Michizane to the extent that it was he alone whom he consulted when he contemplated abdicating in favor of Daigo in 893.

In 899, when Tokihira was appointed minister of the left, Michizane was promoted to minister of the right. Michizane’s elevation earned the enmity of his colleagues and of the Fujiwara clan. In January 901, he was suddenly demoted and sent to Dazaifu, in northern Kyushu, on charges of plotting against Emperor Daigo. After he died there two years later, calamities that befell the capital were believed to be caused by his divine wrath.

When Kitano Tenjin Shrine in Kyoto was built for Michizane in the mid-10th century, reverence for him spread throughout Japan. Aside from that shrine and Dazaifu Shrine in Kyushu’s Fukuoka Prefecture, there are some 10,000 others dedicated to Michizane — though his vengeful spirit has in some locations been transformed into a merciful deity, whose help is especially sought at exam times.

On Feb. 28 this year, two national-living-treasure puppeteers performing in this production — 83-year-old Tamao Yoshida (operating Michizane) and Bunjaku Yoshida, 74 (operating Kakuju, Michizane’s aunt and the mother of Princess Kariya, his adopted daughter) — visited Tenjin Shrine at Domyoji in Fujiidera, Osaka Prefecture to pray for its success both at the Bunraku Theater in Osaka last month and the National Theater this month.

“Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami” centers on Michizane’s life and his political strife with the Fujiwara family. Presented in two parts, its structure is further complicated by the addition of stories by different playwrights about a set of famous triplets living in Osaka at the time. Of the three, Umeomaru serves Michizane; Sakuramaru is in the service of Prince Tokiyo, younger brother of the emperor; Matsuomaru works for Michizane’s mortal enemy, Fujiwara no Tokihira.

The play begins with an idyllic scene by the Kamo River in Kyoto in which Prince Tokiyo meets Michizane’s daughter Kariya, as arranged by Sakuramaru. Their ensuing affair triggers a string of troubles for Michizane and, feeling responsible for this, Sakuramaru kills himself. “Sugawara Denju” ends with the famous “Terakoya (private school)” scene in Act IV, Scene 3, in which Matsuomaru sacrifices his son Kotaro to save the life of Michizane’s young heir Kanshu-sai. These wonderfully moving scenes were also adapted for kabuki and have long been popular on that stage too.

As for our elegant protagonist Michizane, he appears first in Act I, Scene 2, conferring on his former disciple Takebe Genzo — previously disowned over an affair with a woman now his wife — the highest level of attainment in the art of calligraphy. In Act II, Scenes 1-3, Michizane, on his way to Dazaifu, stops at Domyoji to spend one night with Kakuju. Kariya, hiding in the house, in vain tries to meet Michizane to apologize for causing his downfall through her involvement with Prince Tokiyo.

Before daybreak on the morning of Michizane’s departure, a wooden sculpture he had carved saves his life. It performs a miraculous substitution to thwart an abduction attempt plotted by Haji no Hyoe and his son Sukune Taro, who is married to Kakuju’s older daughter Tatsuta. Kakuju then discovers that her daughter has been murdered by Taro. Anguished, she stabs him to death and takes the tonsure as a Buddhist nun.

Tamao Yoshida shows the quintessence of his art in performing Michizane throughout the play. In the Domyoji scene in Act II, he handles the puppet with marvelous control, especially in the scene when the sculpture substitutes for Michizane to foil the abduction. (Note how the wooden image walks and bows to Kakuju!) Tamao looks beautifully composed with an impassive countenance, standing meekly by the puppet surmounted with a “Komei” kashira (head), which he handles with two black-clad assistants. In contrast, for Michizane’s exile scene at Dazaifu in Act IV, Scene 1, Tamao exhibits a drastically different style, and the puppet now wears a “Shunkan” head, painted to show an emaciated expression.

Having performed the part of Michizane exclusively for the past 23 years, since he first took the role in January 1979, Tamao Yoshida — who comports himself as if he were, indeed, his character — is delighted to be able to perform it at the National Theater this month for the ninth season. Although he now feels the weight of the puppet (about 15 kg), he is content to still be able to perform, and says he does his best each time he goes on the stage because now he realizes any performance could be his last.