This October, the Kabukiza is anticipating the 300th anniversary of the famous act of revenge accomplished by 47 ronin (masterless samurai) on Dec. 14, 1702 by staging one of kabuki’s most celebrated dramas, “Kanadehon Chushingura (The Forty-seven Loyal Retainers).” Selections from this epic work are being presented in two parts, Acts I, III and IV in the afternoon and Acts V, VI, VII and XI in the evening.
“Chushingura” is based on the well-known incidents that took place in Edo in 1701 and 1702. On March 14, 1701, Daimyo Asano of Ako, in the southwest of present-day Hyogo Prefecture, was ordered to commit seppuku for attempting to kill the shogun’s head steward, Kira Kozukenosuke, in Edo Castle, after being cruelly insulted by him. Twenty-one months after their lord’s death, Asano’s 47 former retainers broke into Kira’s residence at Ryogoku and avenged their master by beheading Kira. The ronin, in turn, committed seppuku two months later by order of the shogun.
The ronin were so admired that their deeds were dramatized for the bunraku and kabuki stages during the first half of the 18th century. The “definitive” version was that written by Takeda Izumo and collaborators in 1748, which was adapted for the Kabuki stage the following year.
“Chushingura,” however, isn’t strictly the tale of Asano’s retainers. Instead, it is set shortly after the establishment of the Ashikaga Shogunate in 1336. As the Tokugawa regime forbade the use of the names of historical personages in dramatic works, the principal characters are named after warriors from the late-14th-century narrative “Taiheiki (Chronicle of the Great Peace).” Thus Daimyo Asano is called En’ya Hangan and Kira is Ko no Morono. Asano’s chief retainer, Oishi Kuranosuke, is referred to as Oboshi Yuranosuke and his son Chikara becomes Rikiya. And Asano’s young retainer, Kayano Sanpei, is presented as Hayano Kanpei, excluded from the group of avengers because he was absent at the time of the fatal incident, having a rendezvous with Okaru, a lady-in-waiting to Hangan/Asano’s wife, Kaoyo.
Act I opens ceremoniously, as the main characters are introduced by a puppeteer. When the curtain is drawn aside, the actors are lined up in front of the Hachiman Shrine in Kamakura, observing the dedication of the helmet of Nitta Yoshisada by Ashikaga Takauji, the shogun who defeated him. Reminiscent of bunraku puppets, the actors sit inert on the stage with their heads bowed, becoming animated only when their names are called, one by one.
Nakamura Kichiemon, 58, is marvelous as Morono/Kira, the very embodiment of lust and greed. Dressed in a black ceremonial costume — symbolic of his villainous nature — Morono welcomes the shogun’s messenger, his younger brother, Tadayoshi (Nakamura Kantaro), who arrives with Hangan (Nakamura Ganjiro). After Hangan’s beautiful wife, Kaoyo (Nakamura Kaishun), authenticates Yoshisada’s helmet, Morono makes advances toward her but is interrupted by the appearance of Wakasanosuke (Nakamura Kankuro), Hangan’s hot-blooded friend. Morono curses Wakasanosuke and declares that he can ruin him if he chooses, and Wakasanosuke, enraged, vows retaliation.
Wakasanosuke’s resolution is thwarted, however, by his chief retainer, Kakogawa Honzo. Without consulting his young master, Honzo bribes Morono, who promptly changes his attitude toward Wakasanosuke and entrusts him with the entertainment of imperial guests at the shogun’s palace. The vicious old man then turns his ire on Hangan, who arrives late. Harboring a grudge against Hangan because he has been spurned by his wife, and also because Hangan has not bribed him, Morono begins to taunt him persistently until the gentle daimyo loses control. Unable to control himself, Hangan draws his sword, but fails to cut down Morono.
The scene of Hangan’s seppuku (Act IV, Scene 1), is trying both for Nakamura Ganjiro, 70, to perform and for the audience to watch. Hangan, dressed in white, is anxious to see his chief retainer, Yuranosuke, before he dies. The desperation with which he waits is experienced by the audience, too. The moment Hangan stabs himself, Yuranosuke (a superb performance by Ichikawa Danjuro, 56) dashes along the hanamichi aisle. Hangan gives his dagger to Yuranosuke, who seems to silently reassure his lord that his death will be avenged. Though a daimyo of Hangan’s station would ordinarily cut his belly with a dagger and let himself be beheaded by a chosen retainer, Hangan slits his own throat after drawing his dagger through his stomach.
After sending Hangan’s body for burial, Yuranosuke surrenders his master’s residence to the authorities, despite the fierce protests of the younger retainers. Yuranosuke then wipes the blood from Hangan’s dagger onto his palm and licks it, renewing the vow he made to his master at his death.
The tension of Act IV is relieved by a lovely dance, depicting the elopement of Kanpei (Nakamura Kankuro) and Okaru (Nakamura Fukusuke) and their journey through a landscape filled with cherry and rape blossoms.
Kanpei is the initial focus of the latter half of “Chushingura,” showing in the afternoon. He now survives as a hunter in Yamazaki (outside Kyoto), living with Okaru and her parents. Their happiness soon turns sour, however. Suspected by his mother-in-law, Okaya, of killing his father-in-law, Yoichibei, Kanpei stabs himself. Compared to Hangan’s beautifully controlled seppuku, the way Kanpei kills himself in Act VI is sad and messy. Though wearing a formal kimono, he is a pitiful sight, his hair hanging loose and with streaks of blood on his cheek. He laments his fate and curses his frailty, entreating Okaya not to tell her daughter what has happened to him.
Prominent onnagata Bando Tamasaburo, 52, is outstanding as Okaru opposite Kankuro’s Kanpei in Act VI, and also appears in a famous scene in Act VII. This is set in the Ichiriki house, where Yuranosuke (Nakamura Kichiemon) has been pretending to pass his days in dissipation in order to deceive his enemies.
“Chushingura” ends with 47 ronin, all dressed in striking black-and-white firemen’s uniforms, storming Morono’s residence. This final act lasts only 20 minutes, and the moment when the warriors capture their arch-enemy is the culmination of a dazzling tachimawari (fighting scene) that unfolds in a storm of paper snowflakes.
“Chushingura” is a formidable drama. It takes eight hours to see the Kabukiza’s version — which is not even the full drama. Nonetheless, it is so well structured that audiences can enjoy it in parts; each act has a distinct, appealing story, with its own exciting highlights. Perhaps that’s part of the secret of “Chushingura’s” popularity, for this stirring tale has been loved by the Japanese for more than 250 years.