One of kabuki’s most prolific playwrights, Tsuruya Nanboku, produced 120 dramas in the last 25 years of his life. This month, the Kabukiza, in Ginza, stages just two of them, a pair of remarkable sewamono (realistic plays) titled “Kamikakete Sango Taisetsu (A Pledge of Love to Sango)” and “Osome Hisamatsu Ukina no Yomiuri (News of the Love Affair of Osome and Hisamatsu),” generally known as “The Seven Roles of Osome.”
Tsuruya Nanboku IV (1755-1829) was active during the Bunka-Bunsei era (1804-29), a time when kabuki flourished in Edo and a number of talented actors emerged.
Nanboku himself was quite some talent. He wrote by reworking popular 18th-century kabuki plays, incorporating elements drawn from earlier dramas (a method known as naimaze [mixing]). But the playwright was as much an innovator as a copyist, creating such interesting new roles as iroaku (handsome but wicked villains) and akuba (middle-aged women who can bluff, fight and swindle).
As might be expected from such characters, Nanboku’s plays are filled with scenes of extortion, killing and erotic entanglements. Dubbed kizewa (genuine sewamono), the dramas portray people living at the bottom of Edo’s hierarchical society, and they are written in a brisk, earthy idiom typical of the townspeople. Scenes unfold rapidly and various stage tricks add to the fun.
“The Seven Roles of Osome,” in the afternoon program, is the earlier of the two — written in 1813. It’s based on a well-known 1780 bunraku play, “Shinpan Utazaimon (The New Orations Chanted at Buddhist Ceremonies),” and tells the tragic story of Osome, the winsome daughter of the rich pawnbroker, Aburaya, who is desperately in love with her good-looking servant, Hisamatsu. He, however, has a pretty fiancee, Omitsu.
The action unfolds in downtown Edo (instead of Osaka, as in the bunraku play) and features exciting miseba (highlights), punctuated with no less than 30 hayagawari (quick costume changes onstage).
Nanboku added four supporting characters to the central love triangle of “The Seven Roles of Osome”: Hisamatsu’s older sister Takekawa, who works in Daimyo Chiba’s household as a lady-in-waiting; the geisha Koito; Osome’s stepmother Teisho; and a striking woman named Oroku. Incredibly, Bando Tamasaburo, 53, enacts all seven characters single-handed — using a stand-in when necessary.
The most intriguing of the seven characters is Oroku, a splendid example of the akuba character type, who is married to a rascal named Kihei, performed by the renowned tachiyaku, Ichikawa Danjuro, 57. The two make a meager living selling tobacco.
Oroku feels deeply indebted to Takekawa, whom she once served, because the lady-in-waiting was kind to Oroku when she had an affair with Kihei and eloped with him. Oroku, therefore, helps Takekawa’s brother Hisamatsu retrieve a sword treasured by Daimyo Chiba, which had been stolen by Kihei while Hisamatsu’s father was in charge of it.
In the final scene, set in Mukojima on the cherry-tree lined banks of the Sumida River, Oroku prevents Hisamatsu from committing suicide with Osome, and urges him to take the recovered sword to Daimyo Chiba to restore his family honor.
“Kamikakete Sango Taisetsu” — its title refers to the four characters tattooed on the arm of the geisha Koman as a pledge of love to her husband Sangoro — was created by Tsuruya Nanboku in 1825, four years before his death. The play is a sequel to his “Yotsuya Kaidan (The Ghost Story at Yotsuya),” which had been recently staged in Edo to great acclaim.
“Sango Taisetsu” contains many allusions to “Yotsuya Kaidan,” such as the appearance of the ghost of Oiwa. To further enrich his drama, Nanboku also borrowed elements from the most famous kabuki play of all, “Chushingura (The 47 Loyal Retainers),” created in 1748.
This powerful drama centers on Satsuma Gengobei, who is really Fuwa Kazuemon, one of the 47 ronin (masterless samurai) of “Chushingura.” Matsumoto Koshiro, 61, is perfect as the gaunt, handsome Gengobei, obsessed with his love for Koman, performed by Nakamura Tokizo, 48, one of the finest onnagata active today. Onoe Kikugoro, 61, contributes greatly in the role of Koman’s husband Sangoro, who is the son of Tokuemon, a former retainer of Gengobei.
The play opens with a stunning night scene in which the trio are riding in boats on the moonlit Sumida River. The plot then unfolds around a sum of money, 100 ryo, belonging to Daimyo En’ya, which Gengobei lost while in his service.
Gengobei needs to replace the money so that he can join the group of En’ya’s former retainers plotting revenge on Ko no Morono, the shogun’s head steward, and not one, but two people come to his aid. The first is Gengobei’s uncle, Suke’emon, who gives his nephew 100 ryo to make good the loss. Meanwhile Tokuemon, Gengobei’s former retainer, has asked his son, Tokuemon, to raise 100 ryo. Sangoro asks his wife, Koman, to procure that money.
Unfortunately, Koman targets none other than Gengobei, who soon succumbs to her charms and hands over the 100 ryo received from his uncle to buy her freedom. Just as Gengobei prepares to take Koman home, however, he is stopped by Sangoro, who declares that Koman is his wife.
Enraged at Koman’s trickery, Gengobei comes to the house where he believes the geisha and her husband are staying and kills the five sleeping occupants. Sangoro and Koman, however, have already made their escape. Gengobei continues to pursue the couple and, finally tracking them down in an old house at Yotsuya, he first kills a nursemaid hired for the night, then forces Koman to stab her own baby before murdering her.
The highlights in “Sango Taisetsu” are shocking and bloody. Nonetheless, thanks to the actors’ fine performances there’s something oddly moving about the scene in which Gengobei kills Koman. The couple’s strange relationship continues even after Koman’s death: In the final scene at Aizen-in Temple, Gengobei places the severed head of Koman on a small table in front of the altar, and starts eating supper — with the geisha’s head looking on!
Despite its morbidness, “Sango Taisetsu” strikes the viewer as possessing a certain modernity — its dramatic construction is wonderful. Gengobei’s transformation into a fiend on his discovery of Koman’s deceit is both violent and psychologically convincing.
When Gengobei finally realizes the error of his killing spree, he at first thinks of killing himself, but is prevented by Sangoro, who has been hiding out in the temple. Sangoro, too, mourns the fact that he allowed Koman deceive Gengobei to obtain the cash, all unknowing that his father wanted the money to help Gengobei.
It is Sangoro who commits harakiri to atone for his dreadful mistake and for the tremendous crimes Gengobei has committed. Gengobei himself is permitted to join the group of 46 ronin as they pursue their revenge, and so becomes one of the immortal heroes of “Chushingura.” In this rather ironic end for the remarkable protagonist of “Sango Taisetsu,” we surely see to the heart of the cynical, complex worldview of Tsuruya Nanboku.