In search of the perfect swindle

by Rei Sasaguchi

Cherry trees bloom on the Kabukiza stage all year round, but this month, as befits hanami season, they’re particularly spectacular. That’s not surprising, because “Shiranami Gonin Otoko (The Five Shiranami Men)” by Kawatake Mokuami (1816-93), was inspired by ukiyo-e prints by the renowned Utagawa Toyokuni III.

Shira-nami, meaning white waves, is the Japanese reading of two Chinese characters bai-bo. After the Chronicle of the Latter Han Dynasty (25-220) gave the label “baibo” to a group of bandits living in the Baibo Gorge, Shanxi Province, the term came to be used for men who made their living by theft or extortion. In this sense it was transferred to Japan.

Usually, only two scenes of “Shiranami Gonin Otoko” are performed as highlights, but at the Kabukiza this month, the play is presented in its entirety. It is blessed with a splendid cast: Kataoka Nizaemon, 60, as leader Nippon Daemon; Nakamura Kankuro, 48, as Benten Kozo; Bando Mitsugoro, 48, as Nango Rikimaru; Nakamura Shinjiro, 44, as Tadanobu Rihei; and Nakamura Fukusuke, 43, an onnagata specializing in female roles, here in a male role as Akaboshi Juzaburo.

The sets are no less spectacular, from that dazzling opening scene of Hasedera Temple in Kamakura, surrounded by cherry blossoms, to the breathtaking gando-gaeshi in the final scene, in which the roof of Gokurakuji Temple folds upward to form a flat backdrop as a second set, an imposing red gate, rises up from below.

After the opening act, the drama gets underway in Act II, which begins with one of the two popular “highlights,” a complex sting in which Benten visits the Hamamatsuya, a kimono fabric store run by Kobei (Bando Yajuro), posing as a demure young woman dressed in an elegant long-sleeved black kimono, with Nango in attendance. When his true identity is exposed by a samurai visiting Kobei at the time — who is really Daemon, in disguise — Benten strips himself to a bright red undergarment, revealing the magnificently tattooed cherry blossoms on his shoulders and arms, and begins to recount his infamous background to the astounded men in the store.

In the following scene, Kobei’s store is burgled by Daemon — assisted by Benten and Nango, who have joined his band. It is soon revealed, however, that Benten is Kobei’s long-lost son, and that Daemon is the father of a young man named Sonosuke, who has been adopted and raised by Kobei. The reunion of the two strange pairs of father and son is interrupted by the arrival of police underlings; and the three shiranami men narrowly escape capture.

Act II closes with a glorious “presentation” of the five gallantly dressed men, who stand under blossoming trees on the bank of the Inase River, holding umbrellas on which is written “shiranami.” Each man delivers a brief self-introduction, before starting to fight a troop of policemen.

In Act III, Benten is found fighting his pursuers on the tiled roof of Gokurakuji Temple. After a fierce tachimawari (fighting scene), Benten heroically commits harakiri. The roof folds back and a two-storied temple gate arises, atop which stands leader Daemon, serenely observing the world below. When he is informed of Benten’s death, however, Daemon resolves to surrender to the authorities.

The role of Benten was created by Kankuro’s great grandfather, Onoe Kikugoro V, who, at age 19, performed it when “Shiranami Gonin Otoko” was written in 1862. Kankuro first tackled the role in 1987. Although he has often played Benten since, Kankuro confesses that even now he finds it extremely difficult to perform it to his satisfaction.

“Shiranami Gonin Otoko” was merely one of the 360 plays and dance dramas that Kawatake Mokuami churned out during a 50-year career. A native of Edo, where he was raised in Nihonbashi, Mokuami (real name: Yoshisaburo Yoshimura) apprenticed himself as a playwright at the Ichimuraza at age 19 instead of succeeding his father in his pawnbroker’s business.

Mokuami excelled at shiranami plays, which reflect the political and social uncertainty of the close of the Tokugawa regime. As the playwright located his characters within the moral framework endorsed by the shogunate — extolling the good and condemning the bad — his heroes are not villains but rascals resigned to their fates and to the law of cause and effect.

Adding to the appeal of Mokuami’s plays is his use of eloquent, rhythmical lines of seven and five syllables, which he devised while writing in the mid 19th-century for Ichikawa Kodanji IV, who had notoriously bad elocution. The speeches given by the five men on the banks of the Inase are considered fine examples of the playwright’s distinctive diction.

Whether enjoyed for the performances, the magnificent sets, the humane moral vision, or the beautiful rhythm of the lines, “Shiranami Gonin Otoko” should be appreciated while it flowers for this all-too-brief season on the Kabukiza stage.