Breathing life into the mythical shachihoko

by Rei Sasaguchi

In 1610, as ordered by Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, the shogunal main office of Owari province (present-day Aichi Prefecture) was moved from Kiyosu to Nagoya, where a new castle was built. To commemorate the beginning of this magnificent castle’s construction, which boasted a five-storied main tower crowned with a pair of large gold shachihoko (mythical dolphinlike creature), the National Theater of Japan is presenting a kabuki play titled “Asahi ni Kagayaku Kin no Shachihoko” (“The Gold Shachihoko Shining in the Morning Sun”) till Jan. 27.

Written by members of the Literary Division of the Department of Performing Arts headed by Fumio Owada and in consultation with Onoe Kikugoro, 67, a prominent kabuki actor who takes the lead performance, the script for this work is based on a kabuki play by Namiki Gohei titled “Keisei Kogane no Shachihoko” (“Courtesans and the Gold Shachihoko”), which was first staged in Osaka in 1782.

A successful kabuki playwright active in Osaka and Edo during the second half of the 18th century, Gohei wrote many plays that hinged upon a dramatic style of stage production first developed by his master, Namiki Shozo. His “Gold Shachihoko” centers on a unique character named Kakinoki Kinsuke, the son of Yayosu Hachikan, a Korean general who was killed by Daimyo Oda Haruhide, and Muraji, a Japanese woman. Swearing to avenge his father’s death, Kinsuke declares war against the houses of Daimyo Oda and Shogun Ashikaga by stealing one of the Nagoya Castle’s shachihoko.

“Keisei Kogane no Shachihoko” was an exciting tale that Gohei staged in appropriately striking ways. Its popularity led to a remarkably long run at theaters and to establishing Kakinoki Kinsuke as a household name. The legend of Kinsuke riding a kite to the top of the Nagoya Castle in order to steal the gold shachihoko remained a popular theme in Japanese theater and literature throughout the 19th century. Mysteriously, though, the play fell out of favor and ceased to be staged.

This month, however, Kinsuke is finally reborn and is being skillfully performed by Onoe Kikugoro, the finest kabuki actor to portray this role.

The revived 4-act version of “Asahi ni Kagayaku Kin no Shachihoko” begins with an idyllic scene at Uji near Kyoto. As courtesans dressed as farm girls sing while gathering tea leaves, Oda Harukatsu (Onoe Matsuya), the handsome son of Daimyo Oda, meets Kunihime (Nakamura Baishi), the beautiful daughter of the former Ashikaga shogun. The meeting has been arranged by the daimyo’s chief retainer, Yamagata Dokan (Kataoka Kamezo), who is scheming to ruin the young Harukatsu. Dokan orders his men Date Goro and Ogaki Yatoji to abduct Kunihime, suggesting that they enlist Kakinoki Kinsuke, the region’s most renowned thief.

In the course of pursuing Kunihime along the highway between Uji and Kyoto, Yatoji is killed by an old woman who turns out to be Muraji (Nakamura Tokizo), Kinsuke’s mother. Muraji then kidnaps Kunihime and takes her to Mino province (in modern-day Gifu Prefecture). Kinsuke (Onoe Kikugoro), meanwhile, dispatches Goro and gains possession of a secret letter addressed to him from Dokan. Once reading the letter, he tosses it aside, but it is picked up by Kosaka Jinnai (Oneoe Shoroku), another thief who is passing through the area.

Act II takes place in the great shoin room in the Nagoya Castle, the headquarters of Daimyo Oda, where the head of the castle is Oda Harunaga (Onoe Kikunosuke). Knowing that the marriage of Kunihime and Harukatsu is endorsed by the Emperor, who hopes it will help maintain national peace, Kinsuke introduces himself to Harunaga as an imperial messenger by the name Nangu Tomoaki. He also demands the daimyo’s family treasure, the Togasumi scroll, which contains the secrets of shinobi (the art of stealth).

Jinnai, however, is hot on Kinsuke’s heels and to gain the Togasumi scroll, he also pretends to be an imperial messenger. He informs Harunaga that Kinsuke is not only an impostor but that he is keeping Kunihime captive in Mino and he produces Dokan’s letter to prove it, though in doing so, he also ends up exposing himself as a fake messenger. In anger, Kinsuke lashes out, but when Jinnai draws his sword, it brings forth terrifying lightning and thunder. While still in shock at the power of the sword he has carried since childhood, Jinnai is led inside to meet the master of the castle.

It is at this point in the play that the audience begins to realize that nothing is quite what it seems. Jinnai, it appears, is not a mere thief: He is Oda Haruhide’s son, Harunaga. The widow of Oda Haruhide (Sawamura Tanosuke) explains that Jinnai’s sword is Ryujinmaru, a magical weapon given to him by Haruhide as proof of his lineage. The man who has been posing as Harunaga is actually Yamagata Dokan’s son, who later becomes Narumi Haruyoshi, a retainer serving the Oda family after he kills his own father for his treachery. Now that the true Harunaga has come forth, Haruyoshi discloses that the Togasumi scroll is hidden somewhere in the roof at the top of the castle.

In a spectacular scene, added to this new version, Kinsuke rides a magnificent kite, which is decorated with the kanji for “tiger” in celebration of this year, to the roof of Nagoya Castle where he finds the scroll hidden in the mouth of the shachihoko. Fortified by the scroll’s power, Kinsuke is then seen riding away on the splendid gold shachihoko.

Act III, in which Muraji is killed by her own son, reveals even more convoluted relationships, the most significant of which is the discovery that Kinsuke and Jinnai were in fact brought up as brothers. As a dying plea, Muraji asks Jinnai (now Harunaga) to spare the life of Kinsuke, who goes into hiding only to emerge in Act IV in the guise of a sorcerer.

Using his newly acquired powers to attract a following, Kinsuke waits for the right time to revolt. He then commands the shachihoko to cause a tremendous flood in a nearby river. In this climactic scene, real water is used to enhance the onstage drama in which Narumi Haruyoshi (Onoe Kikunosuke), armed with the Ryujinmaru sword, fights the gleaming shachihoko. When he finally stabs the violent creature in the eye and kills it, he also recovers the Togasumi scroll.

“Asahi ni Kagayaku Kin no Shachihoko” ends on the Narumi area tidal flats with Nagoya Castle in the distance. Kinsuke is found fighting the Oda and Ashikaga camps, but is stopped by Harunaga who tells him that in memory of Kinsuke’s parents, a new set of gold shachihoko has been placed on Nagoya Castle’s roof.

In the program notes, Kikugoro, who has contributed greatly to the revival of abandoned kabuki plays shown at the National Theater, said he is delighted with this production and expects audiences to be thrilled by the breathtaking stage direction and creative sets. He added that he is happy to be joined onstage by kabuki’s younger generation of actors, including his son Kikunosuke, 32, Tatsunosuke, 34, and Tokizo’s son Baishi, 22.

“Asahi ni Kagayaku kin no Shachihoko” (“The Gold Shachihoko Shining in the Morning Sun”) runs till Jan. 27 at the National Theater of Japan; performances start at 12 noon (except on Jan. 22, when it begins at 4 p.m.); tickets are from ¥1,500 for 3rd grade to ¥12,000 for superior grade (available from ticket. ntj.jac.go.jp/top_e.htm). For more information, visit www.ntj.jac.go.jp/english