Where cherry blossoms fall: Love, betrayal and tragedy at the Sumida River

by Rei Sasaguchi

Special To The Japan Times

The play begins with Matsuwaka (Nakamura Hayato, 19) of the Kyoto-based Yoshida family. He is disguised as Yorikuni of the Otomo family, who is the fiance to princess Sakurahime (Nakamura Kotaro, 19) of the Iruma family. Sakurahime is also the younger sister of Matsukawa’s own betrothed, Hanako. (Fusuke IX).

A fugitive charged with plotting a coup d’etat, Matsuwaka has disguised himself in order to reclaim the Otomo inheritance that has been stripped from Hanako because of her engagement to him.

Meanwhile, at a new Kiyomizu Temple — located in Asakusa for his play — Hanako, who has heard that Matsuwaka has been killed for treason, shaves her head and takes the vows to become the Buddhist nun Seigen. Urged by her maid Iwafuji, she also puts on a pair of sandals that were given to the maid by Sarushima Soda (Onoe Matsuya, 27), an undesirable admirer. Unknown to Seigen, the sandals have been infused with a love potion.

Under the influence of the sandals, Seigen falls asleep at a house near the Tama River while praying to an image of Kanzoen Bosatsu (Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara). There, she dreams of making love to Matsuwaka, a violation of the Buddhist commandments. She returns to Kiyomizu Temple, and troubled by her dream, she leaps from a platform of the temple.

Matsuwaka, still disguised as Yorikuni, finds Seigen unconscious and revives her. Seigen, her love reignited, chases him, and in the process brushes aside the untoward advances of Soda.

By Act II, Seigen is living life like a beggar. Her Buddhist robe is torn and she walks with a bamboo cane. In a sad poetic scene, she takes a ferryboat operated by Soda, and they pass another boat on which Matsuwaka sits. As the boats pass each other, Matsuwaka hides his face from Seigen.

Eventually Seigen, driven sick with sadness, retires to the Myokian cottage, which sits in a field of asaji grass. Sakurahime visits, but Seigen falls into a fit of madness and argues with her. When Soda visits and attempts to seduce her again, Seigen fights off his advances until he eventually kills her.

For the finale, the stage is set on the banks of the Sumida River. Modeled after the famous noh and kabuki play “Dojoji,” it’s an elaborate scene depicting a temple bell surrounded by blossoming cherry trees. The spirit of Seigen, dressed in a bright red kimono, appears when Matsuwaka comes on stage and reveals himself to be the man she loved.

In an angry splash of red, Seigen the ghost emerges from within the temple bell, wreaking havoc until a passing warrior named Awazu no Rokuro (Nakamura Kanjaku, 54), manages to subdue her, just as the play draws to an end.