Maestro steers bunraku classic to its happy end

by Rei Sasaguchi

Special To The Japan Times

For its last bunraku offering of the year, the National Theatre in Tokyo’s central Hanzomon district staged two plays to great acclaim between Dec. 4-16: “Otonomiya Asahi no Yoroi” and “Koimusume Mukashi Hachijo.”

Of these, the former is a classic example of the predominant style of Japan’s traditional puppet theater dating from the early years of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867) in the Kamigata region of western Honshu, including the cities of Kyoto and Osaka. However, the latter play — whose title translates as “The Woman in Love, Wearing a Black Kimono with Yellow Cross-stripes” — was perhaps of more interest, being one of far fewer to have been written in Edo (present-day Tokyo), by Matsu Kanshi in 1775.

The play starts with Chigusanosuke, a son of Daimyo Hagiwara, losing a precious tea-container, which Obana Rokuroemon, the daimyo’s regent, orders his son Saizaburo to find. He also sends his lover, a maid in the household named Okoma, back to her family until he retrieves it. Saizaburo soon finds the family heirloom was stolen by Akizuki Ikkaku, a samurai he kills while trying to get it back — but not before Akizuki throws it to his servant, Tsukudaya Kizo, who runs off.

To stop Saizaburo from committing seppuku for what he’s done, Rokuroemon kills himself after telling him it’s his duty to return the treasure to the Hagiwara family.

After all that it’s time for romance, and the next scene finds Okoma being forced by her father to marry Kizo, who she doesn’t like but to whom her father, Shobei, owes money. On hearing of this Saizaburo is incensed, but nobly gives his blessing so Okoma can free her father of debt. But then he realizes it was Kizo to whom Akizuki threw the tea-container, so he asks Okoma to ask Kizo what happened to the tea-container. However, when Kizo spots Saizaburo spying on them Okoma kills him to save her lover from harm — and is duly sentenced to death for her crime.

At the Suzugamori execution ground, Saizaburo turns up leading Johachi, Okoma’s father’s clerk, who has filed a suit against Kizo for killing his father and begs the shogunal official to forgive Okoma. When he assents, the play ends as Okoma is happily reunited with her parents and her true love.

As critics and audiences alike agreed, Toyomatsu Seijuro V was excellent handling the Okoma puppet clad in its striking black kimono with yellow cross-stripes.

In the spying scene, Seijuro, 55, clearly relished handling Okoma’s head and right arm while others took charge of her left arm and legs as the excitement was heightened by Takemoto Chitosedayu’s narration and Toyozawa Tomisuke’s shamisen playing. Then, in the execution-ground scene, he was truly masterful as Toyotake Rosetayu narrated and Tsuruzawa Tozo played shamisen.

It’s clear Okoma is one of Seijuro’s favorite roles, as it was of his master Yoshida Minosuke, 80. To see him play it is a chance not to be missed at the next opportunity.