A master of many voices

Living national treasure tells a bunraku classic


Celebrating the 35th anniversary of its foundation, through Sept. 23 the National Theater of Japan in Tokyo is presenting “Honcho Nijushiko” (The 24 Models of Filial Piety), one of the most grandiose historical bunraku plays (jidaimono), almost in its entirety.

A scene from “The 24 Models of Piety”

Created by a team of six renowned 18th-century bunraku playwrights led by Chikamatsu Hanji, the five-act “Honcho Nijushiko” was first performed at the Takemotoza Theater in Osaka in 1766.

The play’s fantastically complicated plot begins with the assassination of former Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiharu in Kyoto in 1550. The narrative revolves around two powerful warlords, Takeda Shingen in Kai Province (Yamanashi Pref.) and Uesugi Kenshin (referred to in the play as Nagao Kenshin) in Echigo Province (Niigata Pref.), who are feuding over the ownership of a precious helmet.

Under suspicion of the murder, the Takeda and Nagao families are ordered by the victim’s widow to find the culprit within three years or forfeit the heads of their heirs, Takeda Katsuyori and Nagao Kagekatsu.

Incorporated into “Honcho Nijushiko” are the love story of Takeda Katsuyori and Nagao Kenshin’s beautiful daughter Yaegaki, the achievements of Yamamoto Kansuke, a military strategist from Mikawa Province (Aichi Pref.) who was Takeda Shingen’s closest strategic adviser, and the legend of Meng Zong in China, one of the Nijushiko used as the title for the play.

The first half of “Honcho Nijushiko” climaxes in Act III, featuring the house of Yamamoto Kansuke in mountainous Shinano (Nagano Pref.), where the old mother lives with her two sons. Nagao Kagekatsu wishes the older son, Yokozo, to substitute for him since the two greatly resemble each other. However, Yokozo confesses to his mother that he has long been affiliated with Takeda Shingen, and disfigures himself by stabbing his right eye.

The second half of “Honcho Nijushiko” follows happenings at the residence of Takeda Shingen once the three years have passed and no culprit has been found. As the shogun’s messenger arrives to claim the head of Takeda Katsuyori, the young man who is believed to be Katsuyori kills himself. In reality, though, he is the son of Shingen’s minister, Itagaki Hyobu, who has been scheming to usurp the house. The real Katsuyori, raised as a farmer, is then brought forward by Hyobu, but the treacherous old man is killed on the spot by Shingen.

In Act IV, while Princess Yaegaki is mourning the death of Katsuyori at the house of Nagao Kenshin in Suwa, Katsuyori emerges elegantly dressed. Overjoyed at finding him alive, Yaegaki professes her ardent love.

At that moment, Yaegaki’s father appears and sends Katsuyori away on an errand and dispatches two officers after him. Anxious to save Katsuyori from danger, Yaegaki prays to a helmet inhabited by the fox god. Possessed by the mysterious power of the helmet and guarded by two white foxes, she sets out to pursue her lover across the frozen Lake Suwa.

Bunraku is a dramatic performance staged with puppets, each of which is manipulated by a team of three men to the Gidayu lines and narration, accompanied by samisen music.

Takemoto Sumidayu VII

The person who delivers lines (kotoba) and provides background narration (ji) depicting a certain scenery or situation, as well as the actions, movements and psychological aspects of the characters, is called tayu (Master). In this performance of “Honcho Nijushiko,” the tayu is Takemoto Sumidayu VII (real name: Kishimoto Kinichi), a 77-year-old designated national living treasure and Osaka native who shows the quintessence of his art in the most difficult final scene (kiriba) of Act III. In it, as Jihizo’s son Minematsu is killed by his uncle while being nursed by his mother, Sumidayu delivers lines for five characters: the old mother, her sons Yokozo and Jihizo, Jihizo’s wife Otane and Kosaka Danjo’s wife Karaori.

For 1 hour 25 minutes, Sumidayu has to let out his voice from the abdomen, subtly varying its tone to suit the character he handles. In order to fortify himself for this formidable task, the master binds his belly with a cotton belt under his costume, sits on his heels with a low stool under him and a weight (otoshi) resting on his stomach. Set to the right of the revolving stage, with his text (yukabon) on a lacquered bookrest bearing his crest, Sumidayu delivers lines for all the characters in the kiriba by himself without glancing at the main stage on which the puppets are handled. When he deals with parts of ji, however, he uses eloquent melodies, heightened by the moving tune of the samisen unique to Gidayu music.

Gidayu lines and narration should be given in the ordinary way of talking, and breathing is the most important factor in a lifelike rendition of the characters. In delivering lines, Sumidayu says, it is not enough to simply imitate the voice of the person represented. To distinguish two or three characters, and suggest different moods or nuances, requires the tones of voice, referred to as on, to be varied. Other points of importance are timing or rhythm (ma), changing tempo (ashidori) and the use of fine diction in Osaka dialect.

Offstage, Sumidayu is an attractive, vigorous and affable man, who likes to talk about himself and his profession. After an extraordinary 50-year career as a gidayu master, he is still very eager to learn and to improve his performance. Sumidayu works on his part until he feels confident, and for seven to 10 days before each new performance he practices for two hours a day with his shamisen partner, Nozawa Kinshi. Sumidayu’s voice is exquisitely expressive when he narrates heroic deeds of gallant medieval warriors or tragic stories of men and women living under the unreasonable circumstances of Edo Period society.

Sumidayu confides: “My mission is to convey to the audience a sense of jo (feelings, love, compassion) cherished by those who are portrayed in bunraku plays through the skills I have developed over the years.”