Amid the violent upheavals of the Warring States Period in Japan from the mid-1500s till the early 17th century, there emerged some chivalrous spirits eager to fight on behalf of unprotected, ordinary people. Such men, who were known as kyokaku or otokodate — “ones who seek to right wrongs” — generally adopted the dress and imitated the behavior of samurai, upholding honorable principles and fulfilling social obligations.

Those who became otokodate were often the younger sons of hatamoto (high-ranking samurai serving the shogun), who had no money and nothing to do. Countless ronin (masterless samurai), who earned a living as bodyguards for wealthy merchants, also upheld the otokodate’s principles of ninkyo (benevolence and chivalry).

Originating in the Kansai region, principally in Kyoto and Osaka, the otokodate fashion soon reached Edo, the capital established by the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603. There, otokodate were taken up as principal characters in such traditional theaters as bunraku and kabuki, and in the field of popular story-telling (kodan).

Otokodate take center stage in two striking kabuki plays presented in Tokyo this month, “Natsumatsuri (The Summer Festival)” and “Gosho no Gorozo (Gorozo of the Gosho).”

“Natsumatsuri,” in two acts and six scenes, is staged by Nakamura Kankuro and his kabuki circle at Theater Cocoon in the Bunkamura, Shibuya. Adapted from the 1745 bunraku masterpiece by Namiki Senryu and two collaborators, and rendered in the Osaka dialect, the play centers on an exciting character named Danshichi Kurobei (Nakamura Kankuro) a fish seller by trade. Though among the lower echelon of Osaka society, Danshichi is an otokodate, passionately loyal to his former samurai master, Tamashima Hyodayu.

This powerful drama revolves around Danshichi’s loyalty, the strong bond he shares with his friends — elderly Sabu and hot-blooded Issun Tokubei — and his fatal relationship with his vicious father-in-law, Giheiji.

The first act culminates with a scene in which Danshichi, trying to retrieve Kotoura, the courtesan-lover of Tamashima’s son Isonojo, from Giheiji who has abducted her, kills his old father-in-law. (Sasano Takashi, a veteran actor who was trained for the movies but has been active in the Jiyu Gekijo [Free Theater], gives a marvelous performance as Giheiji.) Danshichi then escapes to Tamashima in present-day Okayama Prefecture, and the play ends with a thrilling, innovative tachimawari (fighting scene) in which Danshichi fights police underlings trying to capture him.

Kankuro, 48, inherited the styles of acting Danshichi (and also Tokubei’s wife, Otatsu) from his eminent father Nakamura Kanzaburo XVII, who died in 1988 at age 78. In 1966, Kankuro presented “Natsumatsuri” at the Cocoon for the first time, using a reworked script. After successfully presenting it in Osaka last November, Kankuro has revived the production at the Cocoon this month.

This “Natsumatsuri” differs from traditional kabuki performances in that it has a director, rather than being staged following performance patterns handed down the generations. The director in question is Kushida Kazumi, leader of Jiyu Gekijo. His production is enormously enjoyable for its intimacy with the audience, as shown, for example, in the final scene of Act I in which Danshichi, enraged by Giheiji’s persistent taunting, chases and kills the wretched, mud-drenched old man. Stripping to reveal his magnificently tattooed back and limbs, Danshichi strikes heroic mie poses while stabbing Giheiji to the sound of the festive drums in the background, splashing the muddy water over the audience.

Gorozo in Kawatake Mokuami’s 1864 masterwork “Gosho no Gorozo,” presented in the Kabukiza’s evening program, is an otokodate with a samurai background. Mokuami wrote the play in the twilight years of the Tokugawa regime. Durign this period, as the power of the central authority waned, there was a resurgence in the popularity of otokodate activity.

Kataoka Nizaemon, 59, plays the gallant, hot-blooded Gorozo opposite Ichikawa Sadanji, 62, as his adversary Hoshikage Doemon. Bando Tamasaburo, 53, enacts Gorozo’s wife, Satsuki, who works as a courtesan in the pleasure quarters of Gojozaka in Kyoto.

In the play’s most famous scene, the elegantly dressed Gorozo encounters Doemon at the main gate of Gojozaka, surrounded by cherry trees in full bloom. Doemon asks Gorozo to let him have Satsuki, in whom he has long been interested, but his proposal is flatly rejected. The two men are about to fight when they are stopped by the proprietress of the Kabutoya, performed by Nizaemon’s older brother Kataoka Hidetaro.

In Act II, Scene 2, Doemon proposes to lend Satsuki 200 ryo so that Gorozo’s daimyo master, Asama, can settle his debts. Doemon’s condition is that she leave her husband. Anxious to secure the money for Asama, Satsuki writes a farewell letter and hands it to Gorozo with the 200 ryo as a parting gift, but her incensed husband leaves without touching the money. In the following scene, Gorozo attacks Doemon and his entourage in a dark lane, mistakenly killing a courtesan named Oshu (Asama’s favorite) accompanying Doemon, in the belief that she is Satsuki.

Discovering his error the following morning, Gorozo decides to atone by committing harakiri (Act III). He then receives a letter from his wife explaining how — and for what purpose — she came by the money. At that moment, Satsuki herself enters. Saying that she is responsible for Oshu’s death, she stabs herself. Gorozo likewise takes the knife to his belly, and the two sit side by side in front of the severed head of Oshu, Gorozo playing the shakuhachi and Satsuki the kokyu (Chinese fiddle), until they expire together.

Watching “Natsumatsuri” and “Gosho no Gorozo,” we see why Danshichi and Gorozo have been so loved by Japanese audiences down the years. Both men have noble hearts; it is impossible not to be moved by their unfaltering sense of loyalty and obligation, and by their heroic deeds performed even at the cost of their lives.

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