Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Bunrakuza Theater in Osaka, the Tokyo National Theater this month presents in its entirety “Imoseyama Onna Teikin (Admonitions to Women on Their Relationships with Men),” Chikamatsu Hanji’s 1771 bunraku masterpiece.

“Imoseyama Onna Teikin” centers on the atrocious deeds of the seventh-century statesman Soga no Iruka, who schemes to usurp the Imperial throne after murdering his father, Emishi. The drama also relates Iruka’s overthrow by Emperor Tenji and minister Fujiwara no Kamatari in the Taika coup of 645.

Grandiose in scale, this fantastic drama incorporates certain local legends from the ancient Yamato region, extending from Nara to Osaka. Its structure is further complicated by the addition of three stories of young people who sacrifice their lives to ensure the success of Kamatari and his son Tankai.

The most striking of these is the story of young lovers Koganosuke and Hinadori, told in Act III in a scene titled “The Two Mountains” that unfolds against a spectacular set showing two houses on opposite banks of a river and surrounded by cherry blossoms. Koganosuke is the handsome son of Daihanji Kiyozumi and Hinadori is the beautiful daughter of Dazai Sadaka, two courtiers who have been feuding over the boundary between their territories.

As the scene opens, the two young people are in their respective homes: Koganosuke is reading Buddhist scriptures alone in his father’s house at the foot of Mount Seyama in Kii Province (Wakayama Prefecture), Hinadori is celebrating the Doll Festival with her attendants in her mother’s house at the foot of Mount Imoyama in Yamato Province. They are pining for each other, but are separated by the Yoshino River painted in bright blue and white, which appears to be flowing out from the back of the stage toward the audience by the use of a stage device called takiguruma (waterfall wheels).

Daihanji and Sadaka appear onstage and greet each other courteously. The pair are suspected by Iruka of hiding Lady Uneme, the emperor’s consort, whom Iruka wants to marry because she is the daughter of his political enemy Kamatari. Daihanji has been pondering having Koganosuke commit seppuku in order to avert Iruka’s suspicion, as the young man helped Lady Uneme go into hiding. Sadaka, ordered by Iruka to give him her daughter Hinadori to be his mistress, has considered killing Hinadori and presenting her head to Iruka.

When Sadaka hears that Hinadori would indeed prefer to die rather than go to Iruka, she beheads her daughter with a single stroke and sends the severed head, in a miniature palanquin, across the river to be united with Koganosuke, who has just stabbed himself. Seeing his dying son cradle Hinadori’s head, Daihanji administers him the final, decapitating blow.

Yoshida Bunjaku, the 76-year-old living national treasure, handles the puppet for Sadaka, accompanied by Gidayu narration by Takemoto Sumi-tayu, 80, another living national treasure, while Kiritake Kanjuro, 51, operates the puppet for Hinadori to narration by Toyotake Rose-tayu, 38.

It was way back in 1948 that Bunjaku first learned how to perform Sadaka; he operated the puppet’s left hand while her movements were controlled by the great puppeteer, Yoshida Bungoro. Bunjaku has been the lead puppeteer for Sadaka for 18 years now, taking the role in six seasons at both the Bunrakuza in Osaka and the National Theater in Tokyo.

Bunjaku admires Sadaka tremendously, he said before a recent performance: “At the crucial moment, she proves herself to be stronger than men, such as Daihanji.” When Sadaka sees Hinadori’s determination to die for the love of Koganosuke, she kills her daughter without hesitation, whereas Daihanji is unable to behead his son until the last moment. Bunjaku confesses, however, that he finds it difficult to convey one change in his handling of the Sadaka puppet after she kills her daughter: “She should look much older when the deed is done,” he said.

In a bunraku performance, a tayu (Gidayu master) both narrates and delivers lines for all characters participating in a single scene (with the exception of a michiyuki, or journey scene). “The Two Mountains,” however, is staged in an extraordinary way: Narration and lines are delivered, in turn, by two Gidayu masters and two shamisen players seated on separate platforms on both sides of the stage.

This scene begins to the powerful tones of the shamisen played by Tsuruzawa Seiji, 59, who next month receives the Japan Academy of Art Award in recognition of his outstanding achievements in the field of bunraku music.

Seiji (real name: Hiroshi Nakanoshima) was a child prodigy, making his debut at the Bunrakuza in Yotsubashi, Osaka, in 1959. He was apprenticed to the prominent Takezawa Yashichi in 1964, at age 18. In 1976, when he was 31, Seiji began playing shamisen for Takemoto Koshiji-dayu, one of the most distinguished Gidayu masters of the 20th century. He played exclusively for Koshiji until the master’s retirement in 1989.

This time, Seiji plays shamisen for Takemoto Chitose-dayu, 45, who narrates for Yoshida Kazuo, 56, handling the puppet for Koganosuke. It seems inevitable that the two would play together, as Chitose was Koshiji’s favorite pupil of Gidayu narration.

Seiji offered some hints on how to enjoy bunraku’s Gidayu music, using a baseball metaphor to describe the tayu as the “pitcher” and the shamisen player as the “catcher.”

“In a successful Gidayu performance,” Seiji affirms, “the tayu and the shamisen player perform independently of each other, yet the tayu’s narration and the shamisen music should be in perfect harmony. When that happens, it strikes the audience as wonderfully exciting.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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