“47 Loyal Retainers” for the 40th anniversary


”My appointment by Commissioner Hayao Kawai of the Agency for Cultural Affairs to direct the Japan Arts Council came as a total surprise,” says Kazuaki Tsuda, “though I must confess I am having a great time. I spent 50 years selling whisky, and now I am selling culture!”

With the May 2004 appointment, after 50 years working for Suntory, Tsuda, 72, began to run the National Theater of Japan, and is now leading the celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the theater’s founding. Established in 1966 in Hanzomon to promote Japan’s traditional performing arts, the National Theater regularly revives kabuki and bunraku (puppet) plays in their entirety. In comparison, Tokyo’s other home to kabuki, the Kabuki-za, typically puts together a selection of shorter performances for audiences to get a more general taste of the traditional art forms.

To celebrate the theater’s 40th anniversary, Tsuda has decided to present several versions of the story of “The 47 Loyal Retainers.”

“In these works, we can feel a uniquely Japanese way of thinking, such as the attitude toward the dead, and discover a kind of philosophy that lies at the base of our culture,” Tsuda told The Japan Times in a recent interview.

The original bunraku version, “Kanadehon Chushingura,” was staged last month, and now the complete 10 shin kabuki (new kabuki) plays written by Mayama Seika from 1934-41, “Genroku Chushingura (The Loyal Retainers of the Genroku Era),” are being performed. The voluminous work is being presented in three 3 1/2-hour installments: Part I in October; Part II in November; and Part III in December. Mayama’s daughter, Miho Mayama, provided the play’s direction before she died on March 12 this year.

“Kanadehon Chushingura” and “Genroku Chushingura” both tell the true story of how Daimyo Asano’s retainers avenged his death. Lord Asano was ordered by the Shogun Tsunayoshi to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) in 1701 after he attacked the shogun’s steward, Kira. Oishi Kuranosuke, Asano’s chief retainer, and 46 other retainers, swore to kill Kira and, 21 months later, they did. After that they too were ordered by the shogunate to commit seppuku for killing him without permission.

Oishi, considered the embodiment of bushido (the way of samurai), is played by three prominent actors with distinctive acting styles: Nakamura Kichiemon, 62, in Part I; Sakata Tojuro, 74, in Part II, and Matsumoto Koshiro, 64, in Part III.

Japanese applauded the desire of the 47 samurai to restore their lord’s honor, and the story was popular for many years. After Takeda Izumo wrote the original bunraku play in 1748 — setting it in the 14th century — it was quickly adapted to the kabuki stage. Seika based his version on thorough historical research, trying to trace what actually happened during the Genroku Era (1688-1704) to explore the sense of loyalty essential to the samurai class in Edo times.

A thoroughbred businessman from Osaka, Tsuda has been very effective in making improvements in the theater’s public programs. Since establishing a kabuki class for high-school students in 2004, he has gone on to set up evening kabuki and bunraku classes for those who work during the day. He is also installing an airline-style seat-back subtitling system at the National Noh Theater in Sendagaya. All of this is done, of course, in the hope of attracting more visitors from Japan and abroad to the national theaters.

Whether it is due to his innovations or the choice of “Chushingura” for the anniversary stagings, something is working, as performances of the classic have been playing to full houses.