In 1582, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-98), a man of humble origins, became Japan’s taiko (prime minister) after the death of the warlord Oda Nobunaga. But the taiko in “Ehon Taikoki (Records of the Taiko),” a bunraku (traditional Japanese puppet) play written by Chikamatsu Yanagi and collaborators in 1799, refers more properly to the general Akechi Mitsuhide, (called Takechi Mitsuhide in the play), who had assassinated Nobunaga (called Oda Harunaga), his and Hideyoshi’s overlord, because of his tyrannical conduct.

In his efforts to unite Japan into a single country in the 16th century, Nobunaga was willing to attack anyone, including Buddhist monks who wielded great power at the time, and even innocent members of his enemies’ families. After Nobunaga’s death, Hideyoshi (called Mashiba Hisayoshi in the play), briefly Mitsuhide and ultimately Tokugawa Ieyasu — who founded the Tokugawa Shogunate — jostled for control of the country.

Popular in its original 1799 bunraku staging in Osaka, one year later “Ehon Taikoki” generated even greater acclaim as a maruhon kabuki — a kabuki play based entirely on a bunraku script. (While kabuki frequently borrowed from bunraku, the reverse never happened, due to the relative simplicity of kabuki plots.)

“After it was adopted into kabuki, ‘Ehon Taikoki,’ and the 10th act, ‘Amagasaki,’ in particular, gained wider audiences among the merchant class in the Kansai region and in Edo (present-day Tokyo),” says Shoichi Yamada, the former executive director in charge of bunraku at the National Theater.

Now, after the presentation of the kabuki version of the play at the National Theater in November 2005 — with actors Nakamura Hashinosuke and Nakamura Shikan — the bunraku version of “Ehon Taikoki” is playing at the NT’s Small Theater till May 27.

The drama covers the 13 days between when Mitsuhide assassinated Harunaga at the Honnoji Temple in Kyoto in June 1582 and his own death. “Amagasaki,” which is often performed alone, takes its name from a seaside village in present-day Hyogo Prefecture where it takes place. It is the highlight of the play, recounting what happened on the 10th day of Mitsuhide’s rebellion.

Mitsuhide’s mother Satsuki, who has disowned her son for murdering his master, is visited by Mitsuhide’s wife Misao and Hatsugiku, who is engaged to marry his 18-year-old son, Jujiro. Hideyoshi/Hisayoshi, disguised as a Buddhist monk, also comes hoping to surprise Mitsuhide, who Satsuki notices hiding in her garden.

Jujiro, shamed by his father’s acts, intends to die in the battle raging against Hisayoshi’s forces, but first marries Hatsugiku at Satsuki’s insistence. When Jujiro has left, and Hisayoshi is preparing to bathe, Mitsuhide, dressed as a general, emerges from behind the bushes, taking off the bamboo hat that covers the crescent-shaped scar on his forehead that he received from Harunaga. Mitsuhide thrusts a spear into the bathroom, but is shocked to discover that he has struck his own mother instead of Hisayoshi.

Jujiro, critically wounded, returns and reports to Mitsuhide that his soldiers have all been defeated by Hisayoshi’s men. Hisayoshi appears dressed as a general, and Satsuki tells him with her last breath that she has sacrificed herself to atone for the crime her son has committed.

Misao, too, laments and tells her husband that his treacherous act has brought calamity to his family. But Mitsuhide scolds her fiercely, insisting that what he did was absolutely right. Finally, Hisayoshi proposes that they meet again soon to do battle at Yamazaki, where Mitsuhide ultimately dies.

According to Yamada, who was a bunraku producer and director at the National Theater for 40 years, the maruhon kabuki version of “Ehon Taikoki” is one of the most successful adaptations as the original lines, the narration and the melodies of the samisen are skillfully used in the new context, retaining the feel of the bunraku play. In maruhon kabuki, the actors tend to show somewhat exaggerated, stylized movements that are influenced by the movements of bunraku puppets.

Since kabuki actors are supposed to play to their audiences with their looks and acting skills, kabuki producers try to accentuate their most attractive features. For example, in the 2005 version of “Amagasaki,” when Nakamura Hashinosuke makes his entrance as Mitsuhide, he slowly raises the hand holding his bamboo hat and strikes a beautiful mie pose that dramatically depicts his inner emotions.

But regardless of whether the protagonists are people or puppets, “Ehon Taikoki” is a wonderfully structured drama that captures a formative moment in Japanese history.

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