Okinawan flavors of entertainment

A drama from the Ryuku Kingdom comes to Tokyo to stand next to it's noh inspiration

by Rei Sasaguchi

Manabu Oshiro, the chief of the Research and Training Section of the National Theater, Okinawa since 2006, attributes the creation of kumiodori, a form of drama unique to Okinawa, to the friendly relationship that the Ryukyu Kingdom maintained with China for over 400 years spanning the 15th to the 19th century. As far back as 1372, Chinese ambassadors visited the Ryukyu Islands — present-day Okinawa — with edicts from the Chinese emperor. For following visits, banquets would be held for the Chinese guests at Shuri Castle (in the present-day city of Naha), where officers were appointed to produce court dances, including group dances called kumiodori.

The Okinawan dramatic form was influenced by noh, kyogen (comic plays), kabuki, traditional puppet shows and, ultimately, elements of Chinese drama. Performances are divided into scenes that progress with intoned lines, songs and dances to the accompaniment of the sanshin (the Okinawan shamisen), koto, Chinese fiddle, flute and drum. Kumiodori developed remarkably during the 18th century, through the efforts of two officers in charge of dance performances, Tamagusuku Chokun (1684-1734) and Tasato Chochoku (1703-73).

Based on local legends, “Nido Tekiuchi” (“The Revenge of the Two Boys”) and “Shushin Kaneiri” (“Entering a Bronze Bell with Obsession”), the first two plays created by Chokun, were presented at a royal banquet in the fall of 1719 to entertain a Chinese ambassador and his retinue. Born into the privileged class, Chokun learned while young the basics of the native theater, and during his lifetime, went five times to the Satsuma Domain (a center of power in Kagoshima for the Tokugawa Shogunate) and twice to Edo (present-day Tokyo).

One of three more plays Chokun created, “Onna Monogurui” (“A Woman Deranged”), will be presented at the National Noh Theater in Tokyo on March 29, along with its inspiration, the noh drama “Sumidagawa” (“The Sumida River”) by Kanze Motomasa (1400-43). In Chokun’s version, a mother (performed by Miyagi Noho, a 70-year-old Living National Treasure), wanders absent- mindedly, looking for her abducted young son and, upon finding him, regains her senses. “Sumidagawa,” on the other hand, is about the intense grief of a mother (performed by Sakai Otoshige) who has traveled from Kyoto to Edo only to find that her kidnapped son Umewakamaru is dead.

According to Oshiro of the National Theater, Okinawa, there are now 75 kumiodori plays, including eight written after World War II. All are based on local legends, and 80 percent of them deal with themes of revenge. During the 18th century, the plays were performed exclusively by men from the Ryukyu Kingdom’s court; by the first half of the 19th century, they were presenting them in village festivals. A product of the ruling class, such feudalistic ethics as loyalty and filial piety were usually emphasized.

After Okinawa was placed under Japanese jurisdiction in 1879, the traditional performing arts were passed down to civilian artists. Nearly a hundred years later in 1972, when the jurisdiction of Okinawa was returned to Japan, kumiodori was designated as an Important Intangible Cultural Asset. Oshiro had long hoped that kumiodori would be freed from the influence of the feudalistic ethics prevalent in the islands, and so welcomed the creation in 2001 of five new kumiodori plays, and believes that in order to preserve kumiodori as a traditional performing art, it is necessary to add new works to the repertory. One such new play, “Madamamichi” (“The Pearl Road”), is by Tatsuhiro Oshiro (not related to the 56-year-old Manabu Oshiro), an 83-year-old Okinawan who was a director of the Prefectural Museum in Naha City in the mid ’80s.

Tatsuhiro Oshiro began to write when young, winning the Akutagawa Prize from the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Literature in 1967 for the novel “Cocktail Party.” He has written five kumiodori scripts as he feels a sense of responsibility as one of the last generation of Okinawans who can handle the native language. “Madamamichi” was first staged to celebrate the opening at the National Theater, Okinawa in 2004, with the same Noho who is currently playing the deranged woman in “Onna Monogurui” directing it according to the conventions of classical kumiodori.

“Madamamichi” is based on a legend about the Madama Village. Makaru (who has only ever been played by 33-year-old Agarie Yukichi) is the son of an aristocrat who falls in love with Komatsu (a role similarly owned by Arakaki Satoru, also 33), a pretty village woman. But Makaru’s parents forbid them to marry, and Komatsu returns to her native village to live as a medium, while Makaru goes to work as a government official. When the inhabitants of the village try to construct a bridge to extend the Madama Road to Shuri, their work is hindered by a flood. Komatsu tells the villagers to find a woman with hair tied with a piece of seven-colored paper-cord and to offer her to the river god.

The villagers realize that Komatsu is actually describing herself and lead her to the river to be killed. Makaru appreciates Komatsu’s self-sacrifice as it helps him accomplish his duties as an officer in charge of building the bridge.

In “Madamamichi,” Tatsuhiro Oshiro has chosen to show the villagers accepting Komatsu’s prophecy and being rewarded for it, as he believes that the clash of an individual with their community creates tragedy. He imagines that such conflicts must have existed in Chokun’s time, but that Chokun could not write about them because of his own position as a government bureaucrat.

“I feel lucky to live in Okinawa today,” Tatsuhiro Oshiro says, “for I am free to write on the difficult love of a man and a woman having serious problems with the communities in which they live.”

“A Woman Deranged” and “The Sumida River” will play at the National Noh Theater in Tokyo at 1 p.m. on March 29. For more information, call (0570) 07-9900 or visit