In real life, Ishikawa Goemon was the leader of a band of burglars in Kyoto who was caught in the summer of 1594 trying to kill Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the foremost politician of his day, and was duly executed at age 36 along with many members of his family and his gang.

Interestingly, that execution in the Kamo River bed at Sanjo — achieved by throwing the victims into caldrons of boiling oil — was mentioned by Pedro Morejon, a Jesuit priest then heading a monastery in Kyoto, in his footnotes to a book titled “Relacion del Reino de Nippon” by Bernardino de Avila Giron, a Spanish trader who arrived in Japan that year and stayed in Nagasaki for 20 years.

Perhaps in part due to the gruesomely unusual end that Goemon met, in the popular imagination he soon assumed a fearless and dashing character. Indeed, by early in the 1600s and from then through the following century, he was accorded the hero’s role in many bunraku and kabuki productions, since in those days popular stages were just about the only outlet for citizens’ frustrations at the feudal rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate for which Goemon’s intended victim, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, had in large part laid the foundations.

Among those works, the most popular kabuki play was “Kinmon Gosan no Kiri” (“The Paulownia Crest at the Golden Gate to the Nanzenji Temple”), which was written by Namiki Gohei (1747-1808) and first staged in Osaka in April 1778. A somewhat different version, titled “Sanmon Gosan no Kiri” (“The Paulownia Crest at the Temple Gate”), was then performed at the Ichimura-za in Edo (present-day Tokyo) in February 1800.

Namiki Gohei’s “Kinmon Gosan no Kiri” is a complex play in the dramatic style of his master, Namiki Shozo (1730-73), that features spectacular scenes and fantastic stage devices, including a seriage (an architectural set that rises from under the stage) and chunori (actors flying in the air). The work was staged in its entirety at the National Theatre in 1976, where the Performing Arts Department under Fumio Owada is now presenting it again, from March 5 to 27.

The five-act play’s central character is, of course, Ishikawa Goemon, rendered as a son of one So Sokei, a Chinese general, but as a child brought up by Takechi Mitsuhide, a warlord crushed by Mashiba Hisayoshi, an adversary of Hisayoshi (as Hideyoshi is renamed here). Goemon appears first as a Zen priest named Reizan from the Nanzenji Temple in Kyoto, who steals a treasure belonging to the Mashiba family and kills a retainer named Tsutsui Junkei who tries to stop him.

Meanwhile, Hisayoshi has two sons — the older, Hisatsugu, whom he disowns due to his disreputable character, and Hisaaki, yet another dissolute whom he chooses as his heir. Hisaaki is involved with a courtesan named Kokonoe, and he and his brother fight over her.

Sonoo, Hisayoshi’s wife, then appears with Kishida Minbu (modeled after Ishida Mitsunari, Hideyoshi’s favorite retainer) and tells her two sons about Hisayoshi nominating Hisaaki as his heir. Enraged, Hisatsugu tries to kill his brother but, rather than him being summarily killed for this assault, Konomura Oinosuke, his chief retainer and guardian, persuades Sonoo to let him keep Hisatsugu in custody for 50 days so he may correct his behavior.

Unknown to Sonoo, though, Oinosuke is So Sokei in disguise, a former warlord of the 12th Ming emperor who is scheming against Hisayoshi in order to overthrow the country because the latter has confiscated his territory.

Nonetheless, even after 50 days confined in Oinosuke’s charge, Hisatsugu has not mended his ways even though he — and Hisaaki and Kokonoe, who are also staying at Oinosuke’s place — are informed that Hayakawa Takakage, Hisayoshi’s regent, is expected to visit soon.

Consequently, Oinosuke decides to have Hisatsugu killed and — surrounded by Hisayoshi’s soldiers — he writes a letter to this effect to his son, So Soyu, before entrusting it for delivery to a white eagle that comes to life from its image painted on a hanging scroll — and then himself committing hara-kiri in front of Takakage.

The fatal encounter between Ishikawa Goemon and Mashiba Hisayoshi at the main gate of the Nanzenji Temple is featured in Act III. This finds Goemon, gorgeously dressed and coiffed, sitting on the balcony of the gate, holding a pipe. He then opens the letter just delivered by the white eagle and realizes not only that Oinosuke has failed in his plot against Hisayoshi, but that he was also his long-lost father. Goemon swears that he will avenge his father’s death. The splendid, two-story red building is then raised slowly from under the stage — with a standing figure of Hisayoshi, dressed as a pilgrim, in front of it. Goemon greets the pilgrim by throwing a knife at him, which Hisayoshi catches.

Then, as the multilayered yarn progresses, Goemon, disguised as a courtier, drops in one day at Soemon’s house on his way back from paying homage to the great Buddha image at the Hokoji Temple. Soemon is a wealthy merchant and Goemon is married to Oritsu, Soemon’s adopted daughter. Soemon, though, was originally a samurai named Kaida Shingo, a retainer to Takechi Mitsuhide who was killed by Hisayoshi. In order to avenge the death of his master, Soemon has had a tunnel dug from under his house to Hisayoshi’s palace at Momoyama. But as chance would have it, Hayakawa Takakage, Hisayoshi’s regent, drops in one day seeking the white-eagle messenger. He immediately suspects that Soemon is actually Kaida Shingo, a former retainer of Takechi Misuhide, but as this scene unfolds the white eagle flies off and back into the hanging scroll.

Takakage then comes out with his soldiers and confronts Soemon by calling him Kaida Shingo, and orders him to bring out So Soyu. When Soemon is struck and falls, Oritsu hurries to his side. Then, after Soemon tells Oritsu his real name, just before he expires he tells her he must yet settle old scores for his master Takechi Mitsuhide, who was destroyed by Mashiba Hisayoshi, and asks for Goemon to avenge his master’s death. He then points her to the tunnel leading to an empty well in the Momoyama Palace to make her escape.

Next, when Goemon reappears he finds Takakage ready to attack him — at which point he quickly practices magic by hiding Soemon’s body in a wicker basket and then disappearing with it — only to emerge up through an opening in the stage’s hanamichi (runway) as if from a well in the palace grounds before soaring high above the heads of the audience, bursting out of the basket and flying away with it and the body of his father-in-law it holds inside.

Still bent on revenge, though, Goemon goes to the Momoyama Palace one night, steals into Hisayoshi’s bedroom and is about to stab him when he is apprehended by guards. Hisayoshi then throws a knife at Goemon, but he catches it and thereupon recalls their first encounter at the Nanzenji Temple gate and realizes they are both thieves alike.

In the final act, Goemon — who disappeared after catching the knife — is surrounded in the palace garden by Hisayoshi, members of his family and his retainers. However, Hisayoshi tells Goemon that he respects his character and so, instead of killing him, he will send home to China the Ming Prince Junnan whom Goemon’s wife, Oritsu, had been looking after. Goemon, in return, promises to return to Hisayoshi a precious incense-burner he had taken. The play then concludes as Goemon and Hisayoshi part — promising to meet again, in battle.

In this production, Nakamura Hashinosuke, 44, plays both Ishikawa Goemon and the retainer Konomura Oinosuke, while Nakamura Senjaku, 49, takes the roles of both Mashiba Hisayoshi, Hisayoshi’s wife, Sonoo, and Goemon’s wife, Oritsu.

Writing in the program notes, Hashinosuke says how he has wanted to play the role of the dashing burglar hero Goemon ever since, at the age of 10, he saw its marvelous portrayal by Jitsukawa Enjaku (1921-91) at the same venue in 1976. However, Hashinosuke confesses to being acrophobic, but says, “To materialize my childhood dream, I must force myself to fly in the air 25 times this month, suppressing my fear of heights!”

He adds: “While playing Ishikawa Goemon, I must pay homage also to my great-grandfather, Nakamura Utaemon V, who is known to have acted Goemon as his favorite character.”

In turn, he has said that he hopes to develop his skill as this fascinating character to make the role his own and hand it to his teenage sons, Kunio and Yoshio, who also share the stage with him this time.

“Kinmon Gosan no Kiri” runs till March 27 at the National Theatre of Japan (4-1 Hayabusa-cho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo). Three-hour performances start at 12 noon, and additional ones — on March 6, 13 and 20 — start at 5 p.m. (closed on March 18). Tickets, from ¥1,500 to ¥8,500, are available from ticket.ntj.jac.go.jp For more details, visit www.ntj.jac.go.jp/english

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