Yukio Mishima (born in 1925 as Kimitake Hiraoka) is best- known internationally for his novel “Kinkaku-ji” (“The Temple of the Golden Pavilion”), a fictionalized account of the burning down of the famous golden temple of Kyoto. He may also be remembered for his contemporary plays, many of which were translated and performed worldwide, and for his daring modernization of traditional noh plays.

Less known, however, are his six kabuki plays — five of which he wrote between 1953 and ’58, the sixth finished only a year before his famous hara-kiri ritual suicide in 1970. And even less commonly known is that late in his life, the Tokyo-loving Mishima also became a fan of bunraku puppet performances, an art form that, according to Donald Keene in “Chronicles of My Life: an American in the Heart of Japan” (2008), he once scorned as “provincial” because of its Osaka origins.

Koji Orita, who ran the Department of Performing Arts from 2003 to 2006 and was director of the Japan Arts Council (the official backer of the National Theatre of Japan) before becoming its senior adviser in April, saw Mishima direct his final kabuki play, “Chinsetsu Yumiharizuki” (“Adventures of Minamoto no Tametomo, the 12th-century Hero”), in 1969. For that play, Mishima used bunraku theatrical conventions and gidayu music composed and performed by Tsuruzawa Enza V.

It was Mishima’s love of the puppet shows that led Orita to oversee an adaptation of the writer’s 1954 kabuki comedy, “Iwashiuri Koi no Hikiami” (“The Sardine Vendor Casting a Net of Love”), into a 75-minute bunraku play. For the bunraku version (now showing as the first part of a double bill at the National Theatre of Japan), Orita assures us that there has been no deviation from Mishima’s original kabuki script. It has, however, been reworked, along with some of the narrated descriptions of scenes, to fit gidayu style and its tempo adjusted to suit the movements of the puppets.

Described as a farce by Mishima himself, “Iwashiuri Koi no Hikiami” is a charming comedy that was written to help revive the spirit of kabuki theater. Though Mishima based it on his favorite otogizoshi (popular fairy tales of the 14th and 15th centuries), he broke conventions in his approach to the story.

His lead character, a young fish merchant called Sarugenji from Ise, is well educated in classical waka (31-syllable poems) and Hotarubi, the daughter of a daimyo, and an alluring courtesan from the pleasure quarters of Gojo in Kyoto, is shown having the unusual liberty of choosing her own fate concerning Sarugenji.

The theme of the play was taken from the Muromachi Period (1332-1573), but Mishima wanted to flaunt onstage the extravagance of the Genroku Era (1688-1703), a period when merchant-class influence was growing and the culture and lives of ordinary people were flourishing.

When “Iwashiuri” was first staged at the Kabukiza Theater in Tokyo in November 1954, Nakamura Kanzaburo XVII played Sarugenji and Nakamura Utaemon, the most celebrated onnagata (actor specializing in female roles) of the time, performed Hotarubi, a role that he found refreshing in its originality. For the bunraku adaptation, the puppets are being handled by Kiritake Kanjuro as Sarugenji, Yoshida Tamame as Sarugenji’s father Ebina Naamidabutsu, and Toyomatsu Seijuro as Hotarubi, while the gidayu dialogue and narration are being performed by Toyotake Sakitayu and Toyotake Sakihotayu.

The rhythm and beat of gidayu

The gidayu dialogue and narration in “Iwashiuri Koi no Hikiami” (“The Sardine Vendor Casting a Net of Love”) has been scripted to the proper fushi (melody and rhythm) by Toyotake Sakitayu, 66.

It is accompanied by the delicate sound of the shamisen played by Tsuruzawa Enza VI, 51, who studied under Enza V, the great shamisen master who was admired by and worked with Yukio Mishima on the gidayu music of his 1969 kabuki play “Chinsetsu Yumiharizuki.”

Sakitayu starts the gidayu dialogue and narration to the play with the subdued nishi (west) style in the first half, climaxing with the dazzling higashi (east) style in the second half. When he deals with the parts of ji (background narration), he uses elegant melodies, heightened by the evocative sound of Tsuruzawa Enza VI’s shamisen te (music). (R.S.)

In “Iwashiuri Koi no Hikiami,” a dazed Sarugenji appears on stage, pathetically calling out, “Buy sardines!” He meets his father Naamidabutsu and tells him that he has fallen in love with a beautiful woman whom he happened to see while walking over the bridge at Gojo. Naamidabutsu explains that the woman must have been Hotarubi, the most popular courtesan in Kyoto.

Unintimidated, Sarugenji begins to prepare himself for his visit, taking the advice of his father and posing as a daimyo on a trip to Kyoto. At the start of his adventure, he dresses appropriately and renames himself Utsunomiya Danjo but, unaccustomed to riding a horse, has trouble getting to his destination in style.

When he does arrive at the pleasure house at East Toin in Gojo, he is asked by Hotarubi’s fellow courtesans to recount his past experiences in battle as a samurai, so he describes a fierce battle between various fish as a parody of the “Tale of the Heike Clan.”

Exhausted from telling his tale, Sarugenji falls asleep, his head resting on Hotarubi’s lap. As he dreams, however, he suddenly shouts out, “Buy sardines,” surprising Hotarubi, who wakes him and questions him about his strange exclamation. Sarugenji, covers for his mistake by revealing his knowledge of classical waka poems, something a sardine seller is unlikely to know but a nobleman would.

Hotarubi, however, has her own secret. Unknown to Sarugenji, she is in fact looking for Sarugenji the sardine seller, and, disappointed to hear her visitor claim to be a daimyo, she prepares to commit suicide. Fortunately, Naamidabutsu enters and tells her that Utsunomiya Danjo is the man that she has been long searching for.

Hotarubi then recounts her story of how she became a courtesan. Ten years beforehand, lured by the attractive voice of a young man selling sardines, Hotarubi wandered from her father’s Tankaku Castle in the Kii Province. As she searched for the owner of the voice, however, she was abducted and sold to the pleasure quarters at Gojo.

Through their retainer Jirota, Hotarubi’s parents paid for her release. But at the end of the play, she ignores Jirota’s entreaties and refuses to return to her family, declaring herself to be “the sardine vendor’s wife.” And in Mishima’s down-to-earth happy ending, Hotarubi chooses to start a new life with Sarugenji, selling sardines.

“Iwashiuri Koi no Hikiami” is the second part of a double bill, performed after “Roben Sugi no Yurai” (“Origins of the Roben Cedar Tree”) at the National Theatre of Japan in Hayabusa, Tokyo; tickets ¥1,500, ¥5,200, ¥6,500; first part starts at 11 a.m., the second at 4 p.m. For more information, call (03) 3265 7411 or visit ticket.ntj.jac.go.jp

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