“Sumidagawa Hana no Goshozome” (“The Sumida River Adorned with Cherry Blossoms”) by Tsuruya Namboku IV (1755-1829), now showing at the National Theater of Japan, was written to be a blockbuster.

It was created for the Ichimura-za theater in Edo in 1814, when kabuki was an extremely popular form of entertainment for the townsfolk. To excite such a fan-based audience, Namboku, who was 59 at the time, brought together familiar elements of several popular noh and kabuki plays and combined them into a new epic.

He borrowed from the legend of Seigen, a young monk from Kiyomizu Temple, who was condemned to hell for falling in love with the princess Sakurahime. He used the story behind Umewakamaru, the son of Kyoto-based Yoshida family, who died tragically at the Sumida River. And he used characters from “Kagamiyama,” a play following the troubles of Iwafuji, Onoe and Ohatsu — maids of the shogun’s household.

To the audience, these familiar plots would have been fun to recognize, but Namboku did more: He made Seigen a young woman — a beautiful princess who after becoming a nun finds herself overwhelmed by physical desires. That transformation allowed him to cast Iwai Hanshiro V, a popular, handsome onnagata (actor specializing in female roles) in the lead role, and it also brought about unusual scenes, such as seeing Hanshiro V play a woman with a shaved head. As a vehicle for Hanshiro V to show off his skills, Namboku’s play presents an emotionally charged woman, one of noble background whose passion, sadness and confusion lead to tragedy.

Seigen the nun has since been played by Nakamura Utaemon V (1865-1940); Sawamura Gennosuke IV (1859-1936), Nakamura Utaemon VI (1971-2000) and Nakamura Jakuemon IV (1920-2012).

This time the role goes to Nakamura Fukusuke IX (52), the son of Nakamura Shikan, who died in 2011, and nephew of Utaemon VI. Fukusuke is one of today’s finest onnagata. Having learned from videotapes of his predecessor’s performances, he lives up to the complicated role, impressively leading a cast of young kabuki actors (many in their late teens and early 20s), including his own son, Kotaro.

In this version of “Sumidagawa Hana no Goshozome,” an elaborate staging of bright costumes and stunning sets, Seigen’s love for Matsuwaka is manipulated to obsessive and destructive extremes by the mysterious power of a pair of golden zori (sandals). It’s a plot device that gives Fukusuke IX the opportunity to run the gamut of powerful emotions — love, horror, betrayal — in an unbridled performance. The character of a depraved nun also allows for the madness of unsuppressed behavior, where at one point Seigen even argues aggressively with her own sister. It’s an exciting performance, where the viewer may wonder how Fukusuke would have interpreted the role had the sandals not been part of the play.

This version of “Sumidagawa Hana no Goshozome” has been reworked by the Literary Division of the National Theatre of Japan, and runs till March 26. Performances start at 12 p.m. daily. On March 22, it will be staged twice from 11:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Tickets vary from from ¥1,500 to ¥9,200. For more information call (03) 3265-6163 or visit www.ntj.jac.go.jp/2013/sumidagawa.

Where cherry blossoms fall: Love, betrayal and tragedy at the Sumida River

The play begins with Matsuwaka (Nakamura Hayato, 19) of the Kyoto-based Yoshida family. He is disguised as Yorikuni of the Otomo family, who is the fiance to princess Sakurahime (Nakamura Kotaro, 19) of the Iruma family. Sakurahime is also the younger sister of Matsukawa’s own betrothed, Hanako. (Fusuke IX).

A fugitive charged with plotting a coup d’etat, Matsuwaka has disguised himself in order to reclaim the Otomo inheritance that has been stripped from Hanako because of her engagement to him.

Meanwhile, at a new Kiyomizu Temple — located in Asakusa for his play — Hanako, who has heard that Matsuwaka has been killed for treason, shaves her head and takes the vows to become the Buddhist nun Seigen. Urged by her maid Iwafuji, she also puts on a pair of sandals that were given to the maid by Sarushima Soda (Onoe Matsuya, 27), an undesirable admirer. Unknown to Seigen, the sandals have been infused with a love potion.

Under the influence of the sandals, Seigen falls asleep at a house near the Tama River while praying to an image of Kanzoen Bosatsu (Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara). There, she dreams of making love to Matsuwaka, a violation of the Buddhist commandments. She returns to Kiyomizu Temple, and troubled by her dream, she leaps from a platform of the temple.

Matsuwaka, still disguised as Yorikuni, finds Seigen unconscious and revives her. Seigen, her love reignited, chases him, and in the process brushes aside the untoward advances of Soda.

By Act II, Seigen is living life like a beggar. Her Buddhist robe is torn and she walks with a bamboo cane. In a sad poetic scene, she takes a ferryboat operated by Soda, and they pass another boat on which Matsuwaka sits. As the boats pass each other, Matsuwaka hides his face from Seigen.

Eventually Seigen, driven sick with sadness, retires to the Myokian cottage, which sits in a field of asaji grass. Sakurahime visits, but Seigen falls into a fit of madness and argues with her. When Soda visits and attempts to seduce her again, Seigen fights off his advances until he eventually kills her.

For the finale, the stage is set on the banks of the Sumida River. Modeled after the famous noh and kabuki play “Dojoji,” it’s an elaborate scene depicting a temple bell surrounded by blossoming cherry trees. The spirit of Seigen, dressed in a bright red kimono, appears when Matsuwaka comes on stage and reveals himself to be the man she loved.

In an angry splash of red, Seigen the ghost emerges from within the temple bell, wreaking havoc until a passing warrior named Awazu no Rokuro (Nakamura Kanjaku, 54), manages to subdue her, just as the play draws to an end.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.