This special Horse Year kabuki’s a real winner

by Rei Sasaguchi

Special To The Japan Times

Most kabuki plays have at their core a dramatic historical episode. Around this, there’s generally a colorful, oft-times melodramatic and action-packed confection of intrigues, loyalties, romances, self-sacrifice and villainy founded on varying degrees of fact — or simply fashioned as pure fiction.

In “Sanzenryō Haru no Komahiki” (“The Three Thousand Ryō carried by a Horse for the New Year),” which is playing through January at the National Theatre in Tokyo, audiences are treated to a true classic of the genre, which weaves and careens its way through six engrossing acts performed over four hours with especially striking sets.

Premiered in Osaka in January 1794, this masterwork by the Kansai region’s leading kabuki writer, Tatsuoka Mansaku, is being staged now by the Kabuki Producing Division of the National Theatre. In the principal role, of Oda Nobutaka, is Onoe Kikugoro, 71, the most distinguished living kabuki actor, who is for the eighth time supervising the entire cast in a National Theatre production — here including many actors he has tutored.

The historical Oda Nobutaka was the third son of Oda Nobunaga (1534-82), the mighty warlord whose personal seal from 1567 onward read “Tenka fubu” (“All the world by force of arms”), and who is credited with clearing the way for the unification of Japan 20 years after his death. But, in typically confusing kabuki fashion, the model for Kikugoro’s lead character wasn’t the warlord’s son at all, but Matsudaira Choshichiro, the son of a courtier named Tokugawa Tadanaga.

Why the dissembling, you may wonder. Well, as usual there’s a good reason — but it helps if you’re an expert on the history of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which took control of the country in 1603 and retained power within the family dynasty until 1867.

In particular, what guided the playwright’s hand was an official decree by the shogunate in the 18th century which banned the use of any shogunal official’s or lord’s name in works by members of the public. Hence Matsudaira was off-limits but Nobutaka, a character from a previous regime, was alright.

That said, the playwright may have used the personality of Matsudaira as he found him interesting — but the tale he tells involves the struggle to succeed Oda Nobunaga, who died in 1582. His violent end came at the Honno-ji Temple in Kyoto, where he was attacked by forces loyal to a general named Akechi Mitsuhide who was vying with another general, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, to wrest Nobunaga’s powers for himself.

In what is an absorbing cascade of deceits, alliances, suicides and battles, the venerable actor Kikugoro leads a cast featuring many younger actors. These include his son, Onoe Kikunosuke, 36, as both Princess Shogiku of the Koryo kingdom (in present-day South Korea) and Yoshiro, a young carpenter, and 38-year-old Onoe Shoroku (no relation) in the roles of Shibata Katsushige, a villainous warrior, and the lumber merchant Tarosuke.

Meanwhile, Nakamura Tokizo, 58, plays Otani (Katsushige’s wife) and, in the final act, Oda Nobunaga’s military successor, Mashiba Hisayoshi (aka Toyotomi Hideyoshi [1536-98]). In addition, Tokizo’s son, Baishi, 26, plays Otoyo — the daughter of former Oda family retainer Shioya Toemon (Bando Hikosaburo, 70) — who’s in love with Yoshiro.

These, however, are just a few of the play’s 30-odd characters, with some, such as the Koryo princess, also turning up in disguise — in her case, with a friend from the pleasure quarters named Oichi (also played by Nakamura Tokizo) — as she searches for a Japanese fisherman named Amisaku with whom she fell in love on a beach in her homeland. But actually, that fisherman was an Oda-family retainer named Kobayakawa Uneme (Onoe Matsuya, 28), who was there searching for a treasured heirloom sword the Oda family wished to present to the Imperial court in order to curry favor.

Add to all this a revered hunting falcon, cherry-blossom parties, a maiden’s promiscuity and an inn the scheming Shibata Katsushige has built whose “hanging ceiling” can be brought down to crush Hideyoshi’s men simply by cutting one cord.

And that just about brings us to Act IV, titled “Fighting by the Yamato Bridge in Sumiyoshi,” which is the focus of this play being staged specially to celebrate the new Year of the Horse. It opens with a scene of robbers fighting around a horse near the Yamato Bridge at Sumiyoshi in Osaka. The horse is carrying a fortune of no less than 3,000 ryō that Mashiba Hisayoshi is donating to a temple on sacred Mount Koya in the Kii Peninsula of present-day Wakayama Prefecture in honor of the first anniversary of the death of Oda Nobunaga.

Then, just as the robbers start to lead away the horse and its load, a black-clad samurai appears and orders them to hand over their loot. When the robbers attack him, he kills them all — at which point some of Hisayoshi’s officers turn up and discover that the samurai is Oda Nobutaka.

After the officers agree he has the right to take the money as it was meant for his father’s memory, Nobutaka leaves with the horse, set on giving the money to his loyal friend the lumber merchant Tarosuke, who’s crippled with debt after spending all his savings paying Nobutaka’s geisha-house bills.

From there on in, the play moves briskly, pausing only for more broken promises and the characters Tarosuke and Yoshiro to find to their astonishment that they are uncle and nephew, respectively. Then there are two misguided hara-kiris — the blood from which runs into a pond, sets the frogs singing and “revives” the treasured sword, which rises from the water.

And, in the final Act VI especially created for this production by the National Theatre’s Kabuki Producing Division, the closing scenes unfold at the Daitokuji Temple in Kyoto. There, at a memorial for Oda Nobunaga, we again meet Shogiku, the princess, who is joining in celebrations for a peace pact between her Koryo kingdom and Hiyayoshi’s now fast-unifying Japan.

Altogether, it’s quite a story and a stunning production — with some tickets still available on a first-come first-served basis.

“Sanzenryo Haru no Komahiki” runs through Jan. 27 at the National Theatre in Tokyo, starting at noon, except Jan. 17 and 24 when it starts at 4 p.m. Tickets priced from ¥9,200 to ¥1,500. For details, call the Ticket Centre at 0570-07-9900 or visit