Based on a book of the same name by Kyokutei Bakin that was published in 96 volumes between 1814-42, the kabuki play “Nanso Satomi Hakkenden” (“Stories of Eight Men with the Character for ‘Dog’ in their Surnames”) recounts how its protagonists strive to restore the fictional Satomi clan to power in what is now the south of Chiba Prefecture.
First staged at the National Theatre in Tokyo in 1969, then in 1982 and ’91, the work is being performed there again this month — but in a new six-act, three-hour version by Atsumi Seitaro.
Leading the cast, and also directing, is 71-year-old Onoe Kikugoro, a veteran of the previous productions who plays loyal Inuyama Dosetsu. Others in his pack of actors include Nakamura Tokizo, 59; Ichikawa Danzo, 63; Ichikawa Sadanji, 74 — and his son Kikunosuke, 37, who takes his father’s favorite role of Inuzuka Shino alongside Onoe Shoroku, 39, who plays both good guy Inukai Genpachi and a villain named Aboshi Samojiro.
The play opens with Fusehime, a Satomi princess played by 22-year-old Onoe Ukon, committing suicide after killing a dog called Yatsufusa with whom — in its human form — she had lived for two years. Magically, however, their deaths lead to the births of eight warriors whose surnames each include the kanji character for inu (dog), and who each have distinct character traits such as chu (loyalty) or chi (wisdom).
For audiences, one of the play’s highlights comes at the start of Act II, when a fugitive Satomi leader named Ashikaga Nariuji (played by Bando Hikosaburo) living in the southern Chiba town of Koga is meant to be presented with a special sword known as Murasame-maru. However, when the messenger Inuzuka Shino (Onoe Kikunosuke) arrives claiming it has been stolen, Ashikaga becomes angry — while his retainer, Makuwari Daiki (Ichikawa Danzo), suspects Inuzuka is a spy sent by a rival lord named Ogigayatsu Sadamasa (Ichikawa Sadanji).
Forced to flee, Inuzuka takes to the rooftops — showing his brilliant red underwear as he does so — but while fighting there with Inukai Genpachi (Onoe Shoroku), both young men tumble into the Tone River.
In the following act, Inuzuka is in Gyotoku in Chiba, where he has spent two months recovering after being saved by Inuta Kobungo (Bando Kamesaburo). It is a beautiful starlit summer night with fireflies dancing over the river. Then a friend of Inuta’s appears, who turns out to be the same Inukai with whom Inuzuka fought. Hearing from Inuta that Inuzuka has designs on subjugating Ogigayatsu to restore the Satomi family, Inukai promises to do whatever Inuta wishes to help him.
Meanwhile, as Ogigayatsu is out one day viewing cherry blossoms with several retainers, he is approached by a man offering to sell him the famed Murasame-maru sword. But as they discuss a deal, the man — who is actually Inuyama — strikes and kills Ogigayatsu, though it turns out the victim was actually a body double. Nonetheless, a desperate fight ensues with the lord’s retainers, and Inuyama is only saved by the appearance of young Inumura Daikaku (Nakamura Mantaro) who, like Inuyama, is protected by the power of crystal balls they each carry with them.
Then in the final act, which is new for this production, while the real Ogigayatsu is enjoying cherry blossoms at his castle and feeling jolly pleased with himself, he is surrounded by the eight warriors bent on restoring the Satomi clan’s fortunes who appear each holding aloft a banner bearing the kanji character for the dog characteristic that symbolizes them.
And with that, the sword Murasame-maru is returned to Inuzuka by ever-loyal Inuyama — and everyone lives happily ever after.
“Nanso Satomi Hakkenden” runs till Jan. 27 at the National Theatre in Tokyo, starting daily at 12 noon except on Jan. 16 and 23, when it starts at 4 p.m. For tickets (priced ¥12,300-¥1,500) call 03-3230-3000.