Kabuki plays and the history
July 20 (Tue), 2021 ‐ October 24 (Sun), 2021
This museum exhibits ukiyo-e woodblock prints produced in Osaka in the Edo period. Many of the ukiyo-e prints made in Osaka were lively depicted portraits of kabuki actors playing in theatres around Dotombori area.
Kabuki plays are largely divided into 2 types; jidaimono and sewamono. Jidaimono features historical plots and characters such as Minamoto no Yoshitsune and other samurai warriors of Minamoto and Taira clans and other famous characters in the Sengoku period (constant-war period). Historic events that are popular in period drama are also popular in kabuki plays.
In this feature exhibition, we focus on kabuki plays that depict historic characters and events in the Edo period and see how the kabuki plays take in history. In jidaimono, you can enjoy seeing how the history is dramatized as kabuki play. Please enjoy how the kabuki actors in ukiyo-e are playing history.
The legend of Yoshitsune and Hogan-biiki (sympathy for the underdog)
Minamoto no Yoshitsune is a younger half-brother of Minamoto no Yoritomo, the first shogun of Kamakura bakufu (feudal government). He is well-known for the role he played in Genpei war (series of wars between Minamoto and Taira clans) in the late Heian period. After his father was killed as a rebel traitor, Yoshitsune (childhood name was Ushiwakamaru) was sent to Kurama-dera temple. Later he went to Hiraizumi and was protected by Fujiwara clan at Oshu (now Tohoku district). He joined his brother, Yoritomo, in Jjisho-Juei war, but he antagonized Yoritomo around contribution in the war and was pursued and attacked, and it was said that he finally committed suicide at Hiraizumi.
In spite of the glorious contribution in the wars including Ichinotani war, he did not get along with his brother, Yoritomo, and ended up commiting suicide. People tend to feel sympathy for the weak, so they saw Yoshitsune as a hero. The word Hogan-biiki (sympathy for Yoshitsune / sympathy for the underdog) comes from peoples’ unconditional sympathy for Yoshitsune. ‘Gikeiki’, the chronicle of Yoshitsune, contains the meeting with Musashibo Benkei and an episode that Yoshitsune obtains Kiichi Hogen’s Book of Tactics among other things. These episodes very much influenced on the impression of Yoshitsune in kabuki plays.
In kabuki plays, Yoshitsune, with a full of legend, is beautified as a tragic young nobleman, and appears in stories such as ‘Kiichi Hogen Sanryakunomaki’, ‘Ichinotani Futaba Gunki’ and ‘Yoshitsune Sembon Zakura’ and becomes popular along with Benkei in ‘Kanjincho’.
Minamoto no Yorimasa and legend of Nue
Minamoto no Yorimasa fought in the Hogen rebellion taking the side of Emperor Goshirakawa along with Minamoto no Yoshitomo, Yoshitsune’s father. But at the time of Heiji rebellion, he did not follow Yoshitomo and took the side of Taira no Kiyomori. By his contribution to the victory, he was promoted to a very high position called ‘jusanmi’, and later he was called ‘gensanmi’. Yorimasa raised an army to attack Taira clan with Prince Mochihito, but was defeated and killed in the battle at Uji Byodoin. This Yorimasa’s death lead to Genpei war.
At Taira no Kiyomori’s heyday, Minamoto no Yorimasa was exceptionally promoted for a Genji clan person. He was also a fine poet. In ‘Heike Monogatari’, there is an episode that Yorimasa gets rid of a ledendary creature that suffers the emperor. The creature is nue, which has the head of a monkey, the body of a raccoon, the arms and legs of a tiger, the tail of a snake. This episode was picked out from ‘Heike Monogatari’ and became the kabuki play ‘Yorimasa Nue Monogatari’.
It’s not Japanese nor Chinese
‘Kokusenya kassen’, written by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, is a story of Tei Seiko who seeks assistance from Tokugawa bakufu (feudal government) as Ming dynasty is at risk.
Tei Seiko was born in 1624 to Tei Shiryo from Fujian Province, Ming dynasty (now China), and Tagawa Matsu from Hirado, Japan. He was called Kokusenya (man with an imperial surname) because he was given Ming’s emperor’s surname ‘shu’ after he moved to Ming from Hirado when he was seven. As Qing dynasty rose, Kokusenya fought for Ming dynasty in order to let the dynasty revive, and at the same time he got rid of the Netherlands from occupied Taiwan and was based there. He died from disease in 1662 at the age of 39.
‘Kokusenya kassen’ is originally written as a script for ningyo joruri (puppet theater). It recorded 17-months long-run show. Then the script is adopted to kabuki and was repeatedly performed. Tei Seiko, having Chinese father and Japanese mother, is depicted as ‘watonai’ (neither Japanese nor Chinese), and at the end of ‘Kokusenya kassen’, Ming dynasty revives, which did not happen in real history.
Mini Column: Kyojitsu himaku theory: The theory that the truth of art lies somewhere between the skin and the flesh.
Chikamatsu Monzaemon is known as a Joruri script writer in the Edo period. Many of his scripts including ‘Sonezaki shinju’ and ‘Onna koroshi abura no jigoku’ are still being played in present day.
In ‘Naniwa miyage’ written by Hozumi Ikan, art theories he dictated from Chikamatsu Monzaemon are written down including ‘Kyojitsu himaku theory’. It says ‘It is unreal, but yet it is not unreal. It is real, but yet it is not real. Entertainment lies in between.’ It tells us that it is false but it’s not false, it is true but it’s not true: art lies between the truth and the falsehood.
Changing the times and names
Historical figures often appear in ‘jidaimono’ kabuki plays such as Minamoto no Yoshitsune, Minamoto no Yorimasa and Sugawara no Michizane in ‘Sugawara denju tenarai kagami’.
But playing contemporary incidents such as Ako incident (avenge by Ako samurais that occurred at the Kira’s mansion) was avoided because it might lead to criticize the Edo bakufu (feudal government). Therefore in ‘Kanadehon chushingura’, historical context and characters’ names have been changed. In the play, the time is set to Muromachi Era (past), and the names of characters are different from the real incident.
In ‘Hachijin shugo no honjo’, a story about Kato Kiyomasa, a loyal retainer of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the time is set to the Kamakura period in order not to imply the Toyotomi and Tokugawa families. In real history, Kato Kiyomasa is believed to be poisoined to death, but in the play, Kiyomasa himself had a poisoned sake in order to protect the master.
In kabuki play ‘Yoshitsune koshigoejo’, whose first performance was banned, Tokugawa Ieyasu was compared to Minamoto no Yoritomo, and Toyotomi Hideyori was compared to Minamoto no Yoshitsune. In order to be permitted to play, the story was arranged, and main character became Gotobei, whose model was Goto Matabei.
Despite restrictions, the scripts are written based on the historical facts and contemporary incidents, being dramatized to attract people. Kabuki actors play these historical characters attractively. These are the best part of the play, even today.