Bunraku: Vendetta of a Samurai in Rags (敵討襤褸錦)

BUNRAKU:敵討襤褸錦 (Vendetta of a Samurai in Rags)

2/7/09 (Sat), 国立劇場

I had never even heard of this show, a 1736 drama translated variously as “Vendetta of a Samurai in Rags” and “The Outcast’s Revenge and the Brocade of Rags”, and there’s little information about it out there. So I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. It turns out to have been memorable for unexpected reasons. 

Quoting from the Web site, the show is “a complex tale of a vendetta where two brothers must search for the killer of their father. But in the long search the older brother becomes ill and crippled and they sink to the level of beggars, living in a straw shack on the riverbank. As it happens, there they meet their quarry and the older brother is killed. However, this leads to the bittersweet moment when they are finally successful, symbolically being covered with the brocade of the title.”

This summary, innocent enough on the surface, avoids some rather unpalatable facts. What caught my attention first was the treatment of the older brother, who was the actual child of the murdered father (his younger siblings were half-brothers with a different father). This character is mentally retarded, unusual enough in any show but certainly the first time I’d seen this in a puppet. He had a blank-looking face, unlike the more vivid heads on other dolls, and the puppeteer kept the head moving from side to side with no relation to events around him, like a puppet Stevie Wonder. We could tell at a glance that there was something different about this character, but it was not intended to be condescending. I thought it was realistic and quite skillfully done, not patronizing at all and not begging for sympathy like a Forrest Gump type. The presence of the narrator helps put the character at a remove, which might make it easier to take. The narrator does speak noticeably differently when he voices this character, which may or not be offensive to some but was quite effective in realizing a full person. It was not what I expected.

More remarkable was his fate in the story. By tradition, a vendetta for a father requires the participation of the eldest child. In this case, though, because of his mental incapacity, the son would only put himself, others and the entire plot in danger. His half-brothers, who are not even the real sons of the victim, suggest an honorary position, but the mother, determined to avenge her husband’s death honorably, will have none of this. Suddenly she grabs a knife and kills her unsuspecting eldest child, saying that this is the only way that the revenge can work. The idea of duty in this context, taking the life of one’s son for a higher cause, is outrageous enough but not unique in either Bunraku or Kabuki, featuring in some of the great plays in the canon. But the stabbing of a retarded child was a real shocker. In a sense, I suppose it did show that the child was accorded his normal role within the family despite his disability; the murder was carried out from what, in their eyes, was a noble motive. It was an extreme example of duty over family and intriguing to say the least.

The other eye-opener involves the two younger brothers, whose pursuit of vengeance has reduced them to the state of beggars. As the scene opens, a man is trying to sell a sword to some samurai, but the buyers are skeptical that the weapon meets his large claims. In response, he offers to test the sword by slicing someone and suggests two beggars that he has seen living under a nearby bridge. The word he uses is hinin (非人, literally: non-person), a now-vulgar term that usually refers to the buraku (部落) or “untouchable” class in Osaka, though it can also include convicts, vagrants and others at the lowest rank of the caste system. It is an inflammatory word that is prohibited from use on television and doesn’t even come up in my PC dictionary (i.e., hinin doesn’t register as a word, so I had to enter each character separately). The buraku still exist despite official denials – when I was on TV, I was told to avoid particularly any word offensive to this aggressive minority – and the effect of the word hinin is equivalent to “n**ger”. So just seeing the word in the subtitles was a surprise. Even more startling was to hear a character suggest off-handedly that they verify the sword’s sharpness by cutting a “non-person”. This was presented simply as a plot device rather than something unpleasant on its own, as if it were perfectly acceptable practice. They get their comeuppance when they try carrying this out, of course, but the idea that lay behind this was pretty mind-boggling.

I should say that I seemed the only one surprised by any of this, and this is not the first time that the show has been presented, though it’s the first in many years (the Kabuki version hasn’t been staged since 1980). A puppeteer friend explained afterwards that they are not able to perform this show in Osaka, where the buraku are concentrated, nor can they put it on television or DVD. It’s interesting that they could get away with it in Tokyo, and at the National Theatre no less. But aside from the art, the show is invaluable as an historical document, and I’m glad they made the decision to do it. He said that they have to edit a number of shows to make them acceptable, mostly involving words like mekura (blind) that have gone foul of PC but sometimes encompassing entire scenes or characters. This isn’t limited to the classics: I remember Amon saying that he axed the term ketou (毛唐, “hairy Chinese”)from Pacific Overtures as a reference to foreigners even though this was a common term at the time of the drama, saying that it would be too grating for modern Japanese ears. Nor is this limited to Japan; Showboat (original: “Niggers work on the Mississippi”; now: “People work…”) and Porgy and Bess have been similarly amended, and I’m seeing a rare production of the PC-challenged musical Finian’s Rainbow next month in New York.

In this environment, seeing this show was a fairly jolting experience. It provided a unique picture of Edo thinking, and cutting the “offensive” parts would have been kin to castration. Three cheers to the National for allowing this to be staged. I’d love to see the Kabuki version.

Oh, the show itself was enjoyable enough, though a bit too long as usual, especially in the second half. I liked the Bob Dylan-esque line, 「今日の襤褸(つづれ)は明日の錦」(“Today’s rags are tomorrow’s brocade”). I would like to see this again sometime, though at the current pace, that won’t be until around 2040.

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