Bunraku: 大塔宮曦鎧、恋娘昔八丈

Bunraku: 大塔宮曦鎧、恋娘昔八丈

12/14/13 (Sat), Tokyo

Bunraku was showing off some of the younger singers and performers this month. The first of the two shows, Oto no Miya Asahi no Yoroi (Oto no Miya’s Armor at Sunrise), celebrated the 300th anniversary of Takemoto Gidayu’s death. It was a long-unperformed piece from 1723, representing the debut of Takeda Izumo I as a writer. The powerful Norisada tries to have his way with the exiled emperor’s wife but is rebuffed. In retaliation, he orders Tarozaemon to cut off the prince’s head. Hanazono and her husband plan to sneak their son in as a substitute, but Tarozaemon sees through this. He goes to the children’s O-bon dance to carry out the deed, but to everyone’s surprise strikes down neither the prince nor Hanazono’s kid but an unknown child. This turns out to be Tarozaemon’s own grandson, who he has sacrificed because of past loyalty. In gratitude, Hanazono’s husband instantly cuts off his and son’s topknots and vows to become a priest. This was a very strong story with memorable characters and an unusual twist on the child-swapping theme. It’s funny how some shows seem to fall off the radar for no reason. I’d like to see this again with older performers, though this did boast a terrific climactic reading by Mojihisatayu.

Koi Musume Mukashi Hachijo (Lovelorn Girl in the Hachijo Kimono) is, unusually, an Edo-based puppet play from 1775. The only two scenes performed these days are城木屋 and 鈴ヶ森 (the latter referring to the execution grounds at the site and having nothing to do with the later Nanboku play). The show was the basis for Mokuami’s Shinza the Barber, though he makes the title role (called Saiza in the puppet version) a darker and more evil character.

The samurai Saiza is disguised as a barber while trying to locate a stolen heirloom. He’s in love with Okoma, but her father has arranged for her to be married to someone else due to past obligations. Meanwhile, the head clerk in her father’s lumber shop lusts after her as well, but is shocked to find that the prospective bridegroom Kizo is his former partner in crime – they are the ones who pilfered the heirloom.

After some complications, the first scene ends with Okoma seemingly resolving, at the clerk’s urging, to poison Kizo. In the second scene, Kizo has indeed been murdered, and Okoma has been arrested and sentenced to die (some prior scenes were obviously cut here). Wearing a hachijo kimono with its distinctive checkered pattern, she is led to the execution grounds, thinking she has been deserted by her lover. But he appears just in the nick of time in full samurai garb, saying that he has recovered the heirloom, identified Kizo’s crimes, and obtained a pardon for Okoma from the shogun, making for an unusual (and rather false) happy ending.

The play had some startling moments, as when the jealous Saiza slaps Okoma and kicks her in stomach in the mistaken belief that she has been unfaithful. I wonder if audiences back then just shrugged this behavior off, though it does help that these are after all just puppets. Maybe it was an Edo thing. The show had a great comic role in the head clerk, who is manipulated in such a lively way that it almost outdid another wonderfully animated performance by Chitosetayu. The pace was fine and the story engaging other than the bogus ending. The young performers acquitted themselves nicely.

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