Bunraku: Daimonjiya (大文字屋)

  • Bunraku: 大文字屋 (Daimonjiya)

12/13/14 (Sat), Tokyo

This play hadn’t been done for several decades, so it was a highlight this month (the entire run was sold out). It’s a riff on Sukeroku, the perennial favorite about the Edo dandy, though he does not appear in this scene. Sukeroku’s wife Omatsu, deserted after he has run off with the courtesan Agemaki, has been sent back by his family to her parents, which is apparently akin to divorce. In the complicated set of perceived obligations that follow, Omatsu and her family feel she must pay off Agemaki’s debt at the brothel to clear Sukeroku’s name as his wife or ex-wife or whatever the heck her status is now. They thus agree that she should sell herself to a brothel to make the needed money.

Suddenly her father-in-law appears. He in turn feels bad for Omatsu and reveals that he has paid off the courtesan’s debt, making it unnecessary for Omatsu to take such drastic action. He apologizes for his son’s misbehavior and asks her to return if the son ever reforms. After an hour-and-a-half of wailing, the show ends curiously with a comic bit as a would-be criminal is caught and tied up with the rope suspending the chandelier, then left hanging helplessly in midair.

The story was fascinating for the extreme portrayal of the duty vs. compassion theme, a concept that’s stretched here to its limits. I’m not sure what to think of the parents’ agreement to prostitute their child in the circumstances shown here. The convoluted morality of the show aside, there are plenty of fantastic moments for the singers, who must revel in the chances provided by the wide range of emotions and character traits throughout the piece. Chitosetayu had a field day in a go-for-broke reading; I’m amazed he can do this every day without a break for over two weeks.

The program speculates that the show hasn’t caught on with modern audiences because it (1) fails to kill off the runaway lovers, who would normally be expected to atone for their actions in a double suicide, and (2) chooses to end instead in a laugh. I’m not so sure about that logic, but in any event, it was a memorable piece.

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