Kabuki Index

Kabuki Summaries VI
Stories of the Genji and Heike Clans
by Hisao Watanabe
Edited by R. Jeffrey Blair

rough machine translation ... [ Eng=>Jpn ]


The following summaries can be found on this page.

  1. Ichijo Okura Monogatari--Camouflage
  2. Kajiwara Heizo Homare no Ishikiri--
    The great achievement of Kajiwara
  3. Kumagai Jinya--Kumagai's Camp
  4. Kanjincho--The list of contributors
  5. Sasaki Takatsuna--A betrayed promise

Ichijo Okura Monogatari


Ichijo Okura (Fujiwara) Naganari is leading an abnormal life of feigned madness. Many people think that he is feebleminded and that his only matter of concern is performing Noh. But, in fact, he hates being involved in the war between the Genji (Minamoto) and Heike (Taira) clans--the two main powers in late 12th century Japan. Now the Heike are in power, but Taira Kiyomori [1118-1181], the leader of the Heike, is too arrogant and hardhearted. Okura was once, and still is deep in his heart, a strong supporter of the Genji clan and hopes for their return to power. He began to feign madness in order to avoid being listed by the Heike government as a suspected subversive. Kiyomori thinks Okura is now harmless to the Heike cause. So certain is he that Okura is completely innocuous that he orders him to marry Tokiwa Gozen, widow of the late Minamoto Yoshitomo [1123-1160], the late leader of the Genji clan. She is the mother of three sons including Minamoto Yoshitsune [1159-1189]. Yoshitsune escaped from Heike pursuit after his father Yoshitomo was defeated in rebellion against the Heike clan during the Heiji Disturbance of 1160. Kiyomori declined to execute Yoshitsune and his half-brother Yoritomo [1147-1199] because of their youth. He demanded in exchange, however, that Yoshitomo's widow Tokiwa Gozen become his mistress. Soon after, when she lost her charm, he cast her off. That is how Tokiwa became Okura's wife.

In secret Okura keeps an important sword, the possession of which can strengthen the position of anyone with the ambition to rule Japan. Yoshitsune, now a respectable warrior, sends his retainer Yoshioka Kijiro to ask Tokiwa to obtain a secret tactic book from her husband which is being kept by Kiichi. Kijiro has a bad impression of Tokiwa because of her past deeds. He thinks that for a woman to become another man's concubine, even after her husband's death, is a shameful thing. Remarrying is also abominable. To Kijiro, Tokiwa is a woman with no scruples about saving her children even if it means becoming Kiyomori's object of pleasure. In addition, she is leading a comfortable life with Okura under the protection of the hated Heike family.

Kijiro and Okyo come to Okura's mansion quietly at night. They find Tokiwa enjoying some archery. His hatred for Tokiwa escalates. Kijiro is so filled with indignation that he intends to kill her. Accusing her of treachery, he is about to slay her when she reveals, with dignity, her true mind. Taking an arrow, she shoots it deep into the target and then reveals a picture of Kiyomori, which has been secretly set inside it. The picture has been pierced by many arrows. She explains that, with every shot she takes, she curses Kiyomori and prays for his death.

While she is talking, a man dashes into the room. He shouts, ''Now that I have heard your treason, I must tell my lord Kiyomori.'' Yatsurugi Kageyu had been placed among Okura's followers as a spy for the Heike clan to keep an eye on Tokiwa. As Kijiro prevents him from leaving with this incriminating evidence, Okura appears before them with a sword case in his hand. The Noh dance which he then performs seems to illustrate his madness until his face abruptly changes expression. This reveals him to be the well-educated aristocrat that he truly is. He takes the precious sword out of its case and entrusts it to Kijiro so that he can offer it to Yoshitsune, who has gathered a band of followers to reorganize Genji resistance. Kijiro receives it with great joy and respect.

Yatsurugi has not yet perceived that Okura has been feigning insanity. He regards Okura's actions only as another facet of his lunacy. Thinking that Okura has capriciously given the sword to Kijiro, Yatsurugi has an additional reason to leave the room to inform Kiyomori--Tokiwa's treachery and Okura's outrageous actions. Finally it dawns on him that he is not witnessing the actions of a madman but rather a most serious act of treason. He belatedly realizes that Okura is a dangerous enemy to Kiyomori. He hurries for the door, but Okura stands before him holding a halberd and runs him through. Then he confesses that he has secretly vowed to kill Kiyomori some day and that Tokiwa too, with patience and fidelity, has been plotting the same. Although Tokiwa became his wife, she has continued to honor both her late husband and the Genji clan. Understanding and supporting her attitude, Okura shows his true colors and wisdom, stating that he has killed one spy, but there may be many others, so he will continue to play the half-wit. Having said this he resumes his masquerade playing with the spy's severed head.

Kajiwara Heizo Homare no Ishikiri

The great achievement of Kajiwara

Kajiwara Heizo, the main character of this story, is an excellent swordsman who is now on the side of the Heike, though formerly belonging to the Genji clan. Appearing with him are two Heike generals, Oba Saburo and Matano Goro. Oba Saburo also used to be loyal to the Genji clan, but has realigned himself with the ruling Heike. During these periods of military upheaval in Japan, it was not uncommon for lords to shift their allegiance. This very volatile time in Japanese history produced an ever-changing sea of shifting loyalties. These alliances were the result of the most basic rule of war--"kill or be killed." Matano Goro is Oba Saburo's brother, but was adopted by the Matano family and has taken their family name.

One day the three have gathered together and are dining out when Rokurodayu, a mother-of-pearl craftsman, enters the restaurant with his daughter, Kozue. He asks Oba to buy from him a valuable sword that he claims has been handed down in his family over many generations. Rokurodayu states that he needs a large sum of money because his daughter will soon be married. Rokurodayu is ready to sell the sword, so that he can give the money to Kozue's fiance, a quiet supporter of the Genji clan. Since their enemy, the Heike clan, has recently defeated them and now controls the government of Japan, he remains in hiding, but seeks funds for the support of Minamoto no Yoritomo [1147-1199], so that in the near future he can raise an army under the Genji banner to attack and overthrow the Heike.

Oba asks Kajiwara, a famed swordsman, to inspect the sword. Kajiwara examines it with a keen eye and assures Oba that it is, indeed, a genuinely fine sword. Based on Kajiwara's opinion, Oba decides to buy the sword and asks about price. Pleased with his interest in the sword Rokurodayu requests 300 ryo.

Oba is surprised by such a steep price, but is encouraged by Kajiwara's appraisal. Matano suggests that they test the sword's power to cut through human flesh (tameshigiri). It should be able to cleanly sever two live men in a single stroke. Both parties agree to the test and two condemned criminals are called for.

Unfortunately there is only one such prisoner, and Oba feels that he cannot buy such an expensive sword without properly testing it. In desperation Rokurodayu turns to his daughter, explains that he forgot to bring the certificate for the sword, and sends her off to retrieve it. Once Kozue is out of sight, Rokurodayu offers to be the second victim for Oba's test, on condition that the 300 ryo will be paid to his daughter after his death. Matano is pleased at such a prospect, while Kajiwara is deeply moved by Rokurodayu's sincere attitude and agrees to perform the test.

The men are stacked with the condemned man on top and Rokurodayu underneath. Just before the two men are about to be sliced in two, Kozue returns. She, of course, could not find the document because it does not exist and is astonished to see that her father is going to be killed with the other man. It is too late for her to stop Kajiwara as the blade in his hands sweeps downward.

The sword cuts clean through the condemned man, but fails even to scratch Rokurodayu. It only cuts through the ropes that bind his hands. The sword having failed their test, Oba and Matano sneer at it. Feeling lucky to have exposed Rokurodayu's trickery, they depart, leaving the other three behind.

Rokurodayu is about to commit suicide when Kajiwara stops him and confesses that the sword is no doubt a genuine treasure. He admits that he purposely held back in delivering the fatal blow, because he realized that Rokurodayu was secretly supporting the Genji family. Continuing to bear his soul, Kajiwara reveals that deep in his heart he, too, supports Yoritomo and could not bear to kill one of his own comrades in the Genji cause.

Kajiwara realized Rokurodayu's true allegiance when he examined the unpolished end of the sword blade (nakago) and discovered the inscription "Hachiman". This is a very important clue, as Hachiman was the patron deity of the Genji clan, the ancestors of Minamoto no Yoritomo. If Kajiwara were just an ordinary swordsman, he would have overlooked such a small detail and failed to surmise Rokudayu's true intentions. Furthermore, Kajiwara explains, he didn't want such a valuable sword to fall into the hands of Heike supporters. To show the sword's true value, he calls Rokurodayu and Kozue over to a very large stone basin, which he then cuts in two with one swift stroke.

This is the climax of the drama. Rokurodayu and Kozue are taken aback to witness such a feat and the dialogue among them becomes elaborately poetic, using five and seven syllable phrases with samisen accompaniment. At this moment kabuki connoisseurs can enjoy a very fine, almost lyrical, dialogue. For example:

Finally, Kajiwara gives Rokurodayu the 300 ryo and buys the sword, thereby atoning for his deception. He then departs leaving a very grateful and surprised father and daughter in his wake, much like a film hero walking off into the sunset. Thus ends the drama.

Kumagai Jinya

Kumagai's camp

Fuji no Kata was a lady-in-waiting to the Emperor who was a supporter of the Heike clan. She had, among her ladies, one named Sagami. Sagami fell in love with the Genji warrior Kumagai. For a lady of the court to take a lover was an offense punishable by death. To make matters worse, Kumagai was working for the rival clan. Sagami was already with child, but her mistress, Fuji no Kata, took pity on her. With her help the pair were able to flee to Western Japan. Fuji no Kata was also at that time pregnant, by the Emperor. She was married shortly afterwards to Taira no Tsunemori, one of the Heike clan, and her child, Atsumori, was brought up as Tsunemori's son.

Sixteen years later, destiny brings Kumagai and Atsumori together on the battle field as mortal enemies. In consideration of his debt to Fuji no Kata and because of Atsumori's Imperial blood, however, Kumagai cannot bring himself to kill the boy. He decides instead to sacrifice his own son Kojiro in place of Atsumori.

Later Atsumori's and Kojiro's mothers encounter each other at Kumagai's camp. They both realize everything when they see the human head Kumagai is preparing to show General Yoshitsune (1159-1189), the half-brother of Shogun Yoritomo (1147-1199). It is supposed to be the late Atsumori's. Fuji no Kata has mixed feelings of joy for her son's safety and sympathy for the poor Kojiro. Now sorrow is transferred from Fuji no Kata to Sagami. They are interrupted by the sudden entrance of Kajiwara Kagetaka. Aware of what is going on, he threatens to expose the deception to Yoritomo. Yoshitsune, he says, has shut his eyes to Kumagai's plot, but Yoritomo will never permit the fake. Kajiwara goes off the stage in a full rage. A moment later, a scream is heard. Midaroku has killed Kagetaka to spare Yoshitsune the trouble of sullying his hands. This is because he is on Genji's side deep in his heart.

When Midaroku is about to go on his way Yoshitsune stops him, calling him "Munekiyo". At first Midaroku pretends he does not know to whom Yoshitsune is speaking. Then the Genji general relates how the great Heike warrior Munekiyo saved the lives of his mother, his brother, and himself when they were caught by the Taira clan. Midaroku admits that he is indeed Munekiyo. It is in an attempt to atone for his fault in sparing the lives of those destined to become the instrument of the Heike's downfall, that he gave up being a samurai and devoted himself to caring for the Heike dead. He says if he had not saved them, Shogun Yoritomo, the head of the Genji family, would not have seen the light of day. Yoshitsune does not resent his words. On the contrary, he intends to help smuggle Atsumori out of Kumagai's camp in return. He, therefore, orders a large case, ostensibly containing armor, but in which Atsumori is hidden, to be brought and presented to Midaroku.

In the meantime, Kumagai returns. The shock of his terrible sacrifice to duty and honor makes it impossible for him to continue being a samurai. Now all he wishes to do is to spend the rest of his life praying for the release of his son's spirit. Yoshitsune, deeply grieving, grants his request. From the depth of his sorrow Kumagai cries, "Sixteen years for my son have passed like the dew. It was a dream. Oh, it was merely a dream!"


The list of contributors

Minamoto no Yoritomo [1147-1199] and Minamoto no Yoshitsune [1159-1189] are not on good terms. Earlier, these half-brothers had fought together in battle gaining victory after victory. Yoritomo became ruler of Japan, attaining the title of Shogun. The rift between the brothers resulted from a scheme of insurrection by retainers that convinced Yoritomo his younger brother was plotting against him. At first, Yoritomo did not believe them. But after constant repetition, Yoritomo began to believe their lie. "Be cautious! He is plotting against you and will take your place as ruler of Japan!" Eventually, Yoritomo ordered his men to arrest Yoshitsune. This is the point at which our drama begins.

Yoshitsune is forced to flee Kyoto, the capital of feudal Japan, as he has heard that authorities are pursuing him. He has a strong and powerful supporter named Fujiwara no Hidehira [1096-1187] in the Oshu district (now the Tohoku region). Yoshitsune decides to become a fugitive and seek refuge there. He consults his faithful retainer named Musashibo Benkei [?-1189], who as a young man had been a priest at Enryakuji temple on Mount Hiei. He recommends to Yoshitsune that they disguise themselves as a group of wandering priests. In this way, the group, consisting of Yoshitsune, four of his top generals, and Benkei should be able to elude authorities.

When news of Yoshitsune and his generals' escape reaches him, Yoritomo orders all wandering priests to be investigated thoroughly in order to capture Yoshitsune. With this order in mind, guards at all the barriers are watching diligently for Yoshitsune, paying special attention to parties of wandering priests.

As Yoshitsune's party approaches Ataka Barrier under the command of General Togashi, one of Yoshitsune's shitennou suggests that they kill Togashi and fight their way through the barrier. All of them agree except Benkei. Pointing out that there are still many barriers to be crossed before reaching Oshu, he suggests they continue as normal and leave everything to him. There is disagreement within the group, but Yoshitsune, having the final word, decides to follow Benkei's advice.

Togachi Saemon, an intelligent, well-educated aristocrat, appears accompanied by his men and explains that he is the guardian of the barrier and enjoins his men to be vigilant in their attempt to intercept Minamoto Yoshitsune (1159-1189) and his party, who are believed to be fleeing north disguised as wandering priests.

Yoshitsune enters, followed by four retainers. He is dressed as a porter with a wide straw hat and carries a load on his back. When the party arrives at the barrier, Benkei, an ex-priest, announces to the guards that they are priests wishing to pass the barrier. He goes on to say that they have been sent to collect funds for the restoration of Todaiji Temple at Nara, and are touring the northern districts. But Togashi and his soldiers reply that the party may not pass unless they can prove themselves to be genuine priests.

Togashi asks Benkei, since they claim to be collecting funds, if he has a kanjincho or list of contributors with an explanation of the purpose of the donations. . Benkei is rather taken aback by this request. And Benkei's momentary confusion confirms Togashi's suspicions. Benkei, of course, has no kanjincho. But he goes to the back of the stage and returns with a blank scroll, which he unwinds and begins reading aloud. Togashi deliberately advances towards him. When he suddenly starts forward and glances at the scroll, Benkei realizes that Togashi has seen that there is nothing written on it. Although Togashi says nothing, he knows for certain now that the scroll is a fake. Nevertheless he appreciates Benkei's courageous ingenuity and is prepared to let him go on with the deception.

Togashi asks Benkei about his costume, the equipment of a priest, and why he is wearing a sword. "This sword," he replies, "is not for killing. Much like a scarecrow armed with a bow and arrow, my sword is used to ward off bad spirits. It's only a symbol of protection." His final question is about the nine characters in esoteric Mikkyo Buddhism, and what each means. Only someone who had studied the secret teachings of this Buddhist sect deeply would be able to answer such a question. Having been a priest for Enryakuji temple, Benkei, however, is able to explain each of the profound essences--Rin, Pyo, To, Sha, Kai, Jin, Retsu, Zai, Zen. Togashi is extremely impressed by Benkei's display of knowledge, and says there is no longer any suspicion. He thanks Benkei for having given him the chance to come into contact with Buddhism.

Just as Benkei's party is about to go through the barrier, however, one of Togashi's soldiers calls his attention to the porter in the rear, who he says resembles Yoshitsune. Togashi can't ignore this. Benkei tries to prove that the porter is not Yoshitsune, but in vain. Benkei then pretends to be angry and beats Yoshitsune bitterly, declaring that if he is suspect, Togashi is welcome to detain him. Togashi is sure that the porter is Yoshitsune, yet as he watches Benkei beat his master, he realizes deeply what a predicament it must be for such a loyal retainer. When Benkei offers to beat him to death, if necessary, Togashi begs him to restrain himself.

The crisis over, Benkei's party goes on with their journey. Once out of sight, Yoshitsune thanks Benkei for saving his life and the retainers extol Benkei's courage and resourcefulness. Benkei, however, apologizes for beating his master. He says he would rather die than beat his master, on whom he sets a higher value than his own life. For the first time in his life, Benkei bursts into tears.

Togashi and his men overtake comes over to apologize for their ill treatment earlier. Acknowledging the noble spirit of Benkei, Togashi offers sake and gold dust to him under the pretext of a donation. Benkei drinks the sake and begins to dance. While dancing, Benkei quietly signals the other members to slip away. After all the members have gone, Benkei quickly thanks Togashi for his benevolence and rushes to catch up with them making his exit along the hanamichi runway with bold movements called tobiroppo (hopping on one leg with the other leg and arms flying in six directions: north, south, east, west, up towards Heaven and down towards Earth).

Sasaki Takatsuna

A betrayed promise

It is a beautiful day in early spring. There are Japanese bush warblers chirping away while perched on red and white ume plum blossoms. Bathing in the sunlight, Nenosuke is washing the famous horse Ikezuki on grounds of the estate of Sasaki Takatsuna [?-1214]. Takatsuna's followers are talking about the victory of Takatsuna and Ikezuki over Kajiwara Kagesue [1162-1200] and his horse, Surusumi. The two raced each other across the river to win the honor of being the first to engage the Heike army in the Battle of Ujigawa River [1184]. Yet, despite today's wonderful weather and his enhanced reputation, Takatsuna does not seem to be in good spirits.

His daughter, Usuginu, has returned from a visit to Ishiyamaji temple. She is accompanied by a Buddhist priest named Chizan. Takatsuna is pleased to see the priest, thinking that he can hold his monthly memorial service for a horse-keeper whose life he took some years ago. He immediately asks Chizan to conduct the service, and Chizan agrees. Before beginning the service Chizan mentions that he happened to see the Genji leader Minamoto Yoritomo [1147-1199] and how dignified he looks. Yoritomo is about to go to Kyoto to see the Emperor. The news puts Takatsuna in an even worse mood and a look of distress falls over his face.

When Yoritomo raised an army ten years ago in Izu province to fight against the Heike clan, Takatsuna was eager to rush there. Unfortunately there was not enough time for him to reach his destination on foot, so he killed an elderly horse-keeper and robbed him of his horse, Ikezuki. Thanks to the horse, Takatsuna was the first man to reach Yoritomo and rescued him from impending defeat. Yoritomo promised a reward, saying that for his brave actions he would give Takatsuna, half of his land. Ten years later, however, Yoritomo has yet to give Takatsuna even a tenth of what he promised. Takatsuna cannot suppress his anger at the thought of this betrayed promise.

At this point Takatsuna's nephew, Sasaki Sadashige, comes to see him. He and Usuginu are deeply in love with each other. Full of cheer, Sadashige suggests that they go to greet Yoritomo, who is at the summit of his prosperity, but Takatsuna cannot stomach the thought. He hurries off to hold the memorial service, saying, "I cannot endure such a liar." Takatsuna's anger puts a damper on the happy couple's mood.

Meanwhile all these years, the horse-keeper's son, Nenosuke, has been zealous in the discharge of his duties as horse-keeper. His sister Omino, on the other hand, bears a grudge against Takatsuna for killing her father. In order to avenge her father's death, she has come to Takatsuna's mansion to kill him with a woodsman's hatchet she hides in her bosom. In contrast Nenosuke is moved by the consideration of Takatsuna's consideration in never failing to hold the monthly memorial service for their father. Thus Nenosuke tries desperately to dissuade his sister from carrying out such a reckless act. Just then Takatsuna, having found spiritual enlightenment, emerges from the memorial service with his head shaved intending to become a monk . He has made up his mind to go to Koyasan, headquarters of the Buddhist Shingon sect, where he is going to sever all ties of the flesh and live in eternal tranquillity. This provides the perfect chance for Omino to attack. She dashes forward and attempts to impale him. But Takatsuna disarms her, pins her down, and then thrusts her away saying, ''Here is another who, like me, needs to be released from their evil passions.'' He collects the horse from Chizan and leaves for Koyasan as an evening temple bell rings in the distance.

Last updated March 2006
Copyright (C) 2003-2006 by Jeff Blair
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