—Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy—
This play was first written for the puppet theater in 1746 and is one of three plays that are the central part of the repertory of both kabuki and Bunraku today. It is in the standard five act form for a jidaimono history play in the puppet theater. In this form, the final fifth act is short and not very important. The dramatic highlights of the play are the conclusions to the second, third and fourth acts.
The play is based on the true story of Sugawara no Michizane (845 – 903), called "Kan Shojo" in the play, an imperial minister who reached the second highest position in the imperial court, but then was denounced for treason and exiled. But after his death he was considered an angry spirit and to appease him, he was made into the god Tenjin. Because Michizane was a man of great learning and culture, Tenjin is worshipped as the god of learning.
The story also combines this with a story of triplets. When the play was written, there was the rare birth of triplets which became a sensation in Osaka. In this play, the triplets are named after Michizane's favorite trees, the plum, pine and cherry, becoming Umeomaru, Matsuomaru and Sakuramaru. They each serve a different master as toneri carriage drivers, but their masters come to be in opposing political positions leading to tragedy for the three brothers. The first half of the play shows Kan Shojo slandered and sent into exile and the second half of the play shows how this works out for the three brothers. The second act will not appear in the program, but shows Kan Shojo as he leaves for exile. On the one hand, he must say farewell forever to his adopted daughter Princess Kariya, but he cannot acknowledge her because of what she has done. At the same time, villains try to assassinate him, but he is saved by a miraculous statue of himself. He carved the statue to comfort his aunt, Princess Kariya's real mother. He poured his entire soul into making it and this is why it comes to life.
—The Kamo Riverbank—
This scene is part of the first act of the original puppet play.
Sakuramaru serves Imperial Prince Tokiyo, the younger brother of the emperor. Princess Kariya, the adopted daughter of Kan Shojo has fallen in love with Tokiyo and Sakuramaru and his wife Yae have helped the young couple to have a tryst. Then they are discovered by a court noble allied with the villain Fujiwara no Shihei. Princess Kariya and Tokiyo flee, but their affair becomes the excuse for Shihei to accuse Kan Shojo of trying to control the imperial court by marrying his daughter to Tokiyo and then having Tokiyo become emperor. Kan Shojo is exiled to Dazaifu in Kyushu.
—The Fight Over the Carriage—
This scene is part of the third act of the original puppet play.
This scene contrasts with the rest of the play since it is a showpiece for the bombastic aragoto style of kabuki acting. It is an extension of a common aragoto motif where characters encounter each other and there is a contest of strength.
Umeomaru serves Kan Shojo and he encounters Sakuramaru. They lament Kan Shojo's exile and their current position. Then they hear that Fujiwara no Shihei, the man responsible for Kan Shojo's exile, is making a visit to the Yoshida Shrine. They go to attack the villain.
Umeomaru and Sakuramaru stop the carriage and are about to attack when they are stopped by the third brother, Matsuomaru, who serves Shihei. The three brothers fight over the carriage. The carriage is destroyed and Shihei himself emerges. But to him, Umeomaru and Sakuramaru are no more significant than insects. The prestige of his exalted position is so great that Shihei seems to have magic powers that drive them back.
The three brothers want to fight decisively here, but Shihei says they must not defile the shrine with blood. They also want to be alive for the celebration of their father's seventieth birthday and agree to wait and settle matters then.
—The Birthday Celebration—
This scene is the climax of the third act of the original puppet play. The three brothers and their wives all are supposed to gather to celebrate the seventieth birthday of Shiradayu, the father of the three brothers, a long-time retainer of Kan Shojo and the caretaker of his favorite trees. Chiyo, Matsuomaru's wife, Haru, Umeomaru's wife and Yae, Sakuramaru's wife appear first and they all prepare the celebratory meal, although as the youngest among them, Yae does not know how to cook. Their husbands have not yet appeared so they offer the trays to the trees that have given them their names: the pine, the plum and the cherry and Shiradayu takes Yae with him to pray at a nearby shrine.
Matsuomaru and Umeomaru arrive and they are puzzled that Sakuramaru has not yet arrived. They decide to continue their fight, but when they accidentally break the cherry tree, like children, they both insist it is not his fault. Shiradayu and Yae return and Shiradayu notes the broken cherry branch with horror, although he does not say anything about it. Both Umeomaru and Matsuomaru have letters with formal requests for their father. Umeomaru wants to go to serve Kan Shojo in his place of exile. Shiradayu angrily refuses and says that his duty is to search for Kan Shojo's wife and young son and protect them from the enemy. Matsuomaru asks to cut the bond between father and son, this being the only way to reconcile his duty to his father, who serves Kan Shojo and his duty to his lord Shihei, who is Kan Shojo's enemy. Shiradayu angrily grants this request and throws out Matsuomaru and his wife. He also throws out Umeomaru and his wife, but they stay around to watch.
Sakuramaru emerges from the back. He had been there from morning and had a written request for his father as well. He asked to be allowed to commit ritual suicide to atone for being responsible for the exile of Kan Shojo. Shiradayu did not want to grant this request and told Sakuramaru to wait in the back. But every omen that Shiradayu saw suggested that Sakuramaru had to die. The final omen was the broken cherry branch of the tree that gave Sakuramaru his name. Shiradayu decides this means that Sakuramaru cannot escape this fate. Sakuramaru commits ritual suicide as Shiradayu recites sutras and strikes a prayer bell. Yae wants to follow her husband in death, but she is stopped by Umeomaru and his wife who have watched everything. The act ends as Shiradayu prepares to join Kan Shojo in exile.
—The Village School—
This scene is the climax of the fourth act of the play.
Takebe Genzo was the most talented calligraphy student of Kan Shojo, but was disowned because of his affair with Tonami, a woman serving Kan Shojo's wife. In an earlier scene, Genzo is granted Kan Shojo's secrets of calligraphy so that this art will not vanish, but Kan Shojo refuses to take Genzo in again. But just at this time, Kan Shojo is put under house arrest under suspicion of treason. However, with the help of Umeomaru, Genzo manages to get Kan Shojo's son and heir Kan Shusai to safety.
Now Genzo and his wife are protecting Kan Shusai in the small village school they run in the mountains above Kyoto. However, Shihei has heard about this and has had Genzo summoned to the local magistrate and ordered to behead Kan Shusai.
As the scene begins, it is while Genzo is out and a distinguished samurai woman brings her son Kotaro to become a student. She leaves, saying she must go to the next village. Genzo returns, agonizing over how to save Kan Shusai. He cannot kill the son of his lord, but at the same time, all of his other students are country boys and could never be mistaken for Kan Shusai. Tonami introduces Kotaro and suddenly Genzo sees one desperate possibility. Kotaro has such fine features that he just might be mistaken for Kan Shusai. The problem is that Matsuomaru has been sent to examine the head. Matsuomaru knows the real Kan Shusai well since he has long been close to Kan Shojo and his family. Genzo decides that if there is any problem, he will go out fighting.
Matsuomaru appears with the red-faced villain Genba, who is a representative of Shihei. Matsuomaru is carried in a palanquin and claims illness, walking weakly and coughing. He has asked to be released from Shihei's service and for this to be his final duty. First they examine the other students one by one to make sure they do not try to slip out Kan Shusai this way. Then, they order Genzo to behead Kan Shusai. When Genzo brings out the head, surprisingly he declares that it is indeed the head of Kan Shusai. Matsuomaru and Genba leave, taking the head.
Genzo and Tonami rejoice at the miracle, but just then, Kotaro’s mother returns asking for her boy. Genzo resolves that he must kill the mother as well, but as he cuts at her, she asks if her son served well as a sacrifice in Kan Shusai's place. Matsuomaru appears once more, this time quite vigorous. He asks Genzo to forgive him and gives him a pine branch with a poem on it. The poem is one written by Kan Shojo asking why the plum has flown to his side and the cherry has withered in grief, but only the pine is cold and indifferent. They reveal that Kotaro is actually the son of Matsuomaru and Chiyo and that this sacrifice was the only way that Matsuomaru could return all that he and his family owed to Kan Shojo. As a samurai, Matsuomaru cannot cry to grieve for his son and he tries to hide his deep grief as sympathy for his dead brother Sakuramaru or laughing proudly at his son's heroism. As the scene ends, Matsuomaru reunites Kan Shusai with his mother and, in the musical highlight of the scene, they all pray for the soul of the dead Kotaro. The text here is extremely poetic and famous and uses the words of the "iroha" poem, a poem that has all the syllables of the Japanese alphabet, to describe Kotaro, whose school is now in the land of the dead.
Also see "Kabuki's Leading Male Roles" in the 2014 series.