"The Three Great Classics"
In both the Bunraku puppet theater where they originated and in kabuki that adopted them, "Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami (Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy: 1746)," "Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura (Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees: 1747)" and "Kanadehon Chushingura (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers: 1748)" are considered to be three of the greatest classics. These three plays are performed frequently and unlike other plays in the repertory, virtually all of these three plays continue to be performed today. These plays all were first performed at the Takemoto-za puppet theater in Osaka and were written by the same trio of playwrights, Takeda Izumo, Miyoshi Shoraku and Namiki Senryu.
This is technically the word for puppet theater in Japanese, because it is the combination of two different art forms, "ningyo = puppets" and "joruri = narrative singing accompanied by shamisen." Today the word "Bunraku" is often used because this was the name of the last puppet troupe to survive into the modern era.
Also see " The Shakespeare of Japan : Chikamatsu Monzaemon " programs in the 2014 season.
Sugawara no Michizane (845 – 903), known in this play as "Kan Shojo (The Sugawara Minister")," was a historical figure who came from a very distinguished family and was also very learned himself, especially being skilled in the composition of poetry in classical Chinese. He rose to the rank of Minister of the Right, the second highest position in the imperial government. But perhaps because he did not come from the all-powerful Fujiwara clan, he was denounced and exiled to Dazaifu in Kyushu, where he died. But after his death a series of disasters overcame the imperial capital. The major members of the Fujiwara clan died of illness and lightning struck and set fire to the imperial palace. A prominent Buddhist priest said that Michizane appeared to him in a dream and said that he had been transformed into a thunder god. To appease this angry spirit, Michizane was restored to all his court ranks (posthumously) and was made the god Tenjin with a shrine first in Kyoto and eventually all over the country. Today, Michizane is revered as a god of learning and people pray at the shrine for success in their exams. Legends about Michizane are recalled in many classical Noh plays, some of which provide material that is used in this play.
In the courtly Heian Period (784 – 1185), female members of the imperial court usually did not go out in public and anyway, their heavy multi-colored robes (popularly known as "juni-hitoe (twelve-layered robe)" would not have allowed them much mobility. Male members of the aristocratic class apparently did not go out in the open much and so, the court aristocracy moved around in these slow moving ox-drawn carts. Even today they are a symbol of the fabulously elegant lives of these court aristocrats.
"Gissha" had drivers, a position of relatively low status, but of high responsibility, very much like the drivers of high-ranking officials today. In the play, Shiradayu’s close relationship with Kan Shojo means that when he has triplets, first Kan Shojo names them after his three favorite trees: the pine, the plum and the cherry. And it also means that the three brothers become toneri to three of the highest officials in the land. Umeomaru is toneri to Kan Shojo himself, the Minister of the Left. Matsuomaru is toneri to an even higher ranking official, Fujiwara no Shihei (historically usually called "Tokihira" with a different reading of the same Chinese characters), the Minister of the Left. And Sakuramaru becomes toneri to Imperial Prince Tokiyo, the younger brother of the emperor. But since Shihei uses the relationship between Tokiyo and Kan Shojo’s daughter Princess Kariya as an excuse to have him exiled, all three brothers are caught on different sides of this political crisis with great impact on their own lives.
In varying scenes of the play, the same characters can look very different and often are played by different actors. In particular, the "Kurumabiki" scene is played with the bombastic, larger-than-life aragoto acting styles. The main characters all have kumadori make-up, which is a distinctive feature of aragoto. Umeomaru is the purest aragoto hero, combining strength and purity of motive unlike his brothers, since his main goal is to protect his lord Kan Shojo. This is shown in his kumadori make-up with many red lines which indicate strength, his very exaggerated costume, including an obi sash that is so elaborate and bulky that it requires three people to tie it, and, when he and Sakuramaru learn that Shihei – the man responsible for the downfall of Kan Shojo – is making a pilgrimage to the Yoshida Shrine, goes to confront him with the powerful aragoto jumping-step called a "tobi roppo."
Moments of high emotion are shown with stop-motion poses called mie. In particular, the "Kurumabiki" scene is full of famous mie and at the final moment, some poses have the eyes crossed which is thought to concentrate the facial expression and draw the audience's attention to the actor's faces – like a close up in a movie.
"Evil imperial court noble."
There are different colors of kumadori make-up. The most common color is red, which indicates a powerful hero with a pure heart. The red lines have no precise symbolic meaning, but suggest blood vessels. Non-human characters, like the Spirit of the Earth Spider in "Tsuchi Gumo" have brown lines. Evil court nobles have blue lines on their face. They are usually seen as owing their prestige to magic and their sheltered existence deep in the depths of the imperial palace suggests that that they are very pale and that instead of red blood, their blue blood shows.
This is the make-up of aragoto and suggests the power of the character. There are different patterns, but instead of being a kind of symbolic painted mask (like the makeup of Peking Opera and pro wrestling) the basic patterns are painted on in such a way as to flatter the individual actor’s face.
"Old and rare."
Like many Asian cultures, Japan reveres longevity and there are many special words for specific ages. For example, "hakuju (white celebration)" means "ninety-nine" because if you take the top stroke off of the Chinese character for "one hundred (百)," it is the character meaning white (白). Or "beiju (rice celebration" means "eighty-eight" because the Chinese character meaning "rice (米)" is made up of elements meaning "eight – ten – eight." "Koki" means "seventy" and is a little different because it is based on a familiar quote from the poem "Winding River" by the Tang Period Chinese poet Du Fu (712 – 770) which has a passage using these characters that says that when he returns from serving at court he pawns his clothing to buy wine. He has unpaid bills at all his usual drinking places. From old, it has been rare for someone to live to be seventy. This is the theme of the "Ga no Iwai" act which should be a happy celebration of Shiradayu's seventieth birthday, but which goes horribly wrong.
Literally this word means "temple school," and refers to the
schools that taught reading, writing and arithmetic to commoner
children. Some of these schools were indeed inside Buddhist
temples, but many more had nothing to do with temples and were
run by samurai or masterless samurai within their residences,
so usually this act is translated as "The Village School."
Although in the Edo Period (1600 – 1868) the samurai class had their prestigious position since they were warriors, after 1615 and the Battle of Osaka Castle, there was no fighting until the very end of the Tokugawa shogunate. Learning and the ability to do the paperwork that distinguished a samurai official became the actual mark of the samurai class and to make ends meet, often members of the samurai class ran these schools.
Also see "Kabuki's Leading Male Roles" programs in the 2014 season.
"Waka" is the word for classical Japanese poetry, most often in the form called "tanka" with five lines with 5-7-5-7-7 syllables. Sugawara no Michizane was famous as a poet, both in Japanese and classical Chinese, although his real strength was Chinese learning. At the end of "Terakoya," Matsuomaru tosses in a pine branch with a poem card tied to it. This poem was written by the real Michizane and says "The plum has flown, the cherry has withered, why is the pine so cold and cruel?" This refers to the legend that Michizane's beloved plum tree flew miraculously from Kyoto to Dazaifu, his place of exile in Kyushu. This poem created the characters of the three brothers and is used at the pivotal moment to explain Matsuomaru's true feelings.