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Wednesday, May 11, 2005


Vengeful tale of sweet poison

Special to The Japan Times

The Bunraku version of "Sendaihagi," currently running at the National Theater, Tokyo, begins when Yoshitsuna, Lord of Sendai, retires from his position and hands his post to his young son Tsurukiyo. He abdicates because he has been plotted against by his uncle Nishikido Gyobu and Kageyu, his chief retainer. The evil Watarai Ginbei is then ordered by Kageyu to poison Tsurukiyo, but his attempt is thwarted by the child's governess, Masaoka.

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The gidayu master Takemoto Sumitayu rehearsing in February 2005

The scene opens at Yoshitsuna's palace at Kamakurayama as Masaoka, attired in a brilliant red kimono, is waiting on Prince Tsurukiyo, in a hall that is surrounded by sliding doors on which are depicted bamboos -- she is also tending her son, Senmatsu, and is attended by her maids.

Masaoka's ruse is to keep the young prince away from suspicious retainers on the pretext of illness. But Tsurukiyo is dying of hunger, refraining even from touching the food presented to him by Okinoi, the wife of a retainer serving the prince.

The highlight of the play comes in the scene titled "The Palace," which lasts for about one hour and a half. Masaoka has been cooking meals for her young master. She begins to cook rice in a corner of the elegant room -- stage left -- using tea-ceremony utensils, while Senmatsu entertains Tsurukiyo by singing songs about sparrows. Tsurukiyo feels safe with Masaoka, whom he adores, and her son Senmatsu is now his sole playmate in his imprisonment. Although he is starving, he sits patiently because he is a daimyo. The young Senmatsu, not to be outdone, declares, with similar pride: "My stomach is empty, but I am not hungry because I am a samurai." When the rice is properly cooked, Masaoka lets Tsurukiyo eat it after testing it on Senmatsu.

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"The Palace" scene in "Meiboku Sendaihagi" Masaoka's rice cooking scene and kudoki (lament). Above and below, the puppet of Masaoka is handled by Yoshida Minosuke."
News photo

When the two boys are through with their modest repast, the arrival of Lady Sakae -- the wife of Gen. Kajiwara Kagetoki who supports the plot against Yoshitsuna's line -- is announced. She is bringing a box of sweets supposedly sent by the Shogun Yoritomo. Okinoi and Yashio, the wife of Watarai Ginbei, join Prince Tsurukiyo and Masaoka in welcoming the lady. Hastily, Yashio urges Tsurukiyo to try the sweets.

But, Senmatsu, who has been instructed by his mother to taste everything for his master, dashes out from behind to grab some pieces, gobbling them down into his mouth. Instantly a poison takes effect and Yashio stabs him with a dagger. Masaoka watches as her son is stabbed repeatedly by Yashio without losing her composure at all. Observing Masaoka's demeanor, Lady Sakae concludes that the boy must be Tsurukiyo instead of Senmatsu and lets Masaoka know her secret scheme.

Left alone at last with the body of her son, Masaoka breaks down in grief. She laments, asking, "Who on earth would ask her own son to eat poison and die?" In this scene of Masaoka's kudoki (lament), the puppet handled by Yoshida Minosuke, a designated living national treasure, expresses Masaoka's sorrow in its fluent and elegant movements. After spying on Masaoka for a while, Yashio starts to attack her, but soon gets killed by Masaoka avenging the death of her son Senmatsu.

The gidayu narration for the first half of the scene of "The Palace" is delivered by Takemoto Sumitayu and for the second half, by Toyotake Sakitayu. Takemoto Sumitayu VII (real name: Kishimoto Kin'ichi) is an 81-year-old native of Osaka and also a living national treasure, and he excels in the rice-cooking scene, speaking the parts of all three puppets -- Masaoka, Tsurukiyo and Senmatsu. For 50 minutes, Sumitayu, sitting to the left of the revolving stage, narrates and delivers the lines for the three characters from the depths of his abdomen, subtly changing the tone of his voice to suit each character.

In order to fortify his belly, he binds it with a cotton belt under his costume, sits on his heels with a low stool under him and places an otoshi (weight) on his stomach. When he deals with the ji (background narration), he uses eloquent melodies, heightened by the evocative plucking sound of the samisen played by Nozawa Kinshi, 48.

Sumitayu regards "Sendaihagi" as one of the finest gidayu numbers to perform. He finds it very strenuous but thrilling to narrate the scene of "The Palace," because the text is well-written and the music is beautifully composed. Sumitayu admits that his voice -- husky and masculine, is not really suited to rendering the voice of a woman or a little boy.

"Through the skills of on [nasal tones of voice], I have developed over the years, I can articulate my voice through the nose to make it sound like the voice of a woman of Masaoka's stature or the high-pitched voice of a boy, such as Tsurukiyo or Senmatsu." Sumitayu's voice indeed strikes us as expressive and moving when he renders the lines exchanged among these characters. Offstage, Sumitayu is a charming, vigorous and pleasant man, who is eager to talk about himself and his successful 58-year career as a gidayu master. Sumitayu says that he feels attracted to the scene of cooking rice because he is touched by the jo (feelings, love, compassion) held by Masaoka, Tsurukiyo and Senmatsu toward one another and he believes that his mission is to convey that jo to his audience. After seeing this performance, Sumitayu suggests that we see the kabuki version of the same play, to find the essential difference between bunraku and kabuki.

The Tokyo National Theater's Bunraku performance runs through May 22 at 4-1 Hayabusa-cho, Chiyoda-ku, a 5-minute walk from Hanzomon Station, Exit 1, on the Hanzomon Line; a 12-minute walk from Nagatacho Station, Exits 2 & 4 on the Yurakucho, Hanzomon and Namboku lines. Performances of "Omi Genji Senjinyakata" and "Meido no Hikyaku" start at 11 a.m. "Meiboku Sendaihagi" and "Katsuragawa Renri no Shigarami" start at 4:30 p.m. Tickets cost 1,500 yen - 6,500 yen. The National Theater ticket center, tel. (03) 3230-3000.

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