|Play title||Ise Ondo Koi no Netaba
The Ise Dances and Love's Dull Blade*
Namiki Sh˘z˘ II
The play is loosely based on a real killing spree which took place in Furuichi (aburaya S˘d˘), and which caused a sensation, about two months before the play's premiere in the 7th lunar month of 1796. The murders that inspired it having taken place in summer, "Ise Ondo" is a "summer play", with characters wearing light cotton yukata and using fans, and the Aburaya House of Pleasure's curtains being decorated with patterns of flowing water and floating bowls.
This history was written by Marion Hudson and Sh˘riya Aragor˘.
Scenes no longer normally staged
In Act I and Part of Act II, an heirloom of the House of Awa, a valuable sword made by Oe Shimosaka, was entrusted by the Lord of Awa to the care of a faithful Samurai retainer. Unfortunately, although the sword was valuable, there was a curse on its blade which, once unsheathed, demanded to taste blood repeatedly before it could be sheathed once more. This curse caused the death of the faithful retainer, and subsequently also the death of his son, with the sword then passing into the trust of his small son, Fukuoka Mitsugi, an only child whose mother was already dead.
Both Mitsugi and the sword were then looked after by Mitsugi's aunt. However, she was understandably terrified of the curse on the blade and its effects on her family, and therefore secretly disposed of it, and fled from Awa with her little nephew. They settled near Ise under assumed names, and Mitsugi was later adopted by a priest of the Grand Shrine of Ise, where he became a minor Shinto priest himself. His aunt never told him about the curse on the Shimosaka sword. However, Mitsugi has never forgotten that his primary allegiance is to the House of Awa, and more especially to the Daimy˘'s Chief Counsellor, Imada Kuroemon, who had been his father's immediate superior.
Meanwhile, the Daimy˘ of Awa has died, and has been succeeded by his son, who is still only a child. The child's uncle, Kajikawa Daigaku, is plotting to usurp the Daimyate, but has been thwarted by Imada Kuroemon. In revenge, and in order to clear his path, Daigaku is determined to discredit him, and the easiest way to do this is through his effete son, Imada Manjir˘.
The villain's chance appears when the lost Shimosaka sword turns up in a pawnshop in Furuichi, and Kuroemon sends his rather weak son to redeem it. Manjir˘ succeeds in buying back the sword, but he is then distracted by the Furuichi pleasure quarter, where he falls in love with Okishi, a courtesan at the Aburaya House of Pleasure. Encouraged by Daigaku's henchmen, he builds up such large debts here that he is forced to pawn the sword once more, although he retains its certificate of authenticity.
Tokushima Iwaji, Daigaku's principal subordinate, tricks Manjir˘ out of the certificate of authenticity (without which the sword is worthless), but the pawnbroker, D˘myaku no Kinbei, vanishes, together with the sword, before the evil faction can lay hands on it.
At the start of the scenes currently still performed, Mitsugi, loyal to the Awa House in general, but to Manjir˘ and his father in particular, is trying to assist Manjir˘ in recovering both the sword and its certificate of authenticity, although he would like to get the ineffectual Manjir˘ out of harm's way first.
Penultimate scene of Act I: by a jiz˘ statue in a field
This scene is only very occasionally performed, and together with the next scene brings some light relief to a very dark play.
Two slightly comic villains, Daiz˘ and Joshir˘, enter pursued by Rinpei, who serves the Awa House. He is trying to get an incriminating letter from the two men, and there is a struggle. The villains hide - Daiz˘ in a well, and Joshir˘ by posing as a very unlikely statue of the god jiz˘. There is much comic business from the inept pair, including Joshir˘'s attempts to get Daiz˘ out of the well, and their efforts to remember where they have hidden the letter. They are so engrossed in this that Rinpei manages to sneak up behind them and is able to tie them up without their noticing - until they try to leave! Rinpei is victorious.
Last scene of Act I: Futami-ga-Ura
This scene is set at night-time at Futami Bay, famous for the "husband and wife" rocks, which are scenically depicted. Mitsugi enters with Manjir˘, whom he is escorting to a place of safety, and assuring him that he will find the missing Shimosaka sword.
Joshir˘, who caused Manjir˘ to lose the sword in the first place, appears, but escapes when he and Manjir˘ recognise each other. He is followed by Rinpei, who has only managed to get the first half of the incriminating letter he sought, which he delivers to Manjir˘ before continuing his pursuit of Joshir˘. Mitsugi reads the letter by lantern-light, but the signature and the name of the addressee have been torn off. Rinpei reappears, with Joshir˘ in tow, and the second half of the letter. However, before they can read it, Daiz˘ enters and makes them drop the lantern. A danmari in the dark follows, during which Mitsugi captures the villains, and instructs Rinpei to take Manjir˘ to safety. After further stage business, dawn breaks, with the sun rising between the "husband and wife" rocks, and Mitsugi is able to read the letter and discover that the arch-plotters are Iwaji and Daigaku.
Final scene of Act II (which is not normally performed): within the precincts of the Ise Shrine
Mitsugi's aunt has come across the absconding pawnbroker, recognised the Shimosaka sword, and insisted upon redeeming it. When Mitsugi visits her, she gives it to him, but also tells him its history for the first time and commands him to restore it to the Awa House, warning him that if the blade leaves its scabbard, it will not return until it has tasted blood. Mitsugi now only needs the certificate of authenticity to complete his mission.
Act III, Scene 1: a room in the Aburaya House of Pleasure in Furuichi
Arch-plotter Iwaji, a Samurai who still possesses the Shimosaka sword's certificate of authenticity which he has tricked out of Manjir˘, is courting Okishi - the courtesan who is the beloved of Manjir˘ - in the Aburaya. He is accompanied by two merchants, Jir˘suke and Kitaroku, and as a precaution he and Kitaroku have exchanged their clothes and their identities. The real Kitaroku is equally making up to Okon, the courtesan beloved of Mitsugi. Manno, the obnoxious proprietress of the Aburaya, is also in their pay.
Manjir˘ and Mitsugi, who are searching for each other, come to the Aburaya in turn. Okishi sends Manjir˘ away to wait in the safety of the Dairin Temple so that the plotters, who are partying in the House of Pleasure, will not see him, but Mitsugi, who follows him, and who is now has the Shimosaka sword, stays - partly to try to find the sword's certificate of authenticity, partly to see Okon, with whom he is deeply in love, and partly to wait for Manjir˘ to return, since he still needs to tell him that he now possesses the lost weapon. He is informed by Okishi that Iwaji is planning to ransom herself and Okon and take them away with his friends the following day, which is a worrying situation. Mitsugi, who by this time has smelt several rats, resolves to stay and try to find out exactly what is going on. He already suspects the switched identities of the villains, and that the Shimosaka sword's certificate of authenticity is close at hand.
Manno, however, is less than delighted to have him around, and plans to bring about a quarrel between him and Okon. She lies that Okon is at the theatre, but insists that if he is to stay, he must have one of the other girls for the evening. She also insists that he turns in his sword to her - the valuable Shimosaka one, of course. This was customary in many houses of pleasure, but Mitsugi is understandably unwilling to comply. At this point Kisuke, the cook at the Aburaya (who is also the son of a former retainer of Mitsugi's family, and hence is secretly loyal to him), enters. He offers to look after the sword, and suggests that as Mitsugi was born a Samurai it's understandable that he won't leave his sword in the care of a mere woman, like Manno! In private, Mitsugi fills him in on the current situation. When they have left, the real Iwaji enters, soliloquising about swords - and is overheard by Kisuke. Iwaji decides to switch the blades of the swords, so that when Mitsugi leaves he will be given what appears to be his own weapon, but it will have a worthless blade. (Note: Japanese sword blades are attached to the sword hilt by rivets. It is only the blade, and not the hilt, which is of value. It is to be presumed that Iwaji is able to exchange the blades without fully unsheathing the swords, that the scabbards of the two swords are identical, and that the hilts are not dissimilar. One must also presume that Iwaji carries a portable toolkit with him, just in case he's faced with this sort of emergency!) Kisuke equally determines that when Mitsugi leaves, he will give him what appears to be the wrong sword, but which will now have the real Shimosaka blade.
Mitsugi returns, and finds that his girl for the evening, as chosen by Manno, is the homely Oshika. The unfortunate Oshika is a mere pawn in the malevolent Manno's game. She declares a long-standing affection for Mitsugi, and claims to have received love letters from him, and to have sent him money that he requested from her. Mitsugi is astounded. He cannot recall ever receiving a letter from her, let alone writing one! Okon, who has been inside all along, enters and overhears part of the conversation. The villainous guests and their entourage also enter, and the situation escalates, with Oshika producing a supposed letter from Mitsugi asking her for money, Manno supporting her story, the increasingly angry Mitsugi denouncing the letter as a forgery, and the apparently upset Okon dismissing him with many accusations, and with claims that she will never marry a Samurai - and Mitsugi is a former Samurai.
Mitsugi leaves, heartbroken and humiliated, with Kisuke handing him his sword - the one with the right blade but the wrong hilt, although Mitsugi is too upset to notice any discrepancy. The mood inside the Aburaya lightens, with the villains congratulating themselves on having got rid of Mitsugi. Iwaji and Kitaroku reveal that they have switched identities, which means that when the girls are ransomed Okon will not be marrying a hated Samurai after all, but a townsman, i.e. the supposed Iwaji, but the real Kitaroku. Okon (whose quarrel with Mitsugi was feigned so that she might obtain the certificate of authenticity for him) proceeds to enquire about the little package her newly intended husband keeps hidden in his kimono. It is, as she quickly realises, the Shimosaka sword's certificate of authenticity, but she pretends to believe it is a package of love letters from another woman, and feigns jealousy. To allay her suspicions, she is given the package to investigate at her leisure, and she leaves to do so.
Manno and the villains are just rejoicing at making Okon and Mitsugi quarrel, and at Mitsugi leaving with the wrong sword, when they realise that in fact Mitsugi has left with the right sword. Manno calls for Kisuke, makes out it's his mistake, and sends him after Mitsugi to "rectify" things. It is only after the amused Kisuke leaves that Manno remembers his ties to Mitsugi's house, and dashes after him.
Mitsugi, however, comes back of his own accord, having noticed that the hilt of his sword is wrong (but not realising that the blade is right). He accuses Manno of deliberately switching his sword, and in the argument that follows she provokes him into striking her with the sheathed sword. Unluckily for Manno, the scabbard splits, and the blade wounds her. Mitsugi is aghast at what he's done, but the sword, inadvertently unsheathed, begins to possess him and, thirsting for blood, the blade forces him to kill Manno. Oshika enters, and likewise is killed. The blade will not be satisfied, and proceeds to attack a servant and then, more deservingly, Iwaji.
Act III, Scene 2: in inner courtyard at the Aburaya
The stage revolves to show an inner courtyard of the Aburaya, where the Ise Dances of the title, which were earlier requested by the villains as an entertainment, are taking place. The carnage sweeps into the courtyard, and the dancers flee in terror. There follows a scene of Kabuki's "beautiful cruelty", in which, posing aesthetically, Iwaji and Kitaroku are repeatedly injured and eventually killed by the berserk blade, still in Mitsugi's grasp. Eventually the bloodlust has run its course, but the exhausted Mitsugi cannot let go of the sword despite repeated efforts to do so, until finally he strikes his elbow on the ground, thereby dislodging it from his grasp.
Okon enters, and is lucky to escape with her life as Mitsugi reaches for the sword once more. But the curse has run its course, and Okon is able to give Mitsugi the certificate of authenticity, and explains that her earlier harsh words were only intended in order to obtain it, and that she has been on his side all along. But Mitsugi, amazingly considering what has just happened, still thinks he has lost the Shimosaka sword itself and is on the point of committing seppuku in atonement, when Kisuke arrives to clarify the situation. Mitsugi looks more carefully at the blade, and despite all the dead, the play is deemed to have a happy ending since the sword and its certificate of authenticity can be returned to Manjir˘, and Mitsugi and Okon are reconciled.
Although this is how the play ends in current performances, it originally had four acts. When there was an additional act, the end of Act III was somewhat different, in that Iwaji escaped the carnage, and Mitsugi fled without realising that his sword had the missing Shimosaka blade. In the former Act IV, Mitsugi arrived at his aunt's house in the pouring rain, and Manjir˘ followed him there, asking about the missing weapon. Mitsugi, still thinking that he had lost the Shimosaka sword, offered his life in atonement, and stabbed himself. Kisuke then arrived to explain that they were holding the Shimosaka blade. Kisuke was followed by Iwaji, who tried to steal the sword, but was killed by the wounded Mitsugi. However, Mitsugi's injury turned out not to be life-threatening, and word was received that the turmoil in the Awa House had been settled. The play thus had a happy ending, although the fate of Okon remained vague.
This summary was written by Marion Hudson (November 2011).
(*) the title "The Ise Dances and Love's Dull Blade" comes from the 2nd volume of "Kabuki Plays On Stage".
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