|Play title||Kotobuki Soga no Taimen|
It was a custom since 1709 for all the Edo theaters to produce a sogamono as new year program. The highlight of this drama was always a colorful and stylized confrontation scene (taimen in Japanese) between Suketsune and the two Soga brothers. "Kotobuki Soga no Taimen" was premiered in March 1903 at the Kabukiza, under the title "Kichirei Soga no Ishizue". It was produced for the shűmei of Onoe Kikugorô VI, Onoe Baikô VI and Onoe Eizaburô VI.
The play is set at the mansion of a high-ranking minister named Kudô Saemon Suketsune. Seventeen years previously he was instrumental in the murder of Kawazu Saburô Sukeyasu, and now Sukeyasu’s two sons are intent on avenging his death. These sons are Soga Gorô Tokimune and his elder brother, Soga Jűrô Sukenari.
Story and Highlights
Suketsune has recently been promoted to marshal of the shogun’s hunt and he is now hosting a banquet to celebrate the New Year and his own rise in office. When the full scene is revealed, Suketsune is seated on a raised dais on the right, the place of honour, and guarding him on either side are two of his most trusted retainers. Further along to the left are two magnificent courtesans and the slightly comical-looking warrior named Asahina. Asahina is a strongman who is a friend of the Soga brothers and the character is immediately recognisable by his make-up. This is the distinctive saruguma ("monkey make-up") with bold red lines painted across the forehead. Seated behind them in a row are many feudal lords also invited to the party. They all begin with auspicious words to mark the occasion.
Asahina then asks if he may bring two other guests into this assembly. These two turn out to be the Soga brothers Gorô and Jűrô, and as they enter along the hanamichi stage extension we can easily tell their contrasting natures. The elder Jűrô first leads the way, but Gorô is unable to quell his impetuosity and soon rushes past, anxious to attack their enemy. He must be restrained by Jűrô and both pose at the shichisan, close to the stage. The designs on their costumes are always typical of these roles – Gorô’s costume bears a motif of butterflies, while Jűrô’s shows a motif of flying plover birds. At this rather boisterous entrance, the feudal lords begin to make fun of the brothers until the two courtesans scold them for their incivility.
Their features remind Suketsune of someone, and he finally realises that they are the two sons of Kawazu Sukeyasu. He recalls the day when that man met his death and begins to recount the occasion. It was in the tenth month of 1176, at a hunting party on Mt. Akazawa, when Sukeyasu was observed seated upon a white horse. Suketsune’s two retainers take over the storytelling for they were present at that time, lying in wait for Sukeyasu. It was they who shot an arrow at him that pierced him through the torso. Crashing down from his horse, Sukeyasu died.
At this sad tale of their own father’s demise, the brothers declare their true identity and Gorô strikes a threatening pose (called a mie) before making to attack Suketsune. Jűrô again restrains him, and now Asahina also holds him back. Once more, the feudal lords and Suketsune’s retainers all ridicule the brothers.
Trying to lighten the mood, Asahina suggests an exchange of New Year gifts, and the courtesans suggest a drink of sake. Wishing to appear magnanimous, Suketsune agrees to this and there follows a formal offering of sake, first to the host himself, and then to the elder brother. When it is Gorô’s turn to drink, however, the sake cup and stand are placed closer to Suketsune’s seat and he is asked to approach. Yet again, Jűrô warns him not to do anything rash but as Gorô inches towards Suketsune he is barely able to conceal his rage. When he is further provoked, Gorô cannot help himself; with both hands grasping the wooden cup stand, he crushes it to pieces. Undaunted, Suketsune goes on to explain that he is now a man so great in power and position that the brothers will find it impossible to gain access to him again, no matter how badly they thirst for revenge. At this, Gorô smashes the sake cup and strikes a pose that expresses all his bitter frustration.
Furthermore, Suketsune reminds them, a famous treasure, a sword named Tomokirimaru has been lost, and the suspect is the brothers’ foster father. Until that treasure is restored to its rightful place their family is in disgrace and will never be granted permission to exact revenge. But just at that moment, a family retainer rushes in bearing the very sword. Suketsune confirms the blade’s authenticity and the brothers will now finally be permitted an attempt at avenging their father’s death. But they may not do so now, for Suketsune must first complete his duties as marshal of the hunt.
The brothers must leave, but Suketsune will not let them go empty-handed. He presents them with the gift of two tickets to a hunt that will take place at the foot of Mt. Fuji in the coming fifth month. It is then that the two Soga brothers may make an attempt at Suketsune’s life. Though Gorô is reluctant to go, Jűrô finally persuades him to obey, and all the characters strike the final magnificent pose, a tableau symbolizing Mt. Fuji itself with an auspicious crane flying past its peak.
Courtesy of Paul M. Griffith
The actors Onoe Kikugorô VI, Onoe Baikô VI and Ichikawa Danjűrô IX playing the roles of Soga Gorô Tokimune (1st print/bottom-right), Soga Jűrô Sukenari (2nd print/bottom-left) and Kudô Saemon Suketsune (3rd print/top-right) in the drama "Kichirei Soga no Ishizue", which was staged in March 1903 at the Kabukiza (print made by Utagawa Kunisada III)
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