Above: An ukiyo-e woodblock print diptych by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, depicting Danjûrô VIII as Mitsugi on the right, and Arashi Rikan III and Iwai Kumesaburô III as Kisuke and Okon, respectively, on the left. From an 1852/4 performance at the Kawarazaki-za. Image from the Kuniyoshi Project website. Thanks to William Pearl, of the Kuniyoshi Project, for granting non-commercial permissions.
It’s always interesting, fun, and intriguing to discover the real stories behind kabuki plays, and more to the point, to discover the real historical sites related to them. As I have mentioned before, I am taking part this term in classes in kabuki voice & movement, in preparation for a performance in the spring, here in Hawaii, of “Ise Ondo Koi no Netaba,” or, as our professor has titled it in English, “The Vengeful Sword.”
Right: An old postcard photo of the Aburaya when it still stood, and a more current photo of the stele that marks the site today. Click on the pictures for more photos, and interesting blog posts (in Japanese) about the neighborhood.
The play takes place largely in a teahouse (read: brothel) called the Aburaya, in the town of Furuichi, near Ise, which, surprise surprise, genuinely existed. I have never been to that part of Japan, but my Google-fu reveals that if you go to Furuichi (now part of the city of Ise) today, you will find a stone marker for the former site of the Aburaya. So, it’s not just that Furuichi indeed had an active red-light district (third most famous, apparently, after the Yoshiwara in Edo, and the Shimabara in Kyoto), but that the specific name of the teahouse in the play corresponds to one by that name which genuinely existed.
Furthermore, nearby the former site of the Aburaya stands the temple Dairinji, mentioned but never seen in the play, wherein one can find the grave of Okon, the young courtesan (16 at the time of the incident upon which the play is based, though she lived until 49) who is the lover of one of the chief protagonists of the play, Mitsugi. Fukuoka Mitsugi is based on the real-life figure Magofuku Itsuki, who is buried with Okon in a lovers’ grave at Dairinji.
Above: The lovers’ grave of Itsuki and Okon at Dairinji.
It would seem that there is not too much left to see today of Furuichi, in terms of the teahouses and such still being active or even intact or anything. There may not be much more than just this stone marker for the Aburaya, and the graves at Dairinji. There are stone markers as well for at least one of the theatres in town (one of the conceits of the play is that characters in the play – courtesans and their clients – go out to the Furuichi kabuki theatre and come back), but that’s about it, so far as I can tell. I wonder if the Ise Ondo dances which appear in the title of the play, and in the final scene, are still performed.
In any case, I will admit that I previously had little interest in going all the way out to Ise just to see the outermost walls of a super super super famous shrine that I’m not allowed to go any further into. But now, I am quite eager to visit Furuichi, and visit the graves, take pictures of the stone markers for the theatres and teahouses, and just sort of feel like I’ve been there. If I go with a friend, we can reenact scenes in the streets, and elicit either strange looks or laughs from passersby.