Two years ago, I was honored to play a small role in a Hawaii Kabuki production, The Vengeful Sword, and to serve as dramaturg. This involved doing research on a variety of elements that come up in the play – including the historical events that inspired the play, the history of the locations, the meaning of certain terms – and sharing the results of my research with the cast & crew via a private (closed) blog. I’ve posted before, on numerous occasions, about the production, but now, I’m finally getting around to re-posting, publicly, some of that content. I hope you find it interesting.
During the run of the show, I enjoyed the privilege of delivering a public pre-show talk, sharing some of my research with the audience. I’m posting the content of that talk below.
Minna san mo, kitte kudasanseee. I have… with kabuki… fallen in love
Yes, fallen in love. And I am very excited that during my short time here at UH, I should get to not only see a kabuki production, but to actually play a small part in one.
I’m honored as well to get to serve as dramaturg for this show, and just to be involved, alongside such an amazing cast and crew, and to be a part of a now 87-year-old tradition of English-language kabuki at UH.
I do not know if I will ever have the chance to be involved in a kabuki production again, and so being here is truly a privilege. To Dr. Iezzi, Kikunobu-sensei, and everyone else, I offer my sincerest gratitude.
As dramaturg, I have enjoyed immensely researching various aspects of the early modern Japanese setting of the play – from the history of the town of Furuichi, to the meaning of the name of the titular vengeful sword, to the status and responsibilities of the taikomochi, my own role in the play. I shared what I found with the cast, both through an online blog, and of course in person, hopefully aiding some of my fellow cast members in better understanding their roles, or at least entertaining them with interesting information. Tonight, I take pleasure in sharing some of what I found, with all of you.
The Vengeful Sword is a story of a samurai in search of an important missing heirloom sword, and also a story of relationship drama, scheming and intrigues.
It is a faithful English-language translation of the traditional kabuki play Ise Ondo Koi no Netaba, which debuted in Osaka in 1796, and which has been performed at UH once before, in 1938 under the title “The Quest of Shimosaka.”
The play takes place in and around the town of Furuichi, near Ise, the location of the most ancient and most sacred Shinto shrine in Japan. But most of the action takes place at the Abura Teahouse, one of the most famous and popular teahouses in the area. Personally, I much prefer the refined, classy euphemism, but just so we’re clear, when I say “teahouse,” we’re talking about a house of prostitution, a brothel.
So, you must be thinking, why are there teahouses in Ise? Isn’t Ise a holy place where people go on sacred pilgrimage? Well, you’re right of course. But, in fact, prostitution in Japan, and presumably in many places around the world, got its start at rural inns along major pilgrimage routes.
In case you are not familiar with the geography of Japan, you can see Ise as a blue star on this map. It’s sort of in the central-western part of the country, only about an hour and a half from Osaka or Kyoto by train today. You can also see, shaded in red, Awa province, on the island of Shikoku, another place which figures in the play.
The town of Furuichi, located on the road which runs between the Inner Shrine and Outer Shrine areas of Ise, though in some respects a rather quiet out-of-the-way village, saw many pilgrims on their way to the Grand Shrine. The town grew, therefore, mainly as a result of the demand from these travelers for places to eat, drink, and stay the night; since it was fairly customary for pilgrims to give in to enjoyments such as alcohol, eating meat, and other pleasures after a long period of abstaining while on pilgrimage, the demand for these things played a major role in Furuichi’s development.
By the 1790s, the town of Furuichi boasted 70 prominent teahouses, and roughly 1000 courtesans, that is, prostitutes, ranking third among pleasure districts in the country, after the Yoshiwara in the shogun’s capital of Edo, and the Shimabara in the Imperial capital of Kyoto. The most prominent teahouses in the district were the multi-storied Bizen-ya, the Sugimoto-ya, and the Abura-ya, where most of tonight’s play takes place.
These teahouses were particularly famous for their performances of the Ise Ondo dance, a famous and popular attraction exclusive to the area, after which our play, Ise Ondo Koi no Netaba, is in part named. You will hear the Ise Ondo music throughout the play, and will see several of my beautiful and talented fellow cast members perform the dance later on in the evening.
The district also had three or four puppet theatres and three kabuki theatres, along with an establishment called Osugi to Otama, which was famous for its shamisen performances; not simply musical performers, the shamisen players at Osugi to Otama are said to have been especially skilled at dodging coins thrown at them by the audience, or catching them or flicking them away with their bachi (the plectrum with which the shamisen is played).
Both kabuki plays and actors often got their starts in Furuichi, before making their debuts in the more major theatres of Kyoto and Osaka. It was often said, “if you can’t make it in Ise, you’ll never tread on the cypress stages of Kyoto and Osaka.” Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura, or “Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees,” one of the most famous and popular plays in the entire kabuki repertoire, is among those which was performed first in Furuichi. Kabuki is sadly not so strong today in Ise, but in recent years, there have been revivals of this play, Ise Ondo, and of other pieces, as part of summer festivals in the area.
Now, before we return to the subject of the Abura Teahouse itself, let me take a few moments to discuss some prominent items you will see in the play, starting with The Vengeful Sword itself.
The Aoi Shimosaka sword, as it is called, is a valuable heirloom which has been in Manjirō’s family for generations. Now, he has been tricked into pawning it and must try to get it back. But what does the name Aoi Shimosaka mean?
A little research revealed that it was forged by a swordsmith named Shimosaka Yasutsugu, born sometime around 1532 in a place called Shimosaka. He later moved to Echizen province, which is today Fukui prefecture, and took on the name Echizen Shimosaka, a name that he and his disciples (and their disciples) would then etch into the swords they produced.
Yasutsugu I, the originator of this lineage of swordsmiths, was later in his life granted the honor of using the family crest of the Tokugawa shoguns. The crest consists of a design of three leaves from a plant known as aoi, and thus the Aoi Shimosaka sword got its name. You will see in tonight’s play several characters looking intently at the blade, possibly in search of the name “Shimosaka”, or for this three-leafed aoi crest, in order to figure out which sword is the Aoi Shimosaka they are all seeking.
Another item central to the plot is the certificate of authenticity, a document that certifies that this sword is indeed the Aoi Shimosaka, and not just another dull blade. Here is a certificate, or kanteisho, for another sword, which I think gives us a sense of what the certificate Mitsugi is searching for looks like.
[Bonus: As I was putting together this blog post, I just came across an actual certificate of authenticity for an actual Shimosaka sword. Check it out.]
You can see on the right the name of the swordsmith, Heianjo Fujiwara Hiroyuki, which helps us date this blade to sometime between 1615 and 1624, the only period when this name was used. The document also provides the length of the blade, and then ends, at the far left, with the date of the document, and the signature and seal of Hosokawa Moritatsu, the man who drew up this certificate, certifying the authenticity of this sword.
There are of course a great many things you will see tonight in the play which I would love to talk about, from kimono to shamisen to hair ornaments and wooden clogs, or geta, but I think I’ll take time to mention just two more, briefly.
Here we see Manjiro, with a sort of cloth called a tenugui wrapped around his head. It serves both to protect his lovely hairdo, and to hide his face somewhat as he makes his way to the teahouse. He is worried about his reputation, and is trying to keep it a secret that he frequents the teahouse.
The word tenugui means “something to wipe your hands on”, but the cloth only came to be called that later. In the early modern period, such cloths were used primarily for this sort of purpose – covering the head and protecting the hair. Men and women both at this time used oils and wax to hold their hair in place, and some women, such as courtesans, had especially elaborate hairdos that would need to get protected from wind and rain, from low-hanging tree branches, and the like.
Tenugui can be worn and used in many ways. In addition to Manjiro hiding his face, you will see one of our lovely hawkers protecting her hairdo with a tenugui.
Speaking of the hawkers, they will be out here shortly, before the show begins, selling souvenir Hawaii Kabuki tenugui. All the proceeds go to the disaster relief efforts in Japan, and the hawkers will be happy to show you all kinds of ways you can use the tenugui.
Another thing you will see in the play is a number of characters smoking long thin pipes like this one. These are called kiseru.
Longer and thinner than the pipes we may be used to in the West, with a smaller bowl, the kiseru was made mainly of bamboo, with metal ends made of bronze, brass, silver, or gold. Contrary to the associations we may draw regarding smoking in China, or the assumptions we may make given the shape of the pipe, this is a tobacco pipe, not an opium pipe. Opium never caught on in Japan, perhaps because of the lack of British access to the country, but tobacco did, following its introduction in the late 16th or early 17th century by the Portuguese or Dutch. And since the Spanish and Portuguese did not smoke pipes at the time, we can assume it was the Dutch who introduced the kiseru.
I do not believe that it was particularly popular at the time to smoke privately, nor logistically viable to smoke on the street as we might do today with cigarettes. Rather, smoking was primarily a social activity at the time, something enjoyed alongside saké, food, music or dancing, and conversation within the teahouse.
Speaking of which, let us return to the subject of the Abura-ya, perhaps the most famous teahouse in the district.
Like other teahouses, the Aburaya would have had multiple rooms for entertaining guests, including smaller rooms towards the back for more important customers who desired greater privacy or discretion, and larger rooms towards the front for larger parties.
There was also a dance stage, as you can see here, where the Ise Ondo would be performed. In one former teahouse [Actually, a geisha house] which I visited in Japan, which has been turned into a sort of museum or historical house, all the women’s living spaces, the kitchen, storage for kimono and hair ornaments, and the like were on the ground floor, while all the entertaining spaces were upstairs, but I am not sure that this is necessarily how the Abura-ya would have been arranged.
Today, the Abura-ya and, arguably, the entire district of Furuichi, is known chiefly for this one play, and for the real-life historical events which inspired it.
On a summer night in 1796, a local doctor and regular patron of the Abura-ya, 27-year-old Magofuku Itsuki, quite possibly drunk, or at least drunk, it is said, with jealous rage, pulled his sword inside the teahouse, killing three and injuring six. Little is known about what exactly set him off, what sort of problems or issues he was having, who had angered him or how. But, as is quite often the case in kabuki, simply knowing that such an event occurred was more than enough to inspire a new play, and to serve as the core of its plot.
Hearing of these events, and of amateur performances being produced locally in Ise, and knowing how much audiences love this sort of dramatic, action-packed story of jealousy and revenge, some of the top playwrights in Osaka at the time took the story, added various dramatic elements, deceptions and plot twists, and transformed this shocking and tragic event into an exciting and dramatic theatrical production, which then opened in Osaka two and a half months later.
Itsuki committed suicide at his uncle’s house two days after the incident, and was buried at the nearby Buddhist temple Dairinji, which you will see is mentioned in the play. Meanwhile, his love, the courtesan Okon, only 16 at the time, survived and lived a relatively long life, dying of illness at the age of 49 and being buried alongside him at Dairinji. You can still visit the grave today, and actors often do, paying their respects before taking on the roles of Mitsugi and Okon.
Little remains today of the inns, theatres, and teahouses of Furuichi, except for stone markers indicating their former locations. Nevertheless, I hope this summer to visit, to pay my respects at Dairinji, see the Ise Ondo dances, and perhaps have a meal at the Chinese restaurant that now stands where the Abura-ya once did.