Introduction to Kanadehon Chûshingura
Japan’s most famous loyalty-revenge story — Kanadehon Chûshingura (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers), popularly known as Chûshingura, is based upon events that occurred at the beginning of the eighteenth century. In 1701 Asano Naganori, lord of the provincial Akô domain (in present-day Hyôgo Prefecture, central Japan) was placed in charge of ceremonial duties at the shogun’s castle in Edo (present-day Tokyo). He sought instruction from the master of ceremonial duties, Kira Yoshinaka but, naively, failed to offer the usual bribe. Kira humiliated Asano to the extent that the latter drew his sword and inflicted a slight wound on Kira. The penalty for drawing a sword in the shogun’s castle was strict: suicide for the offending lord, confiscation of property, and dispersal of retainers. In short, the destruction of a clan. The practical basis for the shogun’s law was the prevention of assassination and insurrection. The underlying principle was that all lords and their retainers owed a debt of absolute loyalty to the shogun. Asano’s retainers decided to avenge their master’s death and adopted a strategy that culminated in a raid on Kira’s mansion eighteen months later. They decapitated Kira and then paraded through the streets of Edo to the grave of their master at Sengakuji Temple where they placed the severed head on Asano’s grave. The shogun could not permit the retainers to go unpunished because the vengeance represented a choice between loyalty to a vassal lord versus that to the supreme ruler, the shogun. The retainers were ordered to commit suicide and complied.
Chûshingura, originally a jôruri (puppet) play in 11 acts in the jidamono (history play) style, was written by Takeda Izumo II, Miyoshi Shôraku, and Namiki Sôsuke in 1748. The same playwrights were also responsible for Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami, 1746, and Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura, 1747, which together with Chûshingura constitute the golden period of writing for jôruri. As in the case of Sugawara and Yoshitsune, Chûshingura was quickly adapted into kabuki and has rarely been out of production since. Furthermore, Chûshingura is one of the few long plays that is still sometimes produced in its entirety. (Incomplete productions usually omit only Acts 2, 8 and 10.) In fact, Chûshingura is regarded as a sure remedy for poor theatre attendances and has been frequently adapted for television — 13 times in the last decade — and for films — 34 times in the twentieth century. The playwrights set the story in the Ashikaga period (1336-1573) and altered the location to Kamakura in order to evade censorship by the shogunate.
Chûshingura’s popularity has persisted for three centuries. A number of explanations are possible. Firstly, the story can exert a powerful psychological attraction because of its episodes in which people endure the unbearable for a long time before attaining a collective goal: the longer people endure persecution, the stronger the group affinity that develops. Secondly, the nature of the revenge differs from those commonly found in Japanese vendetta stories. In almost all cases, revenge is exacted to redress wrongs committed towards one’s relatives. Thus, revenge is personal. In Chûshingura revenge occurs as an expression of loyalty to a political master, and the interests of relatives are subjugated to that objective. Revenge, in this instance, has a far more lofty goal than mere personal grievance. Thirdly, Chûshingura is a tremendous human drama involving many characters caught in a complex web of loyalties that demand devotion to and sacrifice for an altruistic cause. Perhaps this is the most powerful attraction in modern Japan. Certainly, Chûshingura occupies an incomparable place in Japan’s national culture because every adult knows the story.
(Bold Font marks the name by which the character is popularly known.)
Tadayoshi, younger brother of the shogun
Momonoi Wakasanosuke, daimyô (regional lord, subject to the shogun)
Enya Hangan and Kaoyo Gozen, husband and wife
Retainers (loyal and disloyal) + other loyal individuals:
Okaru, lover, then wife
Heiemon, brother of Okaru
Ono Sadakurô, former retainer; now a thief
Amakawaya Gihei, merchant loyal to Yuranosuke
Kô no Moronô, governor of Kamakura
Chûshingura is the only kabuki play borrowed from jôruri that retains the prologue style, which precedes Act 1, and is used in puppet theatre. The curtain is opened extremely slowly as a puppet, kneeling on top of a podium, ostentatiously clears its throat. A puppeteer, conventionally regarded as “invisible,” because he is dressed in black, manipulates the head, mouth and arms to amusing effect as the puppet “announces” the names of each character who appears in Act 1. The “announcement” has an ironic dimension because, as the puppet calls each name, a motionless character lifts its head and comes to life; the puppet has become a puppeteer and the characters, puppets!
The shogun has just defeated his enemy, Nitta Yoshisada. The governor of Kamakura, Kô no Moronô (Kira Yoshinaka), supervises the ceremony attended by the daimyô (regional lords) Momonoi Wakasanosuke and Enya Hangan. Hangan’s wife, Kaoyo Gozen, has been summoned to identify the helmet before its enshrinement in the temple. After the identification all depart except Moronô and Kaoyo. Moronô embraces Kaoyo from behind and places a love letter in her sleeve. She tilts her sleeve and allows the letter to drift to the ground. Moronô persists, threatening to harm Hangan’s reputation, until Wakasanosuke comes to Kaoyo’s rescue. Moronô abuses Wakasanosuke who almost draws his sword against Moronô but is saved by Tadayoshi, the shogun’s younger brother.
Affronted by Moronô’s behavior, Wakasanosuke discloses to Kakogawa Honzô, his old retainer, a resolve to kill Moronô. Honzô expresses his support by slicing a branch from a miniature pine tree. However, as soon as Wakasanosuke departs, Honzô rushes to Moronô’s mansion to arrange for an apology from Moronô. Honzô acts thus in order to forestall retribution (if Wakasanosuke does draw his sword) required under the shogun’s law: the enforced suicide of Wakasanosuke, the confiscation of all his assets, and the dispersal of his retainers.
Honzô catches up with Moronô’s palanquin on the way to the shogun’s palace. Moronô does not appear but delegates his retainer, Sagisaka Bannai who plays the role of a comic villain, to deal with Honzô. Bannai haughtily refuses to entertain any petition until Honzô slips a gold coin into his sleeve. Immediately, Bannai performs a volte-face and accepts presents from Honzô, who pretends that they are from Wakasanosuke, and the request for an apology from Moronô the next time he meets Wakasanosuke. Bannai, however, instructs his cohorts to kill Honzô at an opportune moment.
The comic villainy of Bannai provides relief prior to the dramatic intensification with the arrival of Wakasanosuke. Wakasanosuke leaves in frustration when Moronô welcomes him with a groveling apology. Hangan arrives to a hot-tempered accusation of lateness by Moronô, who is irritated at his own enforced apology. A box is delivered which contains a poem in which Kaoyo rebuffs Moronô’s advances once and for all. His anger intensified, Moronô thoroughly reviles and goads Hangan with insults. Provoked beyond measure, Hangan draws his sword and inflicts a slight wound to Moronô’s forehead. Honzô prevents further injury by emerging from a hiding place.
In a scene that is rarely performed other than as an act independent from the Chûshingura production, Kampei, distracted with his lover, Okaru, at the rear gate arrives too late to contain his master. Ashamed at his failure, Kampei decides to abscond with Okaru to her home in the country. The michiyuki (journey) scene is titled “The Fugitives,” a dance-drama with kiyomoto (shamisen) accompaniment and was added in 1833. Kampei routs an attempt by the lecherous Bannai, wearing comically outlandish makeup and kimono, and some constables, in gaudy costumes and using flowering cherry branches as swords, to halt the fleeing couple. Kampei defeats Bannai and the constables with consummate ease. Thereupon, Bannai uses his sword as a crutch and scurries away.
Two envoys arrive at Hangan’s mansion and deliver the shogun’s order for Hangan to commit suicide by disembowelment and for the confiscation of his estate. Attired in formal, pure white robes, Hangan ascends a temporary dais — an overturned tatami mat covered with a white cloth with sprigs of anise at each corner — and impatiently waits for Yuranosuke in whom he wishes to confide his dying wishes. Time runs out and Hangan stabs himself just as Yuranosuke rushes in from the hanamichi (rampway to the main stage). Hangan conveys his thirst for revenge on Moronô, and Yuranosuke subtly assents, all too aware of the envoys’ watching eyes. The envoys depart and Yuranosuke takes Hangan’s dagger. Kaoyo and her ladies-in-waiting enter to burn incense for the soul of Hangan. Kaoyo has cut her hair to become a nun and, in deference to the sadness of the occasion, none of the female roles wears rouge. Then Hangan’s corpse is placed in a litter and taken away to a temple. Meantime, his dispossessed retainers argue about their future. Ono Kudayû and Sadakurô connive to seize Hangan’s gold, while other retainers urge resistance to the shogun’s order to vacate the mansion. Once Kudayû and Sadakurô leave, Yuranosuke relays Hangan’s dying wishes to the remaining retainers who agree to vacate peaceably and to join the vendetta. After the retainers leave Yuranosuke brandishes Hangan’s dagger and swears vengeance.
Months afterward Kampei, who now earns his livelihood by hunting, is living with Okaru and her parents, Yoichibei and Okaya. One day, out hunting, he encounters another former member of the Hangan clan and learns, in a roundabout way, of the vendetta. Eager to join, Kampei is invited to contribute one hundred gold coins for the erection of a monument to Hangan; a test of his loyalty. The stage revolves and it is dark as Yoichibei enters on the hanamichi. He has, unbeknown to Kampei, obtained half the money by selling the willing Okaru to a brothel in the Kyoto. Ono Sadakurô steals up on him and kills him with a sword before taking the money. Kampei, hearing noise, mistakes it for a boar, shoots his musket and kills Sadakurô. Kampei cannot identify his victim because of the darkness but notices the moneybag and runs off with it. The actor Nakamura Nakazô I (1736-90) transformed the minor role of Sadakurô into a coveted part by appearing in the garb of a hardy mountain priest. He wore a black kimono tucked up at the rear, white body makeup, and a wig of half-grown hair. He also carried a torn umbrella with a bull’s-eye pattern. The effect was of an intimidating, murderous villain.
The brothel-keeper of the Ichiriki Teahouse in Kyoto arrives at Yoichibei’s home to collect Okaru and hand over the remaining fifty gold coins to Okaya. Kampei protests the sale until he notices that the moneybag offered by the brothel-keeper is identical to the one he has stolen from the corpse. He concludes that he must have killed Yoichibei, and resolves to commit suicide in atonement. The sadness of the moment is accentuated as Okaru is forced to part from both Kampei, her husband, and without a final farewell from Yoichibei, her father. Shortly afterward, hunters bring in Yoichibei’s corpse. Okaya grows suspicious at the evasiveness of Kampei’s answers concerning his hunting and, finally, seizes Kampei’s bloodstained moneybag. Okaya accuses him of murder and, then, two vendetta members arrive to announce the rejection by Yuranosuke of Kampei’s application. Quickly, Kampei grabs his dagger and stabs himself. One of the vendetta members examines Yoichibei’s corpse and discovers a sword wound. Furthermore, he announces that they have found the body of Sadakurô, the disloyal retainer, shot by Kampei. Kampei’s name is cleared, his name added to the vendetta list, and he seals the list with his own blood as he dies.
The gloom of the previous three acts lifts amidst the gaiety of the luxurious Ichiriki Teahouse where Yuranosuke pretends, under the watchful eyes of Moronô’s spies, to lead a life of debauchery without a thought of revenge. Yuranosuke’s deception fools Heiemon, Okaru’s brother, who arrives with three other former retainers, determined to join the vendetta. Rikiya, Yuranosuke’s son, delivers a scroll letter concerning Moronô’s movements from Kaoyo to Yuranosuke. Kudayû observes Rikiya’s secretiveness and concludes that Yuranosuke is committed to a vendetta. Kudayû tests Yuranosuke by inviting him to drink sake and to eat octopus; the latter was taboo given that the day marked the anniversary of Hangan’s death. Kudayû also spots the rustiness of Yuranosuke’s blade and is convinced that Yuranosuke is not involved in a vendetta. Everyone except for Yuranosuke appears to depart and, reclining on the upper level veranda of the stage, he starts to read the letter unwinding the scroll as he proceeds. Okaru strains with a mirror on a lower level to read and Kudayû, hiding underneath the veranda, also reads. Suddenly Yuranosuke realizes that Okaru and Kudayû are present. He catches Okaru’s eye and declares that he will ransom her. She joyfully tells Heiemon who has just entered, but Heiemon explains that Yuranosuke intends to kill her to preserve the secrecy of the vendetta. Heiemon announces that he will kill Okaru instead in order to demonstrate his own loyalty. Yuranosuke intervenes, praises both, and allows Heiemon to join the vendetta. Then Yuranosuke places his sword in Okaru’s hands and guides her in killing Kudayû.
Tonase and Konami, wife and daughter of Honzô, travel from Kamakura to Yuranosuke’s country estate at Yamashina, near Kyoto. They wish to discover the intentions of Yuranosuke’s family regarding the longstanding betrothal of Konami and Rikiya. This michiyuki (journey) dance scene contrasts the graceful dignity of the middle-aged Tonase with the innocence of the young Konami. This act is rarely performed.
Yuranosuke’s wife, Oishi, rejects Konami as Rikiya’s bride on the grounds that the bribe of Moronô by Honzô, Konami’s father, led to Hangan’s death. Tonase declares that she will kill Konami and herself in atonement. Tonase raises her sword to behead the supplicant, kneeling Konami when she is abruptly stopped by the sound of a flute played by a travelling monk, Honzô in disguise. Honzô goads Rikiya, by insulting Yuranosuke, into killing him. As Honzô dies he reveals that the provocation was intended so that he might atone for his part in Hangan’s death. Honzô provides a plan of Moronô’s mansion as a wedding gift, which Rikiya turns over to the vendetta.
Yuranosuke has involved Amakawaya Gihei, a merchant, in the vendetta so as to assemble weapons for the raid. Gihei has sent his wife to her father-in-law’s home so as to prevent her from knowing of his involvement. His father-in-law pesters him to divorce her so that he can marry her off to a wealthy man. At this moment some of Yuranosuke’s men arrive to test Gihei’s loyalty. Even when they threaten to kill his infant son unless he confesses the location of the weapons, Gihei remains steadfast. Yuranosuke then reveals himself and the fact that Gihei has passed the test. Yuranosuke abruptly cuts off the hair of Gihei’s wife and declares to the father-in-law that she cannot be married off because she has become a nun. This act is the most infrequently performed of the whole play.
Yuranosuke and the vendetta members break into Moronô’s mansion and discover Moronô hiding in a coal shed. They offer him the honorable course of suicide, but he attempts to escape. They decapitate him and, triumphantly parade through the city to place the head on Hangan’s grave. The act is notable for a series of tachimawari (fighting scenes).
Chûshingura is renowned for repeated tests of loyalty, and of demonstrations of self-sacrifice. Dramatically, it is replete with parallels and contrasts. The suicide of Hangan is formal and dignified, while that of Kampei is rushed and desperate. Wakasanosuke almost draws his sword; Hangan does and receives the absolute penalty. Whole families demonstrate that they are prepared to make tremendous sacrifices: in Act 6, Okaru and Kampei; in Act 9, Honzô’s family; and in Act 10, Gihei’s family. Chûshingura is also remarkable for visual spectacle, e.g. the veranda scene and the raid. And, like all good stories, the path to the climax is littered with uncertainties providing the reason for repeated loyalty tests.
(Okaru in the Ichiriki Teahouse Scene)
(Photographic sequence from the Ichiriki Teahouse Scene.)
Spencer Museum of Art
Collection of ukiyo-e (prints) illustrating the eleven acts of the play.
Waseda University Theatre Museum
Collection of ukiyo-e. Although the English subtitles are still in process, the prints are arranged from Acts 1 to 11 down the page and easy to recognize. Click on each ukiyo-e to enlarge.
Smith, Henry D. “Rethinking the Story of the 47 Rônin: Chûshingura in the 1980s.” New York: Columbia University, Modern Japan Seminar, April 13, 1990.
(Analysis of the reception of the play since its first performance.)
Keene, Donald (Trans. and Ed.). Chûshingura: The Treasury of Loyal Retainers. A Puppet Play by Takeda Izumo, Miyoshi Shôraku, and Namiki Senryû. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971.
Richie, Donald and Watanabe Miyoko (Trans.). Six Kabuki Plays. Tokyo, Hokuseido Press, 1963.
Brandon, James R. (Ed.). Chûshingura: Studies in Kabuki and the Puppet Theater. Honolulu: University Press of Hawai’i, 1982.
Shioya Sakae. Chûshingura: An Exposition. Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1956.