Ehon Gappo Ga Tsuji: A Kabuki Drama of Unfettered Evil by Tsuruya Nanboku IV

Article excerpt

Early nineteenth-century Japanese theatre was dominated by the kabuki playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV, who seized on the fascination with evil and the vendetta in contemporary literature to create a new type of kabuki play. This genre--of which Ehon Gappo ga Tsuji is the finest example--focuses on the role types of the handsome young villain (iroaku) and wicked woman (akuba).

Paul Kennelly holds a Ph.D. in kabuki theatre from the University of Sydney and is pursuing research at the Waseda University Theatre Museum. Two of his kabuki translations are scheduled far publication in the forthcoming Kabuki Plays On-Stage series edited by James R. Brandon and Samuel L. Leiter.

Ehon Gappo ga Tsuji (An Illustrated Picture Book of the Crossroads of Gappo), largely written by the kabuki playwright Tsuruya Nanboku (1755-1829), was first produced at the Ichimura-za, Edo, in 1810. [1] The play, an outstanding adauchi kyogen (revenge play), captures the incipient fascination of Kasei-period (1804-1830) literary culture with extreme cruelty and cynicism, and epitomizes kabuki's representation of evil. [2]

Adauchi kyogen enjoyed enormous popularity from the Genroku period (1688-1704) onward because of the esteem in which the vendetta was held as a didactic demonstration of absolute loyalty to the samurai warrior code. Typically a villain would slay a decent person, the dead person's family would plan vengeance, and a series of trials would befall the aggrieved family before vengeance would ultimately triumph. Theatre--and, from the 1760s, popular fiction (gesaku)--treated the subject with dignity and sometimes delicate humor. The Tokugawa regime applied the concept of absolute loyalty in the form of a social contract in exchange for a guarantee of stable and benevolent rule. The unprecedented economic hardship of the late eighteenth century onward, which caused inflation to erode fixed stipends, forced many samurai to renounce their rank in search of work. This led to widespread unemployment, crime, and poverty. Economic uncertainty shattered the social contract.

From the beginning of the Kasei period, gesaku avoided didacticism since the vendetta was susceptible to criminal perversion in a society on the path to breakdown. In particular, gesaku increasingly emphasized the brutal unpredictability of the vendetta world in a strikingly successful campaign to broaden its appeal to a newly educated mass readership. Publishers promoted a new, multivolume genre, the gokan, which reduced the size of text to accentuate sadistic illustrations. In 1806, Ishikawa Masamochi (1753-1830) published a book indicative of the anarchic trend entitled Nanayaku Hayagawari/Katakiuchi-ki Oboeta Konu (Have You Remembered to Record Your Vendetta: Quick Changes by Seven Actors). [3] In a chapter entitled "Gokan Sakufu no Kokoroe no Koto" (Information for Writing in the Style of the Gokan), Masamochi emphasized that loyal acts ought to be accompanied by cruelty. Another chapter, entitled "Danjo-tomo Kyoaku no Koto" (Fiendish Acts by Both Men and Women), was banned. He concluded with the commen t: "The good know that the villain has not died and that summer will not prove auspicious" (Gunji 1991, 178). Masamochi's observations appear to have reflected the popular appetite for cruelty and cynicism.

The prototype vendetta gokan was Kaminari Taro Goaku Monogatari: Asakusa Kannon Riyaku no Adauchi (The Villainous Tale of Kaminari Taro: A Vendetta for the Profit of Asakusa's Kannon), written by Shikitei Sanba (1776-1822) in 1806. [4] Its outstanding commercial success emboldened publishers to apply unrelenting pressure to other authors to write vendetta gokan. The popularity of vendetta gokan did not abate until 1810 or 1811 (Markus 1992, 68). Even Nanboku dabbled with the genre under the pen name Uba Josuke. In 1808 he wrote Kinpira Gorisho: Katakiuchi Noriai-banashi (For Our Benefit from Kinpira: A Tale of Riding Together on a Vendetta) and followed in 1809 with Katakiuchi Koko wa Takasago (A Vendetta Here in Takasago). …