English Top  > Kabuki "Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura" Synopsis


Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura
(Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees)

by Takeda Izumo, Miyoshi Shōraku and Namiki Senryū



Tokaiya Ginpei, actually Shin Chūnagon Tomomori
Igami no Gonta
Satō Tadanobu, actually the magical fox Genkurō
Satō Tadanobu, Yoshitsune’s retainer
      ………………………………………………………………… Onoe Kikunosuke
Minamoto no Yoshitsune  …………………………… Nakamura Ganjirō
Musashibō Benkei
Hayami no Tōda …………………………………………… Bandō Kamezō
Oryū, Ginpei’s wife, actually Suke no Tsubone
Yasuke, actually Taira no Koremori
Shizuka Gozen, Yoshitsune’s lover
(“Kawatsura Hōgen Yakata” scene)  ………… Nakamura Baishi
Kokingo, Koremori’s retainer
Suruga no Jirō, Yoshitsune’s retainer
(“Kawatsura Hōgen Yakata” Scene)  ………… Nakamura Mantarō
Kataoka no Hachirō, Yoshitsune’s retainer
       ………………………………………………………………… Ichimura Takematsu
Shizuka Gozen, Yoshitsune’s lover (“Torii Mae” scene)
Osato, Yazaemon’s daughter ……………………… Nakamura Yonekichi
Kajiwara’s retainer  ……………………………………… Ichimura Hikaru
Oyasu, Ginpei’s daughter, actually the child emperor Antoku
       ………………………………………………………………… Onoe Ushinosuke
The landlord Sakubē  …………………………………… Nakamura Jūjirō
Sagami no Gorō
Yazaemon’s wife Okura   ……………………………… Ichimura Kitsutarō
Wakaba no Naishi, Koremori’s wife……………… Kamimura Kichiya
Kajiwara Heizō Kagetoki
Kawatsura Hōgen…………………………………………… Kawarasaki Gonjūrō
Kawatsura Hōgen’s wife Asuka …………………… Ichimura Manjirō
Sushiya Yazaemon ………………………………………… Ichikawa Danzō
Shizuka Gozen, Yoshitsune’s lover (“Michiyuki” scene)
        ………………………………………………………………… Nakamura Tokizō


   Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura was first performed at the Takemoto-za in Osaka as a puppet play in 1747. It is one of the great run of plays produced in just a few years that include Kanadehon Chūshingura (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers) and Sugawara denju Tenarai Kagami (Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy), all by the same team of playwrights. Although Yoshitsune is a pivotal figure in this play, the dramatic center is around three other characters, Tomomori, Gonta and the magical fox Tadanobu.
   There are many legends about Minamoto no Yoshitsune. A brilliant general, he was largely responsible for the victory of the Genji clan over the Heike clan during a long series of war in the 12th century. But after the wars that made his brother Yoritomo shogun, Yoritomo began to suspect Yoshitsune of treason and Yoshitsune was forced to flee Kyoto where he was managing the affairs of the shogunate and became a fugitive.
   Yoshitsune is not the center of the action in most of the play, but the plight of the three main characters underscores the themes of his tragedy. They are held together by two scenes at the beginning of the play that will not be performed today. The play is set after the long wars between the Genji and Heike clans. In the opening, the retired emperor congratulates Yoshitsune and gives him the treasured Hatsune drum that he has long wanted. The drum is made from the skins of magical foxes and is a great treasure of the imperial court. But the drum is also a veiled order to Yoshitsune. If the front skin is considered to be the older brother and the back skin the younger brother, playing it means hitting the front skin. By extension, this suggests that Yoshitsune should strike Yoritomo and take power himself. Yoshitsune decides that he will accept the treasure, but never play it himself, thus avoiding the trap.
   Yoshitsune is also accused of presenting false heads for three top members of the Heike clan: Tomomori, Koremori and Noriyori. When questioned about this by a representative of the Kamakura shogunate, Yoshitsune says that he reported the three dead to keep the country at peace and is quietly searching for them. The three emerge in the play and in today’s program, we will see the stories of Tomomori and Koremori.
   Tomomori was one of the most important generals of the Heike clan, the son of Kiyomori, the despotic head of the Heike clan. He is the main figure in a famous noh play, Funa Benkei, or “Benkei in the Boat.” As Yoshitsune was attempting to flee to Kyushu, first he encountered his lover Shizuka, who longed to go with him, but was persuaded to stay by Benkei. Then, when Yoshitsune went out in a boat, the ghost of Tomomori appeared to avenge the end of the Heike clan. The ghost is only warded off by the magical spells of Yoshitsune’s retainer, the warriorpriest Benkei, who rattled his prayer beads at the ghost. The puppet play reworks many of the themes of this noh play.
   Koremori was the hapless grandson of Kiyomori. He is said to have died by taking a boat from the shore near the Kumano shrine to get to the Buddhist paradise; a way of committing suicide. Koremori’s son Rokudai also appears in this act. The name “Rokudai” means “sixth generation” and means that he is the sixth generation of the line of the head of the Heike clan since its founding. In history, the Genji clan treated this boy very severely and hunted him down and insisted on his death to prevent any chance of the restoration of the Heike clan.
   In this play Koremori lives and is hiding in a sushi shop. Gonta is the villainous son of the proprietor of the sushi shop. The villainous Gonta has a dramatic change of character from villain to hero during the course of his scene. The kabuki tradition transforms this Kansai character into a stylish Edo-style character.
   Foxes are thought to be magical creatures and are messengers of the gods. In addition, there is a tradition that a fox that lives for a thousand years becomes totally white and has great magical powers. This is a tradition that is followed in the scenes about Tadanobu and is a great opportunity for a great variety of spectacular stage tricks dating back to the Edo period. In addition, there are techniques for holding the hands to resemble paws, a special way of speaking and moving, all to evoke a magical fox.
   This month’s performance features Onoe Kikunosuke taking on all three key roles of Tomomori, Gonta and Tadanobu. The play is divided into three programs with performances of two sections a day. The first section begins Yoshitsune’s life as a fugitive and largely focuses on Tomomori. The second section focuses on Gonta and features the famous “Sushiya” scene. The third section focuses on the magical fox Tadanobu. It begins with a michiyuki travel scene where Shizuka and Tadanobu encounter the comic villain Hayami no Tōda, which is a bit odd, since Tadanobu kills him in the first section. But it culminates in the famous scene known as “Shi no Kiri,” or “End of the Fourth Act” where the lead actor plays both the real Tadanobu and the fox Tadanobu with a spectacular set of stage tricks.


In front of the gate of the Fushimi Inari shrine

   Yoshitsune has been acting for the shogunate as its representative in Kyoto, but the shogun Yoritomo suspects him of treason. Finally, Yoritomo sends men to attack Yoshitsune’s mansion. Yoshitsune and his men flee and even Yoshitsune’s lover Shizuka Gozen fights valiently.
   As the scene begins, Yoshitsune and his men have come as far as the Fushimi Inari shrine outside of Kyoto, a shrine dedicated to sacred foxes. Shizuka catches up with them and is angry with Yoshitsune for leaving her behind. But their journey is dangerous, and they cannot take a woman along. She clings to Yoshitsune and finally he is forced to tie her up to keep her from going with them. They tie her up using the cords of the Hatsune drum. But she is discovered by the enemy, the general Hayami no Tōda, who has long lusted after her. But Yoshitsune’s retainer Satō Tadanobu stops him. In fact, this Tadanobu is actually a magical fox in disguise, attracted by the skins of the Hatsune drum, the skins of his fox parents. In this scene, Tadanobu is played in the bombastic aragoto style with exaggerated costume, wig and make-up to express his great strength. Tadanobu handily crushes Tōda. Yoshitsune and his men have been watching and thank Tadanobu. Yoshitsune rewards him by granting his name, Genkurō and a set of his armor on Tadanobu. Yoshitsune plans to go to Kyushu and asks Tadanobu to take care of Shizuka. He also gives Shizuka the precious drum, telling her to think of it as Yoshitsune. Yoshitsune and his men and Shizuka and Tadanobu go their separate ways. Tadanobu exits with a powerful aragoto roppō jump-step.

The Tokaiya Boathouse

   At a busy boathouse near the Daimotsu Bay (present day Hyogo Prefecture), Sagami no Gorō and his retainer Irie Tanzō appear saying that they have been sent by the shogun in Kamakura to pursue Yoshitsune and demand a boat. Oryū, the wife of the boatman Ginpei, says that she cannot do that because their boats must go to the customers waiting in the back room. Gorō is furious and is about to go to the customers in the back directly to demand the boats. At this point, Ginpei himself appears and says that he cannot let these samurai push him around. He twists Gorō’s sword, so it looks like a fishhook and Gorō and Tanzō leave with a threatening speech full of comic puns on different kinds of fish. Ginpei is glad to get rid of them and says that the weather will soon improve, and he can take the customers in the back out in his boat tonight.
   In fact, the customers are Yoshitsune and his men who are waiting for a boat to help them to get to Kyushu. He is impressed with Ginpei’s bravery and wishes that he could make him a samurai. The boatmen come and say that everything is ready and take Yoshitsune and his men to the boat. Oryū calls her daughter, Oyasu and tells her to stay here while her father goes out in the boat. She wonders why Ginpei is taking so long to get ready. But when Ginpei appears, it is under his true identity as the Heike general Tomomori. He is dressed in silvery-white robes to look like a ghost. His wife Oryū is actually the imperial court woman Suke no Tsubone and they are protecting the child emperor Antoku, who lives with them disguised as their daughter Oyasu. Tomomori has long waited for an opportunity to avenge the destruction of his clan by killing Yoshitsune and tonight is his chance. Sagami no Gorō and Irie Tanzō are actually his men and he had them pretend to be warriors from Kamakura in order to get Yoshitsune to trust him. Tomomori is sure that they will win, but he tells Suke no Tsubone to watch the boat. If the torches go out, that is a sign that they have been defeated and he tells her to see that the emperor does not fall into enemy hands. As the scene ends, the child emperor exchanges a toast with Tomomori as a prayer for victory and Tomomori goes off to battle, his warriors disguised as dead men.

Daimotsu Bay

   Now Suke no Tsubone, the child emperor and her serving ladies wear magnificent court robes that contrast with their humble setting. They wait anxiously for the results of the battle. At this point Sagami no Gorō appears. In a speech mixed with dance gestures he describes how they disguised themselves as the ghosts of the defeated Heike clan and attacked Yoshitsune, but the enemy seemed to be prepared for them and the battle is not going well. Gorō returns to fight together with Tomomori to the end. Suke no Tsubone and the others are worried and watch the boats as gradually all the lights go out, showing that Tomomori has been defeated. Then Irie Tanzō appears. He tells how they fought on the boat in the stormy seas, but eventually Tomomori and the other men jumped into the sea. Suke no Tsubone must prepare for the end. Tanzō commits ritual suicide, but grabs some of the enemy and drags them into the sea with him. Suke no Tsubone explains to the child emperor that the world is now a frightful place, ruled by the Genji clan. She will now take him to a beautiful palace beneath the waves and there he will rejoin his mother and all the members of the Heike clan. But just as she is ready to jump into the sea, Yoshitsune’s men stop them.
   The scene changes to another part of the coast. The wounded Tomomori searches for the emperor and Suke no Tsubone. Yoshitsune and his men appear with Suke no Tsubone and the child emperor. Yoshitsune praises Tomomori’s warrior spirit and promises to take good care of the emperor. But Tomomori vows to be reborn again and again until he avenges the end of the Heike clan. However, the child emperor thanks Tomomori for protecting him and says that he will now accept Yoshitsune’s protection. Suke no Tsubone is moved by the wisdom of her charge and, now that she sees that her job is over, commits suicide. Tomomori says that he is already in hell. He says that under the waves he sees the angry spirits of the dead Heike warriors and all the court men and women that died in battle. Tomomori knows that he cannot live with these wounds and prepares to die. He asks Yoshitsune to take care of the child emperor and not to tell anyone that he encountered the living Tomomori. He should tell everyone that he fought with the ghost of Tomomori on the way to Kyushu. Finally, Tomomori ties the rope of an enormous anchor around his body and throws the anchor into the sea. He clasps his hands in prayer until the anchor drags him down into the waves.

Shimoichi Village: The Horse Chestnut Tree

   Wakaba no Naishi, the wife of the Heike aristocrat Koremori, had been living in a quiet retreat in Saga, just outside of Kyoto, with her young son Rokudai, but she heard that Koremori was alive and living on holy Mt. Koya. She has come searching for him, protected by their young retainer Kokingo. As they stop to rest at a roadside tea stall, Wakaba no Naishi asks Osen, the proprietress to buy some medicine for her son. Osen easily agrees and goes off with her own son. Rokudai amuses himself by gathering chestnuts. A passing traveler tells him that the nuts that have fallen are full of insects. He throws a stone into the tree to knock down chestnuts and helps Rokudai to gather them before going off, taking Kokingo’s bundle instead of his own. After he is gone, Kokingo notices the mistake. The traveler returns and they exchange the bundles again. But suddenly, the traveler says that he had twenty gold coins in this bundle and they are gone now. Kokingo knows this is a lie, but finally, he is forced to pay. They leave before anything else happens.
   At this point, Osen emerges. In fact, this traveler is her husband Gonta, known throughout the area for his villainy. Even though Gonta is the son of Sushiya Yazaemon, one of the wealthiest and most prestigious men in the village, he has been disowned for his crimes. Osen berates him for extorting money from Kokingo, but Gonta shows no sign of remorse. He does, however, have a soft spot for his son Zenta. He takes away the boy’s whistle saying that this is only fit for blind masseurs. Gonta plans to try to get some money from his home as well and then go gambling, but decides to postpone this for a while and goes home with his wife and son first.

Shimoichi Villlage: A Bamboo Forest and the Death of Kokingo

   Since Wakaba no Naishi is related to the enemy Heike clan, they have been followed and attacked. Kokingo fights off the attackers, searching for Wakaba no Naishi and Rokudai. Kokingo is attacked by a Kamakura warrior, whom he manages to kill, but he is mortally wounded in the process. He encourages Wakaba no Naishi and Rokudai and tells them to search for Koremori. But after they leave, he dies as well. A group of commoners appears and asks Sushiya Yazaemon why he was called by the local official. He replies vaguely and sees them on their way. He encounters Kokingo’s dead body and makes a terrible decision. He decides to use Kokingo’s head as a substitute for the fugitive that he is sheltering in his house.

Shimoichi Village: The Tsurube Sushiya

   The kind of sushi in this shop is the original kind, with fish pressed on hot rice and then left to sit until the fish ferments and flavors the rice. The original head of the Heike clan, Kiyomori, was famous for his greed and cruelty, but his son Shigemori was just as famous for being wise and merciful. Koremori is Shigemori’s son and since Yazaemon, the proprietor of the sushi shop owes a great debt of gratitude to Shigemori, he is sheltering Koremori here, in the guise of his servant Yasuke.
   As the scene opens, Yazaemon’s daughter Osato is taking care of the store. Yasuke returns with some buckets used for sushi, but as a delicate court aristocrat, this physical labor is very difficult for him. Osato has been betrothed to him and they are to be formally married tonight. Osato says that he should start treating her like his wife and gives him some lessons in what he should do. Finally, the young couple finds a moment of intimacy when, much to Osato’s distress, her brother Gonta arrives. He wants to find some way of getting some money. But when his mother appears and says that Gonta has a lot of nerve to come home when he has been disowned, he tries a different approach. He says that the money he was going to use to pay his taxes was stolen and he will have to die to atone. She knows he is probably lying, but agrees to give him money. Gonta picks the lock on the money cabinet to get the money out. But just as he is about to leave with it, he sees his father and hides the money in an empty sushi tub.
   Yazaemon returns and quietly hides the head in another empty sushi tub. When Yasuke welcomes him home, Yazaemon has him sit in the seat of honor and Yasuke changes from a humble servant to the distinguished court noble Koremori. Yazaemon explains how he has been indebted to Koremori’s family and is hiding him here. Osato is very fond of him and Yazaemon will have them marry, in his heart, offering up Osato to his service. However, the Genji authorities now know where Koremori is and soon he must go retreat to another house that Yazaemon owns up in the mountains. Osato appears and Yazaemon tells her to sleep here with Yasuke. He and his wife will sleep in the back, so the new husband and wife can be alone together. Osato tries to get Yasuke to go to sleep, saying that all the neighbors are asleep, even the moon is asleep. Finally, she goes to sleep behind a screen. Alone, Koremori says that he did not mind being intimate with Osato, but as a man with wife and child, he does not feel that it is right to exchange vows of marriage with Osato. At this point, Wakaba no Naishi and Rokudai appear and by chance, ask at the sushi shop for shelter. Koremori is surprised to see his wife and son and hears of all the troubles they have encountered and why he is here. From behind the screen Osato cries out in anguish. She heard everything and apologizes for having fallen so deeply in love with Koremori, not knowing his true identity and never suspecting that he was such an exalted personage. A messenger appears saying that the Genji general Kajiwara Kagetoki will arrive soon and Osato urges Yasuke and his family to hide in Yazaemon’s house. They no sooner leave than Gonta comes out. He has heard everything and will turn in Koremori for a hefty reward. He goes running to inform on Koremori, but then remembers the money, grabs the sushi tub and goes running off. In a panic, Osato tells her father what has happened and Yazaemon grabs his sword and goes to stop Gonta.
   But on his way, Yazaemon is encounters the procession of Kajiwara Kagetoki and is pushed back. Suddenly, Gonta appears with a head in a sushi tub and a woman and child. He claims that it is the head of Koremori and that this is his wife Wakaba no Naishi and son Rokudai. Kajiwara asks to see the faces of the prisoners and Gonta lifts up the woman’s face with his foot. Satisfied, Kajiwara takes the head and orders the prisoners led away. Gonta begs for a reward and Kajiwara gives him an embroidered battle coat. It is a gift from Yoritomo himself and Gonta can go anytime to Kamakura and exchange it for money. As the procession leaves, Gonta watches longingly after it. Enraged at the depth of treachery of his son, Yazaemon stabs Gonta. But as he dies, Gonta reveals that the head he presented to Kajiwara was not Koremori’s, but was the head that Yazaemon brought home. By accident, Gonta took the wrong sushi tub and realized what his father was attempting to do. He knew that Kajiwara would never be fooled by a head with a forelock of hair when he knew full well that Koremori had his head shaved and was disguised as a servant. So Gonta shaved the head. Yazaemon still suspects that Gonta turned over Wakaba no Naishi and Rokudai to Kajiwara, but Gonta reveals that it was actually his own wife and son. His wife was happy to sacrifice her life since she knew that this was the only way she could ever get Gonta to reform. He asks his mother to blow the whistle that he took from his son. At the sound, Koremori, Wakaba no Naishi and Rokudai appear, shocked to see Gonta mortally wounded. Even though their lives have been saved, they have not succeeded in attacking the Genji clan and make do by attacking the coat of Yoritomo, the shogun. A priest’s cape and prayer beads fall out. Yoritomo knew what was happening all the time and this is his way of urging Koremori to become a priest and take refuge on holy Mt. Koya. Both Wakaba no Naishi and Osato want to go with him, but Koremori orders his wife to return to Kyoto and for Osato to take care of her parents. As Gonta dies, all lament this final parting of husband and wife, parents and child.

Michiyuki Travel Scene, “Traveling with the Hatsune Drum in the Mountains of Yoshino”

   Shizuka and Tadanobu have heard that Yoshitsune has been turned back from going to Kyushu and instead, is taking refuge in the mountains of Yoshino. But as they travel, Tadanobu disappears. Shizuka plays the Hatsune drum and mysteriously, Tadanobu reappears. He apologizes for being late. They look at the spring landscape and have a romantic scene, at one point imitating paper dolls of the emperor and empress that are used as decorations for the doll festival. Tadanobu suggests that they pretend that they are still with Yoshitsune by bringing out Yoshitsune’s armor and Shizuka joins in by placing the precious drum on top to represent her lover’s face. Tadanobu recalls that Yoshitsune’s special feeling for him comes from the fact that Tadanobu’s brother (that is, the real Tadanobu) Tsuginobu saved Yoshitsune’s life at the sacrifice of his own.
   In a dance narrated by both the Takemoto and Kiyomoto music ensembles, Tadanobu thinks of the battle of Dan-no-Ura where the Heike clan met its end and then recalls the battle of Yashima where his brother Tsuginobu died. The battle began with the fight between the powerful Heike warrior Kagekiyo and the Genji warrior Mionoya no ShirTō. They fought until their swords broke and then Kagekiyo grabbed the bottom flap of Mionoya helmet. The two warriors were so evenly matched that they could not move and finally the flap of the helmet tore off. The two warriors laughed in admiration of the strength of their rivals as the battle began around them in earnest. At this point Satō Tsuginobu saw that Yoshitsune was in danger and shielded him. Tsuginobu was killed by an arrow fired by the powerful Heike warrior Noritsune, lord of Noto and Tsuginobu’s name will go down in history as the model of a loyal retainer.
   As they mourn, they are stopped by Hayami no Tōda, a retainer of the villains, who also lusts after Shizuka. There is a comical, dance-like fight and Tadanobu handily defeats Tōda and all his men, manipulating them with his fox magic. The dance ends as Shizuka and Tadanobu continue their journey to Yoshino, but Tadanobu again reveals that he is actually a magical fox, attracted by the Hatsune drum.

The Mansion of Kawatsura Hōgen

   In the deep mountains of Yoshino, Yoshitsune has taken refuge in this mansion and is protected by the priests of the mountain.
   At this point, a messenger says that Satō Tadanobu has come to see Yoshitsune. Tadanobu explains that he has been away taking care of his sick mother. Yoshitsune thanks him for taking care of Shizuka, but Tadanobu has no idea what he is talking about. He has no memory of receiving Yoshitsune’s name or his armor. Furious, Yoshitsune is about to imprison him as a traitor when a messenger says that Shizuka and Tadanobu have arrived. When Shizuka arrives, mysteriously the Tadanobu that was with her has disappeared and she is surprised to see that he has already arrived. But Tadanobu says that he only just arrived and has not seen Shizuka in a long time. Finally, Shizuka realizes that this Tadanobu is different. Yoshitsune asks whether anything strange happened on their journey. Shizuka explains that whenever she played the drum, Tadanobu seemed to enjoy the sound so much that he looked intoxicated. Whenever he would disappear, if she played the drum, he would appear instantly. Yoshitsune says that Shizuka must play the drum and find out the true identity of the second Tadanobu. He gives her a sword to protect herself. Shizuka comes and plays the drum and Tadanobu appears mysteriously. She attempts to attack him with the sword and finally Tadanobu confesses. He is not the real Tadanobu. He has borrowed this form to be close to the Hatsune drum, made from the skin of his fox parents. Shizuka realizes that she has been actually traveling with a fox and immediately Tadanobu appears in his true form. With the fast, high-pitched speech that represents foxes, Tadanobu explain that his parents were very powerful, magic foxes and their skins were made into a drum which could bring rain. But until recently, the drum was hidden in the depths of the imperial palace and he could not approach. When the retired emperor gave the drum to Yoshitsune, this was his chance, but he laments that he has brought suspicion of treason onto the real Tadanobu. Yoshitsune emerges from the back and praises the fox, but ashamed of his actions, the fox disappears. Yoshitsune tells Shizuka to play the drum again to call him back, but the drum will not sound. It is mourning for the fox as well. Yoshitsune laments that this fox has such strong family feeling, while he has been hated and abandoned by his own brother. He wonders what fate has brought the two of them together. Again, the fox appears and Yoshitsune bestows the treasured drum on him as a reward for caring for Shizuka. Ecstatic, the fox gratefully accepts the drum. He listens to the sound of the drum and says that his parents report that Yoshitsune is about to be attacked by warrior priests. As the scene ends, the fox Tadanobu handily defeats the priests using his fox magic.
(Text by Mark Oshima)

   (Due to last-minute production changes, there may be some differences between the events on stage and this synopsis.)