- Premiere: 1713, Yamamura-za
- Playwrights: Tsuuchi Jihei II and Tsuuchi Han'emon
- Japanese: 助六由縁江戸桜 (Sukeroku Yukari no Edo-zakura)
The story centers on Sukeroku, a samurai and otokodate, a prominent patron of the Yoshiwara, and especially of Agemaki, the top courtesan of the Miura-ya teahouse. Drawing upon elements of the classic Soga Monogatari, Sukeroku is later revealed to be Soga Gorô in disguise, working to seek out his father's killer and avenge his father's death.
The play is well-known for a number of iconic elements, including Sukeroku's purple headband, bullseye-pattern umbrella, and distinctive kumadori (face makeup) pattern. After the hero of Shibaraku, Sukeroku might be among the most recognizable characters in kabuki. In addition, Agemaki's wig and hair ornaments are among the most extensive, and may be the heaviest female wig arrangement in kabuki, weighing some 25-30 pounds.
The cast of the play typically includes over eighty actors, with the most prominent roles being:
- Sukeroku - a samurai, frequent patron of the Yoshiwara, especially of Agemaki of the Miura-ya, and a street tough, who often starts fights on the streets of the pleasure quarters. Secretly Soga Gorô
- Agemaki - the top courtesan of the Miura-ya, famous and popular throughout the district; she is known to be especially close to Sukeroku, but Ikyû has his eyes on her as well
- Ikyû - an older, bearded samurai who seeks to steal Agemaki away from Sukeroku
- Manko - Sukeroku's mother, disguised as a samurai
- Shinbei - Sukeroku's brother, secretly Soga Jûrô
- Kanpera Monbei - retainer to Ikyû
The play typically lasts two to three hours, depending on the version being performed. It opens with a drunken Agemaki being escorted in by a small entourage. They sit her down on a bench and give her some medicine to help sober her up, along with a letter that has just arrived from Sukeroku's mother, Manko. Manko writes that Sukeroku is supposed to be busy working on avenging his father's murder, and should not be dallying in the Yoshiwara, seeing courtesans and engaging in street brawls; she asks Agemaki to break things off with Sukeroku and to encourage him to get back to his task. But Agemaki says she cannot do this, as she loves Sukeroku too dearly.
An attendant appears and tells Agemaki that the samurai Ikyû is on his way to see her. He enters with a small entourage, as does the courtesan Shiratama. It becomes clear that Ikyû has already seen Agemaki a number of times in the past, and that he is a high-paying and well-known Yoshiwara patron. However, Agemaki dislikes him, and when he begins saying nasty things about Sukeroku, she berates him and exits, despite Shiratama's efforts to calm her down.
A shakuhachi plays, and Sukeroku enters on the hanamichi, swaggering jauntily and showily in wooden geta, performing a type of step, or walk, called tanzen roppô. He has one arm tucked inside his kimono, his umbrella over his shoulder, a purple headband tied to one side, the ends dangling down the right side of his face. He stops at shichi-san, and performs a number of poses and gestures meant to display his bravado, style, and charm. In total, his walk down the hanamichi and dance at shichi-san, known as a deha, takes about fifteen minutes, and is one of the chief highlights of the play, an opportunity for the star actor to show off, and for the audience to enjoy watching the star perform these dramatic poses, prideful walk, and charming character.
Courtesans and others fawn over him as soon as he enters, many offering him kiseru (pipes) to smoke. Ikyû, looking abandoned, his side of the stage relatively empty, declares that he'd like a smoke too, but Sukeroku, now possessing quite a few pipes, says they're all in use. He then offers Ikyû one with his foot, but Ikyû resists losing his temper.
One of Ikyû's retainers, Kanpera Monbei, comes out of the teahouse annoyed, wondering where the girl who was supposed to be entertaining him in the bath has gone. Sukeroku trounces him, and a number of Ikyû's other followers, declaring himself the best in both fighting and in love, and challenging Ikyû, who refuses to be provoked, insisting Sukeroku unworthy of his sword. He and his retainers enter the teahouse, leaving Sukeroku onstage outside.
A saké-seller named Shimbei shows up, and Sukeroku tries to start a fight with him, but Shimbei reveals himself to be Sukeroku's brother in disguise. He tries to get Sukeroku to stop provoking fights, reminding him of their quest to avenge their father's death, and revealing (to the audience) that the two are in fact Soga Gorô and Jûrô in disguise. Sukeroku explains to his brother, however, that he engages in streetbrawls here in the Yoshiwara so that he can see people's swords, in order to determine who it is that possesses the sword which killed their father. Understanding now, Shimbei (Jûrô) joins in, and the two begin picking fights with passersby, Sukeroku showing his brother how.
Sukeroku forces passersby to crawl between his legs, in a famous example of improvisation, or sutezerifu in kabuki. While many plays include short sections where one or two lines might be improvised, this entire section is left open for improvisation, which often includes contemporary references. For example, in one performance in 2008, the characters performed, briefly, a gag "sonna no kankei nai ("it's got nothing to do with that!") popularized around 2007-08 by comedian Kojima Yoshio.
Agemaki then enters with a samurai whose face is hidden by a large hat. Sukeroku tries to provoke a fight with this samurai, but is shocked to discover it is his mother, in disguise, who then scolds the two brothers for their behavior. Sukeroku explains himself, however, and their mother, Manko, is overjoyed to discover her son's devotion to the task of vengeance for their father's death. It is revealed that Ikyû is in fact Iga Heinaizaemon, an enemy of the family, and their father's killer.
Ikyû enters, and Sukeroku quickly hides beneath Agemaki's robes as she sits on a bench. Ikyû quickly finds him, however, and berates him, beating him with his cane and otherwise insulting him. He suggests that perhaps Sukeroku should give up on Agemaki and his shenanigans and that he and his brother should join Ikyû, forming an alliance which might even be powerful enough to take over the country. He seeks to demonstrate his metaphor of the power of three standing together by chopping off one leg from an incense burner, which then falls over, but too late realizes that in doing so he has revealed his sword. Sukeroku now knows for sure that Ikyû is the man he has been searching for: his father's killer.
The play often ends here, but sometimes continues with a final scene in which Sukeroku kills Ikyû and then hides from the police in a vat of water. Ichikawa Danjûrô VIII (1823-54) was quite idolized in his time, and when he performed this play, bottles of water from the vat he stepped in would later be sold to adoring fans.
History and Style
Though the plot of Sukeroku is largely fiction, some sources indicate that the characters, and plot, may have been inspired by reality. There may have been a Kyoto- or Osaka-based merchant named Sukeroku in the 1630s who was associated with a courtesan of the Kyoto Shimabara named Agemaki. Some accounts have it that Agemaki became a nun after her affair with Sukeroku, while others tell of a double suicide.
In any case, though the kabuki play as it is known today did not debut until 1713, the characters of Sukeroku and Agemaki appeared on the bunraku stage as early as 1678. Kamigata (Kansai) kabuki theatres soon afterward began to stage productions featuring the couple in love suicide stories, including Sennichi-dera Shinjû ("Love Suicide at Sennichi Temple") and Kyô Sukeroku Shinjû ("Kyoto Sukeroku Love Suicide").
The play as it is known today - the Edo Kabuki version associated with the Ichikawa family - was first developed by Ichikawa Danjûrô II, who witnessed performances of these Kamigata plays while touring in that part of the country, and who then brought it back to Edo, where he worked with popular writer Tsuuchi Jihei II, and Yamamura-za head playwright Tsuuchi Han'emon, to develop an Edo version. This then debuted in 1713, at the Yamamura-za, with Danjûrô, Tamazawa Rin'ya, Ikushima Shingorô and Yamanaka Heikurô I as Sukeroku, Agemaki, Shimbei the saké merchant, and Ikyû respectively.
Whereas in the Kamigata plays Sukeroku was often a merchant, Danjûrô made him a samurai, giving him a black kimono, red-yellow headband, and a pattern of black face makeup (today, chiefly red on a white foundation). Danjûrô, 26 years old at the time, performed the role in the distinctive aragoto fashion pioneered by his father. Danjûrô also added a number of characters who are now standard elements of the plot, including the fool Monbei, Sukeroku's brother Shinbei (secretly Soga Jûrô), their mother Manko, and the villain Ikyû, many of whom were based on real figures. Shinbei and the Noodle Vendor served initially as onstage advertisements for specific neighborhood merchants, as was a common practice in kabuki at the time, Shinbei being a reference to the asagao senbei ("Morning Glory Rice Crackers") sold by Fujiya Seizaemon. The noodle vendor, similarly, was introduced by Danjûrô III and named Ichikawa-ya, after an actual local noodle vendor; when the real-life noodle shop changed its name to Fukuyama, Danjûrô VII changed the character's name to Fukuyama as well. Ikyû, meanwhile, was based on the gangster Fukami Jûzaemon, also known as "Bearded Jikyû," who had in 1713 or so, at the time Danjûrô II was first adapting the story, recently returned from exile and who was thus a topic of conversation.
The close ties between the theatre and the broader community extended beyond such onstage references to real merchants. The play would often be performed with the hanamichi lined with real, blooming cherry trees donated to the theatre by the teahouses of the Yoshiwara, and actors playing the lead roles would often pay a visit to the Yoshiwara and offer gifts to the teahouses, receiving in exchange umbrellas, kiseru, lanterns, and other objects for use onstage and for distribution or sale to audience members following the production. The actors' visit was a fairly major affair involving a procession of many actors, and involved various traditions or rituals performed as part of the visit and of the offering of gifts; courtesans and others directly associated with the teahouses would also attend the performances at the kabuki theatres, and performed various customs even as audience members. When the actor playing Sukeroku addressed the audience as himself (the actor) in the role of the stage manager, the courtesans would clap along with him. This addressing of the audience, incidentally, is not unique to Sukeroku, but the play is distinctive in incorporating more improvisation, and more elements of the actor shedding the character and being himself, the actor, for certain parts of the performance.
In his second performance of the play, three years later, Danjûrô played Sukeroku in a somewhat gentler manner, incorporating elements of the Kamigata wagoto style in his performance. This was the first time that wagoto and aragoto elements were combined in the same character. Danjûrô also introduced at this time other elements which would later become quite standard, and even iconic. It was during this performance that he first wore a purple headband and carried as bullseye-patterned umbrella, today two of the most iconic props or costume elements in kabuki. Purple dye was among the most expensive of colors, and had previously been restricted almost exclusively to shogunal use. The connection to Soga Monogatari was added at this time as well.
Many variations on the play were later developed and performed throughout the Edo period, and down into more modern times. The famous onnagata Segawa Kikunojô appeared in the premiere of Onna Sukeroku ("Woman Sukeroku") at the Ichimura-za in 1764, a variation in which a female Sukeroku is not the man Soga Gorô in disguise, but rather Oiso no Tora, a courtesan who is the lover of one or the other of the two Soga brothers in many of the old stories. Three theatres were staging versions of the Sukeroku story at this time; such competitions would occur in later years as well, with each theatre using a different type, or school, of music, and different interpretations of the characters and story. As is the case with most kabuki plays, it would eventually settle into a single more-or-less standard form, though never becoming wholly static.
The following year (1765), the Morita-za debuted a dance drama version of the story which focused more heavily on Agemaki's kamuro (child attendants). The title "Sukeroku Yukari no Edo Zakura" first appeared in 1782, for a performance at the Ichimura-za starring Ichimura Uzaemon IX.
Sukeroku is quite unique, as well, in its use of the katôbushi style of musical accompaniment. This style has been used for Sukeroku since 1749, when it replaced the itchû bushi style originally used for the play; other versions of the play, employing tokiwazu or kiyomoto musical styles, are still sometimes performed today, having been composed, respectively, in 1870 for Onoe Kikugorô V and in 1915 for Kikugorô VI.
While it is quite typical in kabuki for a combination of different styles of shamisen and chanting, such as kiyomoto and nagauta, to be used within a single play (often switching between styles numerous times within a single scene), Sukeroku is the only play in the current repertoire to make use of katôbushi music (which it employs alongside kiyomoto and nagauta). Due in large part to the unique traditions of the katôbushi style, which employs amateur performers alongside professionals, Sukeroku is the only play in which amateur performers appear on stage having been granted professional status just for the duration of the performance; it is also one of the only plays in which female musicians perform onstage, and the only play in which an actor onstage formally requests the musicians to play. During the Edo period, katôbushi was especially popular in the Yoshiwara, even after its popularity in the theatre world waned. As part of the close ties between the theatres and the pleasure districts, katôbushi musicians from the Yoshiwara (i.e. not performers professionally associated with the kabuki theatres) competed for the honor of being invited to perform onstage in productions of Sukeroku. This was a great honor, and source of pleasure for the musicians offered this rare opportunity. Unlike in most plays, where the musicians perform behind a kuromisu screen in one corner or end of the stage, in Sukeroku, they are more fully and more centrally onstage, albeit still hidden behind a screen. This helps simulate, or recall, the idea of courtesans on display in the front windows of teahouses, allows these amateur musicians to more easily see Sukeroku's grand hanamichi entrance that is a highlight of the play, and grants them more fully the honor and pleasure of being "on stage" for the performance.
The Ichikawa family secured its control over the play in 1832, and some histories trace the current version of the play back to this year, rather than to any earlier date. As the play is extremely popular, other families have developed their own versions, such as Sukeroku Kuruwa no Momoyogusa performed by the Onoe Kikugorô line of actors. However, only the Ichikawa family uses the title Sukeroku Yukari Edo Zakura, and various stylistic elements only appear in this version of the play.
- Blumner, Holly, Julie Iezzi, Alice Luhrmann, and Kathy Welch (eds.). 101 Years of Kabuki in Hawai'i. Honolulu: University of Hawaii at Manoa, 1994.
- Brandon, James, William Malm, and Donald Shively (eds.). Studies in Kabuki. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1978.
- Omoto, Lisa Ann M. and Kathy Welch. "Kabuki Spectacle." in 101 Years of Kabuki in Hawai'i. pp50-54.
- Constantine Vaporis, "A Hero for the Masses: The Kabuki Play Sukeroku: Flower of Edo (1713)," in Vaporis (ed.), Voices of Early Modern Japan, Westview Press (2012), 195.
- "Sukeroku." Kabuki21.com. Accessed 4 June 2011.
- Cavaye, Ronald, Paul Griffith, and Akihiko Senda. A Guide to the Japanese Stage: From Traditional to Cutting Edge. New York: Kodansha International, 2004. pp135-136.
- Brandon, James. "Form in Kabuki Acting." in Studies in Kabuki. p89.
- Brandon. "Form in Kabuki Acting." p94.
- Brandon. "Form in Kabuki Acting." p106.
- Blumner, Holly and Naoko Maeshiba. "Sukeroku: A History." in 101 Years of Kabuki in Hawai'i. pp42-44.
- Maeshiba, Naoko. "About the Play." "Sukeroku: The Flower of Edo." Theater Program. Kennedy Theatre, University of Hawaii at Manoa, March 1995. p9.
- Iezzi, Julie. "Sounding Out Kabuki: Music Behind the Scenes." in 101 Years of Kabuki in Hawai'i. pp45-48.
- "Kaisetsu to midokoro" (解説と見どころ, "Highlights and Commentary"). Rokugatsu Ôkabuki (六月大歌舞伎, "The June Grand Kabuki"). Theatre Program. Tokyo: Kabuki-za, June 2004. p63.
- A full translation of a typical version of the play can be found in: James Brandon, Kabuki: Five Classic Plays. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992. pp49-92.