Kabuki Takes Flight to Himeji Castle

by Melanie C. Redmond

Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle - the spectacular white heron

Love and death; vindictive royalty; two-sword fencing; the fight against evil darkness. All are complex elements of Nakamura Kichiemon's new kabuki play, A Strange Tale at White Heron Castle, to be performed on October 22 and 23 at Himeji Castle in Hyogo-ken to celebrate Himeji city's 110th anniversary as a municipality.

Two summers ago, Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima, a World Heritage site, hosted a special kabuki performance by Nakamura Kankuro and his son. On a special stage constructed over the water, the drama unfolded, enchanting theatregoers in this magical setting. One year later on the same stage, master actor Nakamura Kichiemon and his troupe performed their original play, A Sorrowful Dragon Rises from Setouchi-Fujito. Both performances were widely-acclaimed successes. This year, the venue moves to Himeji Castle, another World Heritage site. The drama of both the stage and setting is sure to delight kabuki fans once again.

KabukiKabuki is a form of traditional theatre that began in the early seventeenth century by a woman shrine dancer from Izumo named Okuni. At that time, the word kabuki meant something shocking or different, as indeed Okuni's lively dances were. The shogunate soon banned women from the stage, claiming civil unrest due to patron disputes over the women's "favors." Ever since, kabuki has been the domain of male actors who play all the roles. Kabuki blends acting, dance and music together in highly stylized dramas. The plays are based on legends and historical events, which often include the conflict between humanity and the feudalistic system and moral conflicts in love.

Himeji Castle promises to be a stunning backdrop for the performances this year. One of the few castles to survive WWII in its original state, it is the largest and most spectacular in Japan. The five-storied main donjon, or keep, together with three smaller donjons and the fact that it is perched on the highest hill in Himeji give the castle the effect (from any angle) of a majestic white heron ready to take flight. Hence its nickname, White Heron Castle. For the evening performance the castle will be illuminated, creating a magnificent sight in the night sky.

Many interesting stories and legends are connected to Himeji Castle. The kesho-yagura, or Boudoir Turret, is the former chamber of Sen-hime (Princess Sen). This child of politics was married at the tender age of seven to Toyotomi Hideyori, and widowed at nineteen when her husband committed seppuku, or ritual suicide, after a losing battle. She then fell in love with Honda Tadatoki and came to live with him in Himeji Castle. Unfortunately, she lost her second husband and son by the age of thirty. Heartbroken, she lived out the rest of her life (about forty years) in the castle.

KabukiThe plot for A Strange Tale at White Heron Castle (written by Nakayama Mikio) is based on this legend. Lord Tadatoki and Princess Sen are enjoying a wonderful feast in honor of her successful recovery from a recent illness. The ladies at the banquet are disturbed by rumors of a ghost appearing nightly in the castle tower. Miyamoto Musashi, a master of two-sword fencing, has been summoned to exorcise the ghost. After dinner, a darkness falls over the tower. Princess Osakabe, a witch, appears and Musashi is forced to battle her, eventually winning (he is a supreme swordsman after all). Meanwhile, Princess Sen is carried off by goblins.

Finally, a ghost appears holding Princess Sen in his arms. It is the "unquiet spirit" of Lord Hideyori Toyotomi, angry at her for breaking her chastity by remarrying Lord Tadatoki. Hideyori and Musashi engage in a fierce sword fight, Musashi winning again, and the ghost is driven away, banishing eternal darkness and restoring light to the world once more.

There are 3500 seats available in the theatre exclusively set up for these performances, which will take place in the San-no-maru (third donjon) courtyard. Gates open at 5pm and curtain call is at 6pm. The courtyard will remain open until 8pm, which should leave you plenty of time to eat dinner either before or after the seventy-minute play. Ticket prices are JY13,000 to JY15,000. If you're coming from Tokyo, you can get to Himeji Castle by Tokaido Shinkansen in under four hours. A one-way ticket is JY15,210. This is definitely a trip you'll have to save ahead for, but well worth the cost.

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