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In the third month of Tempo 3 (1832), Ichikawa Danjuro VII commissioned and distributed a privately made woodblock print to commemorate a major change in the kabuki world. For Danjuro had decided to pass his coveted name to his ten-year-old son, Ebizo, and to take the lesser Ebizo name for himself.
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In this text you find writings for the 18 kabuki plays that are different from the writings of the image subtitles which were taken from our archive of sold Japanese prints. These different writings of Japanese names are frequent and one of those annoying things when you have to deal with names or words coming from the Japanese language. For some time I tried to get a consistent writing at least on this web site. But I have given up in the meantime.
The surimono print he commissioned for this occasion focused not on the name changes, which were stated matter-of-factly on the print's far left, but on the illustrious history of the Ichikawa family and its Danjuro name. At the top center of the print was the unique triple-box (mimasu) Danjuro crest, and under this a historical image of the first Danjuro in a Shibaraku role.
The right side of the print contained a list of previous generations of Danjuro, with the accomplishments of each described. And on the left side, following the title "Kabuki Kyogen-gumi Juhachiban", was a list of eighteen pieces associated with the Danjuro name, the first time such a group had been compiled.
With this print, Danjuro VII succeeded not only in placing himself and his son in the grand context of kabuki history, but helped to establish a canon of "great kabuki works" that to some extent still holds to this day.
By Tempo 11 (1840), individual plays from Danjuro VII's (by this time, somewhat revised) list were being preceded by "juhachiban no uchi"/"From the Eighteen" in advertising, and even today these works continue to hold a place of honor, though most are not often performed. Among them are some of the oldest and most dramatic pieces in the kabuki repertoire, making the "Eighteen" must-knowledge for the theater or theater print fan.
It should be noted, however, that these selections largely represent a particular type of performance in which the Danjuro line specialized - aragoto, or "bravado pieces"-and by no means should be thought of as the "best" eighteen kabuki plays.
Quite to the contrary, though there are some exceptional dramas among them, most of the "Eighteen" consist of extremely simple plots focused on key dramatic moments in which the Danjuro actors could excel, and some of them are not even individual plays, but inserts used in a variety of plays.
In ukiyo-e, prints for plays from the "Eighteen" were made at the time of their performances, and their frequency is in direct relation with the fame and success of the plays.
A famous initial set of the "Juhachiban no Uchi" was made by Utagawa Toyokuni III in 1852, followed by other sets by his pupils, including a notable group by Kunichika. The Toyokuni III set has actually served as a basis for helping modern playwrights to envision and recreate some of the lost plays.
In the modern period, Hasegawa Sadanobu and others have also made sets of the "Eighteen Favorites". These eighteen, with brief plot descriptions, are as follows:
Any of a number of plays based on the rivalry between the two celebrated samurai Fuwa Banzaemon and Nagoya Sanza, who are in love with the same woman (usually Katsuragi). Their confrontation is precipitated by their bumping of scabbards as they pass one another in the crowded streets, and prevented from ending in fatality by the intercession of the female figure.
The heroes from the play are easily identified by their distinctive kimono: Banzaemon's with a cloud and lightning pattern, Sanza's with a swallow and rain pattern. In Ichikawa Danjuro VII's time, the Fuwa theme was best known through the play "Ukiyozuka".
The holy hermit Narukami has captured the God of Rain in a waterfall, in revenge for the denial of his imperial petition, thus creating a drought. He is visited by the imperial princess Taema, who cleverly seduces him with her stories and charm. As Narukami touches her, against his holy vows, his powers are gradually lost and Taema helps the Rain God to escape. Narukami ultimately transforms into a demon. This is among the earliest surviving kabuki plays, dating to the 1680s.
One of the simplest, and yet most elemental of kabuki plays. The plot revolves around the evil and power-hungry Kiyohara Takehira, who has contrived to have his enemies disinherited so that they will have no choice but to join forces with him. At a sword-dedication ceremony that will mark his rise to power, he attempts to sway them to his side, and when they refuse, to have them killed.
Just then, a booming voice cries "wait a minute!" from behind the audience, and the hero, Kamakura Gongoro Kagemasa, enters in larger-than-life costume and makeup, quickly establishing justice. Shibaraku scenes are common in ukiyo-e, and usually quickly recognized by Kagemasa's unusual costume, featuring huge sleeves with the Ichikawa triple-box crest.
Originally part of the same play as "Narukami". Lady Taema, who has saved the land from drought through her seduction of Narukami, now faces his wrath as a demon. She takes refuge in the Buddhist deity Fudo Myo-o, who protects her. The costume and fierce portrayal of the frightening Fudo by Danjuro actors is celebrated.
The least known of the "Kabuki Eighteen", no longer extant. The original production of 1699 involved the haunting of the playboy Koga Saburo by the jealous spirit of his wife, who takes over their daughter's body for this purpose. It seems to have been based on the noh play "Aoi no Ue", concerning a similarly motivated haunting in the Tale of Genji. Seldom seen.
The wicked Soga Iruka arrives at a flower viewing riding a white elephant. He attempts to trample the hero, Gennaizaemon, but is prevented when the latter's wife makes a leash of her hair to halt the animal. A tug-of-war ensues over the elephant, showing the tremendous power of the characters, and Gennaizaemon is victorious. An unusual theme, pictured many times in ukiyo-e.
Yoshitsune and Benkei, fleeing from the wrongful death sentence set upon them by Yoshitsune's brother, the Shogun Yoritomo, must pass through a guarded barrier in the mountains. Benkei disguises himself as traveling monk, gathering donations for his temple with a subscription list, and Yoshitsune as his servant. The guard sees through their identities, but when Benkei beats Yoshitsune, a tear in his eye, in order to fool the guard, the guard feels for them and lets them pass.
One of the most celebrated plays of the Edo theater, Sukeroku has been translated in full by James Brandon. Basically, the story centers about a townsman hero (otokodate) named Sukeroku, who challenges a high ranking samurai, Ikyu, for the love of a courtesan, Agemaku.
Sukeroku, however, is actually one of the Soga Brothers in disguise, searching for a stolen sword with which he can extract revenge on his father's killer. He suspects Ikyu of being in possession of the sword, and in a number of pleasing scenes attempts to abuse him into a fight so that he will reveal it. Sukeroku is frequently depicted in ukiyo-e, easily recognized by his stylish purple headband.
Not an individual play, but an insert made famous by the slick tongue of Ichikawa Danjuro II. There is no particular plot. A medicine vendor enters, and describes the history and effectiveness of his cure-all through a quickly spoken series of puns, tongue twisters and other word play. Sometimes the medicine seller is turned into Soga Goro in disguise, in order to fit into a play on the Soga Brothers theme.
Not actually a play unto itself, "Oshi-Modoshi" describes the action of a number of Danjuro heroes against enemies on the hanamichi walkway. The hero and villain lock in stylized struggle, pushing ahead and falling back as the momentum of the encounter shifts dramatically back and forth. Typically the Oshi-Modoshi hero wears a set costume, wig and stylized makeup, regardless of the piece.
A Soga Brothers piece, popular at the New Year. Soga Goro is at home at the New Year, polishing arrow heads for his planned revenge against his father's enemy Suketsune. Tired from his work, he takes a nap, placing a picture of the treasure ship of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune, said to bring a fortunate first dream, below his pillow.
But Goro dreams that his brother Juro has been captured in the Suketsune house and is crying for help. He leaps up from the dream, and grabbing a horse used by a radish seller, rides off to help Juro.
There are many ukiyo-e depictions of Goro whipping on his horse with a white radish.
Kagekiyo was one of the great Taira generals, defeated in the Gempei Civil War of 1180-85 and taken as a captive. He is held in a cave, starved and tortured by his enemies, who also torture his family before him in order to make him give up his allegiance to the Taira. Kagekiyo refuses all temptations to submit, and ultimately, despite his miserable state, summons his energies to lift a boulder above his head and attack his Minamoto foes.
A rarely performed play, the script of which has been lost. The samurai Shigetada (Kagekiyo in a modern version) disguises himself as the famous Chinese warrior Kan'u in order to uncover the intrigues of other, evil samurai. Seldom pictured in ukiyo-e.
A quick-change piece, in which Danjuro plays a noh mask maker, who removes various masks from their boxes, dancing their parts. In the finale, a stolen scroll is discovered hidden in the mouth of one of the masks. Rarely seen.
Yatsuragi Gemba is a villain secretly plotting the overthrow of the Ono family, prevented only by the loyal Ono retainer Hata Mimbu. He also has designs on Nishiki-e no Mae, the Ono daughter who is engaged to Bunya Tohoide, and prevents the coming marriage of the two by "haunting" Nishiki-e no Mae with a giant magnet, causing her hair to rise with its metallic pins as though she were possessed.
Danjo, the retainer of Nishiki-e no Mae's fianc�e, finally manages to uncover the source of the haunting when he sees a pair of tweezers moving on its own in the same room. He is awarded a sword for his service, and immediately uses it to behead Gemba, whom he has discovered to be behind the plot.
An early play, based on noh drama. The time is just after the Gempei Civil War (1180-85). A service for the repose of the defeated Taira souls has been prepared, but the temple bell refuses to ring. A mysterious samurai enters, and when pursued, hides beneath the bell.
Later, when two Taira refugees, one of them the daughter of Kagekiyo, are caught and about to be executed, the figure emerges from the bell as the ghost of Kagekiyo, and attacks the Minamoto. Attempts are made in vain to exorcise his spirit, but when the robe of a saint is placed on his shoulders, he achieves spiritual release.
Beautiful women in Japan were often compared to willows, though it was believed that jealousy could transform a woman into a snake or demon. This connection, along with an old tale that describes a giant snake captured by the Buddhist priest Kukai transforming itself into a willow tree, seems to be the basis for the title. The dramatic action has a clown figure, Tamba no Suketaro, possessed by the jealous Kiyohime, who vents all of her frustration and rage through him. Seldom performed.
Kagekiyo, after an argument with the swordsmith Shirobei, submits to Shirobei's challenge that he be shaved using a sickle. The swordsmith attempts to cut off Kagekiyo's head, but this hero's skin is impervious to the weapon. After, Kagekiyo performs magic and appears as seven people simulataneously.
With the success of Danjuro VII's list, other major kabuki families also made their own groups of "Eighteen Favorites", but none has had the power or lasting fame of Danjuro's grouping. The irony of Danjuro VII's list is that although it is the most respected of such, the pieces he chose are mostly very minor works in the contemporary repertoire.
The draw of Danjuro VII's grouping seems to be that it was not only the first such list, but summoned up the deep history of the kabuki theater and the Ichikawa line, including many early pieces that have since been lost. This claim to history, as in the 1832 surimono, has given the Danjuro line central importance in the theater, and the Kabuki Juhachiban first place among the family collections.
Dan McKee, April 2004
(updated by Dieter Wanczura in September 2009)
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