KABUKI ABC (48) / ‘Okazaki’: Tragedy unfolds when swordman kills own baby to avenge another death

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterNakamura Kichiemon II, who has been designated as a living national treasure, has been starring in the full-length staging of “Igagoe Dochu Sugoroku” (Through Iga Pass with the Tokaido Board Game).

The last performance takes place today at the National Theatre in Hanzomon, Tokyo. A key act of this play, titled “Okazaki,” is extremely tragic, as the protagonist stabs his newborn baby to death to help avenge his father-in-law’s death.

Quite a few pieces in the kabuki repertoire describe children who die as a result of their parents’ loyalty to their masters or older relatives. These children, aged about 10, understand why they must die before they are killed, or commit suicide.

“Okazaki” is much crueler, as the newborn knows nothing about why he should be killed by his father. It has therefore been severely criticized as a “repulsive play” by many modern intellectuals, such as writer Kan Kikuchi (1888-1948) and philosopher Tetsuro Watsuji (1889-1960).

Let me briefly tell you the story line.

In pursuit of the man who killed his father-in-law, swordsman Karaki Masaemon (played by Kichiemon) travels to the Okazaki post station in what is now Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture, where he unexpectedly reunites with his swordsmanship teacher from childhood. However, Masaemon learns that the teacher, named Yamada Kobe, is on the side of his enemy. To learn his enemy’s whereabouts, Masaemon stays at the teacher’s home while not disclosing his current name and mission.

Masaemon’s wife, who is traveling with the couple’s newborn, happens to arrive at the teacher’s home, asking for overnight accommodation. The father sees his baby for the first time.

But, Masaemon fatally stabs the baby’s neck with a knife when he realizes the child’s arrival might reveal his true mission.

Masaemon then throws the body (actually a doll) into the garden. However, this was not done when the lead character was played by Kichiemon’s father, Matsumoto Hakuo, and Kichiemon’s grandfather and adoptive father, Nakamura Kichiemon I.

“In the past, the doll was made of hard wood, unlike today,” Kichiemon said. “I believe that was why [the actors] didn’t throw it away, because they knew that the sound when the wooden doll hit the floor would ruin this key scene.

“However, Masaemon’s agony cannot be properly depicted without throwing his baby away.”

Asked what he thinks of depicting such a cruel murder of a baby, Kichiemon said: “It’s a technique to heighten the dramatic effect of the play. This setting allows the parents’ love for the child and the affection between the couple to be conveyed to the audience.”

The play was last staged in December 2014 for the first time in 44 years. It was a great success and even won The Yomiuri Theater Awards’ Grand Prix, a first for a kabuki play. This time, the play is being staged two years and three months after the previous performance, an unusually short interval. The latest production features not only Kichiemon, but also other skilled actors from the 2014 cast.

Why does the protagonist have to sacrifice his own baby to help avenge someone else’s death? You may not be able to understand the reason just by reading the original work or script. However, watching the seasoned actors bring their powers together and breathe life into the characters on the stage, it was not difficult for me to be convinced that the incident could not be avoided.

— Morishige covers traditional Japanese performing arts.

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