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Kabuki Theatre: Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura

If you want to know about kabuki, then the famous story of Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees or “Yoshitsune Senbonzakura(義経千本桜)”is a must!

Minamoto no Yoshitsune(源義経) and the Thousand Cherry Trees is an imaginative historical drama that takes place after the battle of the Genpei War(源平合戦) between the Taira and Minamoto clans. Minamoto clan decimates Taira clan in a decisive battle, but three generals survive. Tomomori(平知盛), Koremori(平維盛), and Noritsune(平教経) escape and vow to take revenge for their ignoble defeat. This heart-racing adventure takes you from carnage at sea to the tranquil cherry blossoms of Mount Yoshino(吉野).

First half of the story

"Genjigumo Ukiyo Eawase", Kuniyoshi Utagawa

Following the war, General Yoshitsune of Minamoto clan and his brother Yoritomo(源頼朝) get in a dispute. Retired Emperor Shirakawa(後白河上皇) presents a drum, called “Hatsune” (meaning “first sound”) to Yoshitsune as a signal to strike his brother, but his failure to do so brings suspicion to his loyalty. Meanwhile, his brother sends a messenger from Kamakura(鎌倉) to investigate him as well, but as he tries to explain the situation, his loyal retainer Benkei(弁慶) kills the messenger. Yoshitsune then decides to leave the capital. When he and his troop reach Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine(伏見稲荷大社), his mistress Shizuka catches up and asks to be taken along. He refuses her and instead gives her the drum as a keepsake and ties her to a tree to prevent her from chasing them again.

Yoshitsune and his troop wait at a boathouse in Amagasaki to flee to Kyushu. However, he becomes aware that the boathouse owner is Tomomori in disguise together with the young Emperor Antoku(安徳帝) and one of his court ladies. Even before the attack started, it becomes clear that Taira clan will lose. After the desperate defeat, Tomomori comes back with a look of a vengeful ghost and finds his comrades held as captives. Yoshitsune promises to spare their lives, and upon hearing this, Tomomori jumps into the sea.

More drama surrounding Yoshitsune unfolds in the latter half of the story

"Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura", Toyokuni Utagawa

Koremori's(平維盛) retainer Kokingo(小金吾), and his wife Wakaba(若葉) and son Rokudai(六代君) set off in search for Koremori. The trio confronts a local bandit called Gonta(権太) who steals their money and leaves Kokingo in a fatal wound. Wakaba and her son escape safely but a sushi shop owner Yazaemon(弥左衛門) happens by and, with a plan in mind, chops Kokingo's head off and takes it with him.

Yazaemon turns out to be harboring Koremori in his sushi shop from the Kamakura authorities. And indebted to him, Yazaemon plans to turn in the head to claim that Koremori is dead. Gonta learns about this plan and judges it too risky to turn in the head alone, so he turns in the head with his own wife and child dressed as Koremori's wife and son. Unaware of Gonta's scheme, Yazaemon kills his own son. 

"Zao-do", Toshusai Sharaku

Little do they know that he Shogun was planning to show mercy on Koremori by having him become a monk. When they learn about this, Koremori indeed decides to become a monk while Yazaemon bemoans Gonta's death.

Meanwhile in Kawatsura Hogen’s palace, Yoshitsune encounters a fox spirit that shapeshifts as his loyal retainer Sato Tadanobu(佐藤忠信). The fox spirit aids him to his victory against the remaining Taira general Noritsune (now disguised as a monk). The real Tadanobu arrives and corners Noritsune with the help of the fox spirit and finally kills Noritsune. Here, the line between fiction and reality fades as the story concludes with Taira clan completely destroyed.

If you liked the story of Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees, you should definitely see it in kabuki theater as it’ll surely make a lasting impression. Going to kabuki is always a unique experience so it’s important to check the performance style beforehand for every specific time and place.