On May 4, 1796, there was a sensational murder case in which a doctor, angry at the unfaithfulness of a courtesan whom he loved, slaughtered several people at the Aburaya teahouse at Furuichi in Ise Province. He killed himself at his uncle's house the following day.
Tokuzo Chikamatsu (1753-1810) wrote a Kabuki play based on this incident and it was staged for the first time in July the same year at the Fujikawa Hachizo Theatre at Dotombori, Osaka. Its puppet version was staged for the first time at a theatre in the compound of the Inari Shrine, Osaka, in 1838.
Manjiro Imada, son of Kuroemon Imada, chief retainer of the Lord of Awa, comes to Ise with the task of finding the sword Aoe-Shimosaka, formerly owned by the Lord of Awa, then lost and heard of as being for sale in Furuichi.
The history of the sword is most complicated but it is only necessary here to mention that, in common with some other famous blades, the sword is bloodthirsty and regardless of the wishes of the owner if it is once drawn from its scabbard it will not return until it has drunk blood.
Manjiro finds and buys back the sword and the document certifying its identity but before he can return with them to Awa he falls desperately in love with a famous courtesan Okishi at the Aburaya teahouse. When his funds are exhausted the infatuated young man pawns the Aoe-Shimosaka sword. Subsequently Iwaji Tokushima, a rich merchant who seeks to ruin the young man’s father, Kuroemon Imada, through the failure of Manjiro to produce either the sword or the certificate, steals the certificate from him. Iwaji is trying also to get hold of the sword but the pawnbroker with whom Manjiro had pledged it has absconded and taken the sword with him.
Wishing to help Manjiro, Sazen Fujinami, his brother-in-law, asks Mitsugi Fukuoka, a Shinto priest's son, to look for the sword and the certificate. Mitsugi succeeds at last in recovering the sword with the assistance of his aunt, Omine, but the certificate is still in the hands of Iwaji.
Okon, a courtesan of the Aburaya, with whom Mitsugi is in love, learns from him of the necessity of obtaining the document and that it is Iwaji who holds it. She decides that the only way to obtain the document is for her to pretend to return the passion that Iwaji has already expressed for her and to get it from him when he is off his guard. From this point it is Mitsugi who becomes the hero of the play.
In a room of the Aburaya, Okon sorrowfully soliloquizes on her determination to kill herself once she has successfully secured the Aoe-Shimosaka certificate and delivered it to Mitsugi. To submit to Iwaji's passion, even if this is the only way in which she can obtain the vital certificate for Mitsugi, is to her mind an unpardonable act of betrayal of her true love. She writes a letter to Mitsugi explaining the truth about her "betrayal," which she hopes will be read by Mitsugi after her death and will exonerate her from the blame. Manno, the chief maid of the Aburaya, enters to announce that Iwaji has arrived and asked for her. Okon goes with Manno to see Iwaji.
Mitsugi arrives carrying the sword, Aoe-Shimosaka, and is greeted by Kisuke, a cook whose father was formerly a retainer of Mitsugi's father. Mitsugi entrusts the sword to Kisuke, telling him that it is the famous Aoe-Shimosaka. Kisuke leads Mitsugi to another room, leaving the sword in the rack where all patrons of the Aburaya must leave their weapons.
Manno has overheard their words and hurries to inform Iwaji, in whose pay she is. As soon as Mitsugi and Kisuke have gone, Iwaji appears and exchanges the blades of his own and Mitsugi's swords. He replaces the sheathed blades in the rack and from the hilts and scabbards no trace of the deception can be seen. Thus, when Mitsugi leaves he will take with him Iwaji's blade and Iwaji will walk away with the Aoe-Shimosaka blade. Unnoticed by Iwaji, however, Kisuke has seen what has happened.
Okon comes in to join Iwaji, followed by Manno and Kitaroku, Iwaji's friend. Just as Iwaji and Okon begin exchanging cups of sake to celebrate their union, Mitsugi rushes into the room and, angry at what he takes to be Okon's unfaithfulness, seizes the cup from her hand. Manno upbraids him for such behavior and brings in another courtesan, Oshika, who has been primed with a story designed to bring about a breach between Mitsugi and Okon, for Mitsugi once out of the way Iwaji will have greater chance of success in wooing Okon.
Oshika plays her part well and tearfully produces a number of letters that she claims Mitsugi has written to her. Believing him a true lover, she says, she has lent him a large sum of money and now her trust has been betrayed. Mitsugi tries to refute this story and convince Okon of its falsity but Manno, Iwaji and Kitaroku in turn join in jeering at him.
Okon herself (though aware of what they are trying to do) lends herself to the deception by pretending to believe that Mitsugi has been unfaithful and treats his protestations with contemptuous indifference. Finally Mitsugi can stand it no longer and raises his hand against the wicked-tongued Manno. Before he can hit Manno, Okon abruptly turns to Iwaji and at this sudden movement of rejection Mitsugi is defeated. He calls for his sword that he may leave. It is Kisuke who brings it in, muffled rather oddly in his sleeve. Mitsugi is too enraged to notice that the sword is, ostensibly, that of Iwaji (but actually, as Kisuke knows, the blade itself is Aoe-Shimosaka) and Iwaji fails to notice what has happened because Kisuke's sleeve has hidden it from him.
Iwaji is delighted that his plans for gaining both Okon and the sword have apparently been successful. He asks Okon to be his wife and tells her what a great lady she will become. Okon pretends to be greatly flattered by this proposal and accepts. Manno urges the party to move to another room where the wedding may be celebrated in proper style but Okon with a show of jealousy asks if Iwaji's love can be true when he still keeps near his heart a letter from another woman. Only a love letter would be so closely guarded. Betrayed by his anxiety not to lose Okon, Iwaji begins to explain that it is only a sword's certificate and then checks himself. Okon is satisfied that her guess was right and so puts on a fine show of jealousy and disbelief. Iwaji is driven to handing her the precious package so that she may see for herself that it has nothing to do with another woman. He has no idea, of course, that Okon knows the real significance of what he has placed in her hands. Okon retires to another room to satisfy herself that the document is as harmless to their love as Iwaji claims.
Iwaji asks Manno to bring his sword but Manno can find only that which appears to belong to Mitsugi. Kitaroku begins to congratulate Iwaji on what he thinks to have been a mistake on Mitsugi's part that has handed the plotters the Aoe-Shimosaka blade but Iwaji angrily interrupts to reveal his own switching of the blades earlier. Mitsugi has gone off with Iwaji's scabbard but he still has his own blade. The cook Kisuke is called in and Iwaji calls him a fool for handing the wrong sword to Mitsugi. Kisuke apologizes profusely and runs off after Mitsugi to get back Iwaji's sword. Actually, Kisuke needs the excuse to leave the teahouse so that he may let Mitsugi know what has happened. Manno, who was out of the room when Kisuke was called in, returns after he has left.
When she hears that Iwaji has given Kisuke the task of getting back the sword Mitsugi is carrying the voices her suspicion that Kisuke is really on the side of Mitsugi. The plotters realize that the exchange of the swords was not an accident after all and Manna herself hurries after Kisuke.
Meanwhile, Mitsugi discovers that he is carrying the "wrong" sword and immediately turns back to the Aburaya. Taking different paths, Manno has missed Kisuke who has himself missed Mitsugi but as Mitsugi reaches the tea house Manno also arrives there. Manno demands that he hand over the sword he carries but Mitsugi says she must first return his own weapon. Manno grabs at the sword he carries, he jerks it away, the scabbard breaks and the blade cuts into Manno's flesh. Once the blade has tasted blood it is out of Mitsugi's control. Manno is stabbed and dies. Kitaroku runs out at the sound of the struggle and is killed and so are Oshika and several others of the teahouse who try to restrain Mitsugi. Iwaji, seeing the carnage, hides himself in terror.
Okon runs in and Mitsugi, still possessed by the wild spirit of Aoe-Shimosaka, slashes at her with his bloodstained sword. Sinking to the ground, she thrusts at Mitsugi the vital certificate of the sword's identity that she obtained from Iwaji. Now she reveals why she acted as she did, prepared to sacrifice herself so that Mitsugi might fulfill his quest.
Iwaji comes out of his hiding place and tries to snatch the certificate. Mitsugi, filled with remorse at the fate of poor Okon and with anger at the man he now knows to be his enemy, turns on Iwaji furiously but Iwaji flees with Mitsugi in pursuit. (In case the following scene is not performed Mitsugi kills Iwaji in this scene.)
It is raining heavily as Iwatji staggers along a country road. He is exhausted and takes refuge in a small hut near a house that, unknown to him, belongs to Omine, the aunt of Mitsugi. Mitsugi comes to this house and, after washing his bloodstained hands and feet at the well, conceals his sword in a chest inside the house. Omine enters and greets him with surprise but discreetly does not question him on what has brought him to his present bedraggled state. Instead, she oers him a clean kimono, a meal and his late father's sword vrhich she has been keeping for him.
Manjiro, for whose sake Mitsugi has been looking for the sword, Aoe-Shimosaka, and the certificate of its identity, visits the house together with Sazen Fujinami, Manjiro's brother-in-law and the deputy local magistrate. Having heard that Mitsugi has recovered the sword and the certificate, they are anxious to receive them. Mitsugi delivers the certificate but not the sword, for he still believes that what he has is Iwaji’s blade, not Aoe-Shimosaka, He apologizes to them for his failure and in remorse commits seppuku with the sword he carried away from the Aburaya.
At this moment Kisuke hurriedly arrives to inform Mitsugi that the sword that Mitsugi believes to be Iwaji’s is actually Aoe-Shimosaka. Sazen bends over the dying man and staunching the flow of blood with a pad of white cotton, gently draws from his body the sword. This he recognizes to be the blade they have sought for so long.
Sazen tells Kisuke to run for a doctor but as Kisuke tries to go out Iwaji, who has been hiding outside the house, attacks him. In his fight with Kisuke, Iwaji is driven across the room to where Mitsugi lays dying. Gathering together all his failing strength, Mitsugi grasps Aoe-Shimosaka and with one blow kills the evil Iwaji.
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