Written by Izumo Takeda, this play is based on the legend of a white fox of the Shinoda wood that married Yasuna Abe and gave birth to a son who grew up to become an eminent diviner named Seimei Abe. The play was first staged in 1734 at the Takemotoza Theatre.
In the performance of this play the present system of three men to each principal puppet was adopted for the first time. It was Bunzaburo Yoshida who introduced this revolutionary change in puppet operation, which has made the Bunraku puppetry so unique and life-like.
After the death of Yasunori Kamo, a court diviner, a dispute arises as to who will become his successor. Sakaki, Yasunori's adopted daughter, recommends Yasuna Abe, one of Yasunori's disciples, with whom she is in love. But her plan is foiled when Yasunori's widow hands her late husband's secret book of astrology to another disciple, Michitaru Ashiya, Yasuna's rival. The disappointed Sakaki kills herself and Yasuna, shocked by her death, becomes insane.
Yasuna wanders about the country until, at the Shinoda Myojin shrine in the suburbs of Osaka, he happens to meet Kuzunoha, Sakaki's younger sister. Kuzunoha so closely to meet resembles her dead sister that the sight of her shocks Yasuna back into sanity and he falls in love with her.
A white fox runs out of the wood nearby into the shrine compound, apparently escaping from hunters. Yasuna helps it to hide. Akuemon, Kuzunoha's cousin, who has been hunting the fox, enters and, seeing Kuzunoha, whom he has wooed but in vain, tries to force her away with him. Yasuna breaks in and helps Kuzunoha escape whereupon Akuemon, with the help of his servants, brutally beats Yasuna and then goes off in pursuit of Kuzunoha.
Humiliated beyond endurance, Yasuna is about to kill himself with a dagger when Kuzunoha mysteriously reappears and tenderly cares for him. This Kuzunoha is actually the white fox helped by Yasuna a few moments before.
Yasuna and the fox-Kuzunoha make a home at Abeno where she later gives birth to a son. The real Kuzunoha and her parents have fled to a remote village to avoid Akuemon's attack. Yasuna, thinking himself married to the real Kuzunoha, naturally makes no attempt to find out what has happened to the real Kuzunoha, and the real Kuzunoha has to wait patiently far away in the hope that her lover will find her.
One day in the absence of her husband the fox-Kuzunoha is weaving cotton cloth. Her son Abe-no-Doshi, now five years old, plays in the garden, catching insects. Watching him, his mother realizes with dismay that the animal part of her own nature has been transmitted to her son, Gently she comes to his side and begs him never to kill animals needlessly. Then she puts her child to bed.
A merchant visits the house to buy cotton cloth but, told by the fox-Kuzunoha that there is none for sale, goes away. (Actually the "merchant" is a follower of Akuemon spying on Yasuna's home and on the woman who appears to be Kuzunoha).
The real Kuzunoha, accompanied by her father, Shoji Shinoda, and her mother, then appears at the front of the house to visit Yasuna, whom outside his house she has been seeking so that their love may be sealed in marriage. They peep into the house and are astounded to find already there a woman looking exactly like Kuzunoha herself.
Yasuna then returns and is also amazed to find this strange duplication. He questions the girl and her parents closely and then bids them stay in a nearby hut. He enters his house and tells the fox-Kuzunoha that he has accidentally met her parents on his way home and that they will soon visit the house. Then Yasuna goes into an inner room ostensibly to take a nap before the arrival of his parents-in-law.
Left alone with her son, the fox-Kuzunoha embraces him and tells him that the is in reality a 1, 000-year-old fox formerly living in the Shinoda wood, but now that her disguise is about to be discovered she will be forced to leave and resume her original shape. She advises her son to consider the real Kuzunoha as his true mother.
Yasuna, the real Kuzunoha and her parents, having overheard the poor fox and now aware of her true identity, try to persuade her to stay but she resumes her true form and disappears. Yasuna opens a sliding door to find a waka poem written by the fox-Kuzunoha on a sliding screen: "If you yearn for me, search for me in the Shinoda wood of Izumi Province."
Three followers of Akuemon, including the "merchant" who visited the house earlier, appear on the scene to abduct the real Kuzunoha again but this time Yasuna easily repels them.
The real Kuzunoha suggests that they should try to call the fox-Kuzunoha back because she (real Kuzunoha) cannot suckle the boy. (In olden times children were breast-fed almost as long as the mother had milk or until a new baby arrived). Yasuna agrees to go to the Shinoda wood with the real Kuzunoha and his son as soon as the day breaks.
Between the scene of Kuzunoha Kowakare and the scene of Shinoda no Mori Ninin Yakko there is the following development that is rarely staged:
On his way to the Shinoda wood together with the real Kuzunoha and his son, Yasuna meets Michitaru Ashiya, his former rival, travelling in a palanquin. Kuzunoha, remembering that her elder sister Sakaki killed herself because of Michitaru's acquisition of the secret book of astrology, tries to avenge Sakaki's death and Yasuna also challenges him to a duel. Michitaru calmly dissuades them, saying that it was not he but Sakaki's foster mother who was responsible for Sakaki's suicide, for he in no way maneuvered unfairly to acquire the secret book. He also states that he is on his way to Ashiya (halfway between Osaka and Kobe), his native place, to assume his new post as the local governor and that he wishes to present Yasuna with the secret book.
Yasuna says he himself has already given up hopes of a career as a diviner but asks Michitaru to deliver the book to his son. Michitaru complies and asks questions of the boy to test his intelligence. The boy quickly answers all questions correctly, showing surprising erudition. The fact is that, unseen by those present, the boy's mother, the fox-Kuzunoha, prompts him each time a question is asked.
Impressed by the boy's intelligence, Michitaru then leaves for the Shinoda Myojin Shrine to pay homage with Yasuna acting as his guide.
While Kuzunoha and Yasuna's son, now called Seimei Abe, are waiting for the return of Yasuna from the Shinoda Myojin Shrine, Akuemon and his followers enter and try to capture Kuzunoha when Yokambei, Yasuna's servant, appears and repulses the attackers. As soon as Yokambei disappears, chasing the attackers, another man, an exact duplicate of Yokambei, comes from the opposite direction. Unaware that he is a different man, Kuzunoha thanks him for his splendid work. He is puzzled and tells her that he has just come back from Kyoto where he had been sent on an errand by his master. The first Yokambei comes back and the two Yokambeis confront each other.
To determine which is genuine, Kuzunoha questions them one by one and finds out that the Yokambei who fought off Akuemon and his men is actually a fox in human form and that his real name is Yakambei. The attackers come again but the real Yokambei takes Kuzunoha and the boy, Beimei, to safety, while the fox-Yokambei (Yakambei) mows down the attackers with his supernatural powers.
(Yokambei and Yakambei are the first dolls to which the present puppet operation system of three men to one doll was applied).
A sequel to this scene that is rarely staged shows how three years later, Yasuna and Kuzunoha take Seimei to Kyoto to have him employed as a diviner in the service of the Imperial Court. On their way they meet a messenger sent from the Imperial Court to Yasuna's house and learn that Yasuna himself is being asked to serve as Court diviner. Yasuna however, recommends Seimei in his place and turns back, bidding Seimei and Kuzunoha proceed to the Imperial Court together with the messenger.
On his way Yasuna is attacked and killed by the wicked (and persistent) Akuemon and his followers. They put Yasuna's corpse into a chest and throw it into a river from which it is later dragged by some townspeople and brought to the Court for examination. Without opening it, Seimei tells what is in the chest and then revivifies his father by virtue of his prayer. At the display of his powers Seimei is immediately appointed as Court diviner.
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