Heike and the Isle of Women, aka Shunkan


Heike Nyogo no Shima

Kabuki Plus

by Iizuka Misa

Conspiracy of Shishigatani

In 1177, the retired emperor Goshirakawa gathered a number of officials, including his top adviser Chief Monk Saiko and Abbot Shunkan, in his villa in Higashiyama near Kyoto to plot a coup against the ruling Heike clan. The scheme was uncovered, and while Goshirakawa was not challenged, Saiko was beheaded. The adviser was spared because of marital ties to the Heikes, but was exiled and subsequently murdered, and all other anti-Heike forces were exterminated. Shunkan was exiled along with two others. In 1178, the Heike leader granted an amnesty for the safe birth of his daughter and allowed the return of two of the exiles, but left Shunkan on the island.

Noh drama Shunkan

In the Noh version of this tale, Shunkan is the main character (shite), accompanied by the two fellow exiles (tsure) with the messenger in a supporting role (waki). When the messenger reads the amnesty letter with the two names, Shunkan initially thinks there must be a mistake and remains composed and proud. But multiple checks fail to turn up his name, and he is not allowed on board the ship. When the ship sails out, Shunkan holds onto the rope and is dragged into the sea. The rope finally snaps, and Shunkan is left by himself on the shore in a lonely and cruel ending.

Kikaigashima (Devil’s Island)


There are various theories as to the location of the exile island of Kikaigashima. It is sometimes said to be Iwo Jima or Kikaijima, both south of Kagoshima. According to Genpei Seisuiki (Rise and Fall of the Genji and Heike), it refers to an archipelago with numerous islands. Kanzaburo XVIII performed the show in Iwo Jima in 1996 and 2011, using real boats on the shore. He wetted his kimono and chased the boats into the water in a highly realistic performance.

Diver’s greeting

When the diver is introduced to Shunkan, she offers a greeting in what seems to be a local dialect. In reality, Chikamatsu simply created something sounding like dialect, but this is very effective in creating a local atmosphere.

Chidori’s accompaniment


The music playing during the duel between Shunkan and the messenger is known as “Chidori’s accompaniment”. In addition to this work, it is used in beach scenes and battles. It has since become familiar as background music in samurai films and is now a well known melody.