The Renowned Banzui Chobei


Kiwametsuki Banzui Chobei

Kabuki Plus

by Hashimoto Hiroki

Hatamoto-yakko vs. machi-yakko

Hatamoto refers to middle-ranking government retainers directly employed by and allowed to meet the shogun and having an annual income of up to 10,000 koku (one koku is one person’s annual consumption of rice). Those with income above this level are known as daimyo (lords). Edo had as many as 80,000 hatamoto. Once peace took hold in the Edo Period, samurai warriors lost their raison d’etre. Under such circumstances, hatamoto often teamed up and harassed townsmen to relieve their frustration. They were known as “hatamoto-yakko” or hatamoto bullies. This led to the formation of groups of commoners known as “machi-yakko” or town guards. Some of these behaved badly as well, but they protected townsmen of weak social status and stood up against the ill-mannered samurai. These two groups came to hate each other. As the conflict intensified, the authorities cracked down and began executing leaders from both sides, and the momentum waned by the mid 1680s.

Actual Banzuiin Chobei


Banzuiin Chobei actually existed. His origins are disputed, but he is most likely Tsukamoto Itaro, the son of a samurai in Karatsu, Kyushu. His father lost his position as a samurai and traveled with his family, where he died in Shimonoseki. The son sought refuge at the famed Banzuiin Temple in Edo. He subsequently became a leader among the commoners as a kyokyaku (chivalrous guard), establishing a pattern for the future. In the scene where Chobei changes kimono before visiting Mizuno’s home, there are two production styles: in one, he wears a haori overcoat symbolic of a townsman, and in the other, he wears a formal kamishimo coat to emphasize his roots as a samurai.

Mizuno Jurozaemon and Shiratsuka group

Mizuno Jurozaemon is also an historical figure, an important hatamoto. His grandfather served Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Edo regime, and was rewarded for his contributions with his appointment as the first lord of Fukuyama. Jurozaemon’s father was known as one of the first hatamoto-yakko, making Jurozaemon a second straight generation in this role. The drama presents the latter as a schemer who lures Chobei into a fatal trap, but he was in fact known as a rebellious character who did not bow to authority. The Shirotsuka group got its name from the white (shiro) color of their sword handles (tsuka). Mizuno was actually a member of the Daisho Jingi (major and minor gods) group, and there did not seem to be a Shirotsuka group. There were six main hatamoto-yakko groups including Mizuno’s, together called the Roppo (six-sided) association.

Murayamaza and play-within-a-play

The theater featured in the show’s prologue was an actual theater in Edo founded in 1634 by Murayama Matazaburo. It was later renamed Ichimuraza. The prologue was not in the original script but added later by Kawatake Shinshichi III. The setting includes a broad wood-tiled roof, a stage master and other important features of an Edo Period theater. In addition, the rare play-within-a-play, Kimpira Homon Arasoi, is modeled after a type of puppet show popular in the early Edo Period. The simple story is about a young boy named Kimpira, the son of a shogun’s retainer, who fights with others to protect his master. This genre contributed to the development of Kabuki’s unique aragoto style. The play now only exists as part of this larger work and is a valuable record of the atmosphere of Kabuki just shortly after its founding.

Character appears from audience


Chobei makes his appearance from the audience, a delightful touch that helps further narrow the distance between actor and viewer. Chobei is supposed to be watching a play, treating the viewers as an Edo Period audience at the Murayama Theater. This staging, bringing the actors into the audience, is also used in the “Numazu” scene of Igagoe Dochu Sugoroku and the beach scene in Yowanasake Ukina no Yokogushi.

“A man has but one life, but his name lasts forever”


Chobei says this famous line when his followers try to stop him from going to Mizuno’s house. Chobei, refusing to run like a coward, chooses to die with dignity rather than live in shame. Other famous lines come when Chobei is leaving a will and in the dialogue during the death scene in the bath.

Film “The Five Men of Ooedo”

Banzuiin Chobei has also been the subject of non-Kabuki dramas and movies. One representative film was “Ooedo Gonin Otoko” (The Five Men of Ooedo), released in 1951 on the 30th anniversary of movie producer Shochiku Films. It is based on Kiwametsuki Banzui Chobei but also mixes in episodes from other Kabuki dramas. The all-star cast included Bando Tsumasaburo, Ichikawa Utaemon and Yamada Isuzu, big film personalities of the day, as well as key Kabuki actors in what was a major event.