Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy


Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami

Kabuki Plus

by Kaneda Eiichi

Sugawara Michizane and Minister Kan

The theme and main character of this drama is Sugawara Michizane, a nobleman and scholar of the ninth century who was later worshiped as the god of scholarship. As in the show, the real-life Sugawara was Minister of the Right and Fujiwara Tokihira (called Shihei here) was Minister of the Left. The left is slightly superior in terms of rank.

Three parent/child separations

This drama features three interwoven stories revolving around the separation of a parent and child, each thought to have been written by a different playwright. Act II (Domyoji Temple) tells of the separation of Minister Kan and his daughter; Act III (The Celebration), young Sakuramaru (by suicide) and his father; and Act IV (The Village School), Matsuomaru and his son Kotaro.

Real birth of triplets


The birth of triplets in Osaka in the year of the show’s creation was a sensation and quickly incorporated into the text. The triplets in the show are shown as servants charged with guarding the emperor and noblemen. They are ranked the lowest of the servants as they deal with cows, as suggested by a cow-drawn palanquin that often appears on stage. Cows are closely associated with the god of wisdom.

Revival of scene featuring secret scroll’s passage

The scene in which Sugawara passes the key calligraphy scroll to Genzo was abandoned for many years. In January 1943, it was revived with Kikugoro VI as Sugawara and Kichiemon I as Genzo. This scene gives important background for the immensely popular The Village School, enhancing our understanding of that scene considerably. Kichiemon wanted to revive the scene for years but, with the lack of existing precedents, had to work hard to realize a credible depiction of the main character. Based on the idea that some years had passed between this and The Village School, he tried to look slightly younger in the earlier scene.

Deification of Sugawara


Sugawara Michizane is still revered today as the god of scholarship. In this drama, especially the Domyoji Temple scene, he is deified, and the actor must prepare psychologically for the part during the performance period. In recent years, Nizaemon XIII (1903-1994) was by far the actor most associated with the role. When he played Sugawara, he put a shrine to the god of wisdom in his dressing room, providing it incense, water and salt every day while refraining from liquor and meat. The current Nizaemon XV follows this precedent.

Use of aragoto style

This show was originally a Bunraku drama, so the Kabuki adaptation generally follows the puppet style. The exception is the Pulling Apart the Carriage scene, which alone uses a highly stylized approach in the traditional bravado aragoto manner unique to Kabuki. Umeomaru and Matsuomaru act in aragoto style, while Sakura plays a gentler wagoto characterization. Throughout the play, Umeomaru is generally played as the oldest of the triplets and Sakura the youngest. In this scene, however, Matsuomaru’s actions suggest that he is the oldest or most senior of the three.

Witty names of wives

In the father’s 70th birthday celebration scene, the wife of each triplet appears: Haru, Chiyo and Yae. It is difficult for audiences to discern who is married to whom, but it is easier if we understand the witty meaning of the names. The ume in Umeomaru means plum, marking the beginning of spring, which in Japanese is called haru. Matsu (pine) of Matsuomaru represents longevity, whereas Chiyo means a thousand generations. One variety of sakura (cherry), the first part of Sakuramaru, is the late-blooming yae-zakura. The wives’ names thus match nicely with the husbands. In terms of age, the oldest is Chiyo (who has a son), followed by Haru, and then the young girl Yae. Their costumes reflect this difference.

“It is a difficult thing to serve one’s master”

These words in The Village School make up one of the most famous lines in Kabuki. Genzo is ordered by a top official to behead a boy, but that child is the son of his master, Sugawara. He instead takes the excruciating step of cutting off the head of an innocent boy who has just joined the school in hopes of passing that off as the real thing. His emotions are expressed in this well known line. The model for Genzo is thought to be Takebe Gennai, a calligrapher earlier in the Edo Period who established a calligraphy school that boasted an estimated 3,000 pupils.

Matsuomaru’s “50-day wig”


Matsuomaru pretends to be recovering from an illness and wears a special headband that was worn by the sick. His wig is called a “50-day wig”, signifying that his hair hasn’t been taken care of for that period. There is also a “100-day wig” worn elsewhere by the famed thief Ishikawa Goemon and others to indicate that they have been in jail or hiding for long periods.

I-Ro-Ha (A-B-C) farewell

A farewell message in the form of the Japanese A-B-Cs. Toward the end of The Village School, the music accompanying the portion where the parents are mourning (“seeing off”) their dead son is called the I-Ro-Ha (A-B-C) farewell. It cleverly incorporates all the letters of the Japanese alphabet in reflection of the school setting.