Hyoryu Kidan Seiyo Kabuki

Kunisada III (signing as Baidō Kunimasa): Ichikawa Danjūrō IX, Ichikawa Ichijūrō III, Iwai Hanshirō VIII, Nakamura Sōjūrō I & Sawamura Hyakunosuke I in the play “Hyoryu Kidan Seiyo Kabuki” (漂流奇談西洋劇, Colourful Tales of the Castaways – a Western Kabuki), staged at the Shintomi-za theatre from 1st September 1879. 

In my previous article, on the play Okige no kumo harau Asagochi, I covered one of the most successful of the modern Meiji plays staged at the Shintomi-za. So in contrast today’s article is about the play Hyoryu Kidan Seiyo Kabuki (漂流奇談西洋劇, Colourful Tales of the Castaways – a Western Kabuki), which was staged a year later in 1879, but which has the dubious “honour” of being the play that possibly brought down the Shintomi-za!

Both plays were experiments in realism – a move to a more western style of theatre depicting stories set in the modern day, with contemporary characters in modern dress. Both had quite lavish budgets and employed actors of the day who were at the peak of their careers. But Hyoryu Kidan Seiyo Kabuki seems to have been seen as a step too far – too removed from what audiences expected to see.

Most of problems really occurred in the sections that included Western performers whose voices were seen as shrill and unpleasant to Japanese ears. There were whole sections that dealt with life in the West, including dances and songs, which just looked comical to the Japanese audiences. This wouldn’t in itself be so bad had it not been for the fact that these Western performers had been brought to Japan at great cost and paid handsomely for their performances, hitting the production budget heavily.

All in all, it was a very brave production that tried to push the boundaries of what audiences in Japan would watch, led by a producer who was a huge fan of western culture. But it was not appreciated by audiences and that led to producer Morita Kan’ya losing so much money that the Shintomi-za never really recovered. For this reason there seem to be very few print designs for this play in existence and copies of these are quite rare. 

The print itself

The data for the above print is: 

  • Title: Ichikawa Danjūrō IX, Ichikawa Ichijūrō III, Iwai Hanshirō VIII, Nakamura Sōjūrō I & Sawamura Hyakunosuke I in the play “Hyoryu Kidan Seiyo Kabuki” (漂流奇談西洋劇, Colourful Tales of the Castaways – Western Kabuki), staged at the Shintomi-za theatre from 1st September 1879.
  • Signed: Baidō Kunimasa hitsu 楳堂 国政 筆; Date: Meiji12 (1879) / month 9 / day 10; Publisher: Yamamoto Heikichi  山本平吉; Carver: ??? 彫工片田禾乃吉  Horikō Katada Renoyoshi
  • Text: (M-R)
    • [市川団十郎] Ichikawa Danjūrō IX as [船頭清水三保蔵] Sendō Shimizu Mihozō (Boatman Shimizu Mihozo)
    • [市川市十郎] Ichikawa Ichijūrō III as [米国水夫フレチット 実は 阿波之藤五郎] (American sailor Frechit – actually, Awa no Tōgorō)
    • [岩井半四郎] Iwai Hanshirō VIII as [秋津の内室敷島] Akitsu no Naishitsu Shikishima
    • [中村宗十郎] Nakamura Sōjūrō I as [郵船会社ハシヤウセイ] Yūsen Kaisha hashiyausei
    • [沢村百之助] Sawamura Hyakunosuke I [清見娘若葉] Kiyomi Musume Wakaba (Kiyomi daughter Wakaba)

Interestingly, the costumes worn by the Japanese female characters seem similar in style and colours to ones that would have been drawn for Chinese characters, so perhaps the artist wasn’t familiar with Western dress and was told to dress the characters in foreign clothes? Certainly we can see that in other prints of the play correct costumes were depicted. Here are 2 from a series in realistic style by Adachi Ginko: 

And another by Kunichika with a combination of a Chinese patterned ruff over a crinoline dress: 

Borrowed from: https://archive.library.metro.tokyo.lg.jp/da/detail?tilcod=0000000003-00052269

An account by Clara Whitney, a contemporary witness to the play

I will only write about the second part of the programme, “The Extraordinary Adventures of the Wrecked”. [this was not the real title but it seems to be what she had been told at the time.]

In the beginning of the era of the Meiji, the captain Gozaemon and his son left the port of Shimizu in Suruga in a ship en route for Uraga, a seaport of the Sagami. Scarely had they left when a terrific typhoon began to blow, and the little craft lost its headway and was hurried along on the high sea in the pacific Ocean.

Here the high sea was represented, which was certainly very high indeed, but most excellently gotten up;: an immense stretch of canvas, painted to represent water and waves, lay over the stage. Under the canvas were about a hundred little boys and men, who kicked furiously and flapped their arms around in a violent manner. These made very good waves and occasionally finely cut paper was thrown up to represent spray. The effect was very good indeed – one could almost fancy himself at sea in a great storm. In the little rocking ship were seated three men, holding on for safety – for several men in blue wave-coloured dresses were rocking the boat at a fearful rate. They were speaking, but their voices could scarcely be heard for the howling and shrieking of the wind and the thunder of the waves, which sounds were successfully produced by the orchestra with the vocal aid of a score or two of the lively waves, who seemed to enjoy the storm heartily.

The poor shipwrecked sailors were evidently in the greatest despair, as they had been suffering for the want of food for several days. Kanematsu, the servant, a young jolly-looking savage, offered to kill himself in order that his master Gozaemon and his master’s son Mihozō might live by eating his dead body. The old man was very much touched by this proof of faithfulness, and answered that as it was his own fault that they came into these misfortunes, and as he had already exceeded his sixty-sixth year, he considered it quite proper that he should die to save the others. Here the old man tried to cast himself into the sea, but was held back by his son and his servant. While the old man struggled with his son, Kanematsu in a frenzy of despair seized a pointed knife and pressed it to his throat, from which flowed a bright stream of blood. He shortly afterwards expired in great agony and, falling over the side of the boat, was carried away by the waves.

Just then the smoke of a large steamer was seen in the distance, to which they cried for help, the tumultuous waves meanwhile screaming at the top of their shrill voices. When their agony was stretched to an overwhelming extent, a boat rowed by two English sailors appeared on the scene, in the bow of which sat a fine looking Japanese in European clothes. The tremendous sea prevented their reaching the floundering boat, so after a great deal of excitement Mihozō, tying a rope around his body and whirling the end to the sailors, jumped into the sea (to the great astonishment of the waves, some of whom sprang out from under the canvas, looking quite scared and covered with dust and perspiration.)

After a great deal of kicking and scrambling and vain efforts on Mihozō’s part, and wild excitement on the part of the sailors, he was pulled all exhausted from the angry waves. He sank down in the boat, but immediately roused himself to save his father. The old man held the rope right bravely, but alas, it broke and Mihozō fell back fainting, while the old man drifted away, lifting up hands of despair towards the black heavens.

Act two revealed the Japanese consulate in San Francisco. This was a common-looking structure resembling a corner grocery, a country post office, a small hotel, anything but a consulate. Three chairs were on the pavement below the steps where a stiff fellow in European dress was seated. After a lengthy soliloquy, a smart young fellow with mustache au fait stepped briskly out of the consulate and entered into conversation with the sole occupant of the stage. Presently both gentlemen started up – one removing his hat, the other his cigar, for there in the distance ambling along at a waddling gait was a Japanese lady in European dress! She looked so simply ridiculous that I was obliged to laugh, and when she began unconsciously to flirt with her handkerchief as she came near the gentlemen, I was quite overcome with mirth.

After a great deal of talk the scene changed and presented the interior of the consulate (there was, by the way, no Japanese consulate 12 years ago, when these events were supposed to have taken place) where the same spruce gentlemen were sitting on chairs reading newspapers. Presently the door opened, and a dignified personage, representing Consul Mr Akitsu, entered. Then a great noise was heard and the sailor Tōgorō appeared. He was followed by a sad-looking fellow in tight boots, which caused in him intolerable pain, who in turn was followed by two rough sailors. The awkward young man, who cut a sorry figure in his ill-fitting uncomfortable clothes, was none other than Mihozō, the rescued fisherman. He entered the parlour and dropped on all fours before the consul and could not be persuaded to sit on a chair for some time. Here was the man, Tōgorō said, whom he and these two sailors had saved. Thereupon His Excellency said, addressing himself to Mihozō, “Arise, sir, and tell me without hesitation the history of your accident and rescue.” So Mihozō with a face full of pain dragged himself with difficulty to his feet and sat in a chair, carefully nursing one painful foot and then another. He was evidently sick bodily, and homesick. He was an exact representation of a type of Japanese one often meets in America.

Mihozō began his sad tale until he came to where his poor father was separated from him, then he broke down entirely. Tōgorō looked deprecatingly up from under his eyebrows, the consuil looking serious, the young swell chewed and twirled his mustache, and some deeply affected in the audience cried out in approval “Ya! Ya!” in sharp fierce voices according to custom.

At this moment, the fair young wife of the consul, Mrs. Akitsu looked up. he uttered a cry of joy and fell at Miss Wakaba’s feet. She was embarrassed at such demonstrations. Mihozō finally recovered sufficiently to say that he recognised her as the beautiful ojōsama whom his mother used to nurse. “Yes,” said he clasping his hands and standing upright in spite of his tight shoes, “it is undoubtedly you, the same lovely ojōsama unchanged!”

The lady simpered and said that she remembered her old nurse and her husband, who used to come often to play chess at Shikishima’s house. She was just about to depart for an institution in Washington where she expected to finish her education. Kuwayama, the spruce young fellow, was to accompany her, and it was proposed that Mihozō should go with them in order to see and admire the beauties of the land and the marvels of civilisation.

The next act revealed a chief of the savages of the great American desert, waiting with six companionsfor the arrival of the train from San Francisco. These savages were too excruciatingly hideous for anything. The chief had, assuredly, eagle feathers and a bow and arrows. He also wore mocassins. But oh my! He had bright red hair and a coal-black face. The roll of the savages’ eyes was terrible and they bared their teeth. They were destroying the rails while the smokestack of the engine popped out and detached from the cars. The passengers in the latter rose up and lifted the roof off and scampered away. All rushed away like men in a dream leaving only Wakaba and Mihozō. As they were talking, Wakaba looked around and uttered a squeal, for beside her stood the savage chief about to clutch her. She flew to Mihozō, who with turned-in toesand scared face, looked dumbly around. Another savage appeared on the other side, Wakaba got behind Mihozō, trembling in every limb. Finally a bright thought struck Mihozō, for he took out his purse and offered it to the chief saying, “Sir, will you please accept this and let the lady pass?” But the savage, who was supposed to understand only “American,” answered with a barbaric jargon, quite fearful to hear. Mihozō tried the other with “filthy lucre,” but he too responded with a torrent of jargon, emphasized by a kick. Six more came out, and in trying to save Wakaba, Mihozō fell down. Wakaba fainted and the savages, with yells, approached her. It was too much for me and I turned away, sickened by so much trouble. When I looked up again, I saw Wakaba being carried off by two horrid savages, while the fallen Mihozō and Kuwayama fought bravely with seven savages. The savages were soon vanquished, and Kuwayama staggered off the stage leaving poor Mihozō alone.

The next scene was in San Francisco, where Consul Akitsu and his wife have just heard by telegram that Wakaba was carried off by savages and Mihozō was killed. The consul and his wife are in despair. Hereupon the curtain was drawn down on Akitsu in consternation.

[at this point the adjourned for refreshments]

We reached the theatre while the third act was in progress and saw that the old father Gozaemon was not lost, but had been picked up by a French ship, carried to England, and was, when the scene opened, at the Crystal Palace in London. He meets the sailor Tōgorō, hears about his son’s murder by the Indians, and in despair jumps into the Thames. Two Englishmen, one of whom looked like Mr. Angas, saved him.

In the fourth and firth acts it was shown how all these people met together at the Grand Opera in Paris. Wakaba was rescued by some kind Frenchman and was sent to Paris where her brother Akitsu joined her. Mihoz, left for dead on the plains, was saved by a great doctor, Fournier, who healed his wounds, and in token of gratitude Mihozō became his servantand went to Paris also. The old father too got to Paris in some way, as well as Kuwayama, and in the last act all these friends met together and recounted their adventures since their last meeting. “All gathered in the good country of France,” as the program, an extraordinary sheet, reads.

Here the scene changed entirely, for the Foreign Opera Company from Yokohama had been engaged to perform. The stage took the appearance of a European theatre and a grand piano was wheeled out. The background was wild mountain scenery. A light-haired gentleman sat down and began a lively strain – London’s “Brakes and Braes,” upon which a bonnie Highland laddie bounded out and began a gay Highland fling. Oh, it was so charming! I did not know which I liked best, the bonnie, bonnie laddie, or his bonnie costume. Mr Dixon was thoroughly surprised and uttered an exclamation of delight. The Highland laddie was dressed in Rob Roy plaid, kilt, vest and plaidie, His face was as handsome as one could wish to see, fair and boyish, with honest twinkling eyes. […]

Then “Brudder Bones” gave us a plantation song, and a prima donna sang some operatic music. Her voice was a lovely soprano and she had a magnificent compass. She trilled delightful on the high notes. But the best parts were spoiled because the Japanese, who thought it something unusually funny, would laugh aloud when she trilled in the high notes. […] Miss Elsie May, a pretty young actress, and another lady sang a lovely duet in English. The pianist, who is also a skillful performer on the violin, gave us a violin solo. The performance of the foreign company ended with a grand dance in costume.

“Clara’s Diary: An American Girl in Meiji Japan” by Clara Whitney, p272-277


As always, I am very grateful for help from both Paul Morris Griffith for his guidance on all things kabuki and from Samuel L. Leiter for his encyclopaedic knowledge of kabuki theatre.  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.