Shinza the Barber is one of my favourites of the modern Meiji plays. It is a classic kabuki story of love, abduction, trickery and revenge set in the modern city of Edo – something that the audience would clearly identify with and feel connected to.
Onoe Kikugorō V as Kamiyui no Shinza (髪結の新三, ‘Shinza the barber’, shown outside the shop and listening intently to the young couple’s conversation), Onoe Kikunosuke II as ‘Tedai Chūshichi’ (手代忠七, ‘the sales clerk Chūshichi’), Nakamura Fukusuke IV as ‘Musume Okuma’ (娘おくま, ‘the daughter Okuma’) & Ichikawa Sumizō V ‘Goke Otsune’ (後家おつね, ‘the widow Otsune’) in the “Shirokoya scene” scene from the play “Tsuyu Kosode Mukashi Hachijō”, also known as “Kamiyui Shinza (Shinza the Barber)”, staged at the Kabuki-za theatre from April 1893. Thanks to Paul Morris Griffith for the translations.
The story starts at the failing Shirokoya lumber yard where the widow Otsune is planning to marry off her daughter Okuma to a rich clerk called Kagaya Tôbê to save her business. She has employed a go-between called Zempachi to do the negotiations and today the suitor will arrive with gifts for a first meeting. Outside the door Shinza, a door-to-door barber and shady character, listens to their discussion and plans his own intervention. Okuma is secretly in love with the lumber yard clerk Chūshichi and when she hears of the arranged marriage she is compelled to agree but she implores Chūshichi to run away and commit a lover’s suicide pact with her. Chūshichi doesn’t want to bring dishonour on the Shirokoya house so he stalls for time until he can think of a solution. Shinza gets Chūshichi to have a haircut and convinces him to elope with Okuma but become a hero by preventing her suicide and thus be rewarded by Otsune. Shinza says he will help with his plan.
The scene is the Eitai Bridge at night, in rain. Katsu, Shinza’s henchman appears leading a palanquin and disappears across the bridge into the dark. Then Shinza appears walking quickly with Chūshichi struggling to keep up with him. Chūshichi ‘s clog strap breaks and he can no longer follow but he soon understands that Shinza wasn’t helping him and has in fact abducted Okuma in the palanquin and will extract his own ransom from the Shirokoya. Chūshichi understands his only option is suicide so weights down his coat with rocks but before jumping into the Sumida he is stopped by the local gang boss Genshichi.
Back at Shinza’s house Okuma is locked in a cupboard and Shinza buys an expensive fish to celebrate the coming ransom money that he expects to win. Genshichi and the family go-between Zempachi try to negotiate with Shinza but they offer him a paltry 10 ryō, which angers Shinza and he sends both men packing with a lot of insults.
Okaku, the wife of Chōbē, Shinza’s landlord overhears all this and accosts Genshichi, suggesting that Chōbē is the man for the job. Genshichi and Zempachi accept the offer and they go to discuss the plan. Chōbē is himself a greedy and clever man and he thinks that 30 ryō should be enough to secure Okuma’s release and he goes to meet Shinza.
Shinza is not happy to see Chōbē because he owes him some rent already and he has difficulty dealing with him. The landlord spots the beautiful fish and convinces Shinza to give half to him when he leaves. They start the negotiation with many false compliments but Shinza soon loses his temper when he realises that Chōbē is only going to offer 30 ryō because he expected at least 100 ryō. His anger makes him start to boast about his criminal past, showing his prison tattoos, to try to show how he is a man that cannot be trifled with. But this is his big mistake because Chōbē turns in horror and says that he cannot rent his house to a criminal and he will go immediately to report Shinza to the police. Shinza realises he has lost the battle and agrees to free Okuma for 30 ryō.
Chōbē carefully counts the coins out putting 15 in front of Shinza and 15 in front of himself, saying “and half the fish is for me.” Shinza looks confused but Chōbē repeats the procedure identically until Katsu understands and tells Shinza he is keeping half for himself. Shinza is upset but cannot disagree now and is humiliated more when Chōbē takes 2 ryō for the outstanding rent. A neighbour bursts in saying that Chōbē’s house has been burgled causing Okaku to faint and Chōbē to grab the fish and run out. This misfortune for Chōbē is a small consolation for Shinza.
Onoe Kikugoro V & Ichikawa Sadanji I in the play ‘Mukashi Hachijō Ōoka Seidan’ (昔八丈大岡政談) (aka. Shinza, the Barber) performed at the Kabuki-za theatre from May 1893
The final scene is night time by the Enmadō bridge, a few months later. Genshichi appears with his sword and asks a noodle-seller to move on leaving him alone – he moves to the shadows and waits. He has been fuming at the disgrace suffered at the hands of Shinza but recently he had been boasting about it all over town. Shinza and Katsu appear and are in a good mood because they seem to have had some luck at a local gambling house. Katsu goes on an errand leaving Shinza alone when Genshichi confronts him.
In the play the actors will create a stylised fight scene called tachimawari but no fatal blow is seen. Instead by tradition both actors bow to the audience as the curtain closes.