Suitengū Megumi no Fukagawa [Kōbē an unfortunate samurai]

Onoe Einosuke I, Onoe Matsusuke IV, Onoe Kikugorō V, Ichikawa Sadanji I & Bandō Kakitsu I in the premier of the play “Suitengū Megumi no Fukagawa” (水天宮利生深川) performed at the Chitose-za theatre from 8th February 1885

Suitengū Megumi no Fukagawa (also called “Kōbē Fudeya”) was one of the so-called “Cropped Hair Plays (zangirimono) portraying “modern” Meiji Tokyo and the people living there. Mokuami Kawatake was inspired to write this play when he saw a down-on-his-luck warrior-class man selling ink brushes, and heard the story of a mother who became insane and threw her child in the river. 


The Meiji Restoration largely brought an end to the feudal, isolated society of the Edo, governed by the Togugawa shoguns and brought in a more modern governmental system with the Emperor as the state figurehead. Japanese society opened up to Western influence and the government sought to restructure and reform a lot of the old-fashioned ways. The government needed to raise money to pay for these reforms and so they replaced the traditional stipend paid to the samurai class for their military service with a form of grant in a process called Chitsuroku-shobun. While they attempted to do this fairly, in a way that would encourage samurai to find other jobs, the changes left many destitute and very angry. During the Edo period the samurai had always been seen as Japan’s elite and so they were used to living comfortably in return for fighting for their lord. This reduction in circumstances precipitated several revolts – the worst being the Seinan War of 1877.   


Joshinji urahinka no ba (Scene of a poor family behind the Joshin-ji Temple)

Kōbē Funadu is a samurai who has fallen on hard times but is trying to eek out an existence for him and his young family, living in a tenement house in a back street in Fukagawa (Tokyo). He has tried to sell ink brushes as a living but he is unfamiliar with this kind of work and his business is failing to pay the bills. His wife dies from complications due to childbirth leaving Kōbē with 2 daughters and a baby to raise. His oldest daughter then goes blind from sorrow. 

Kōbē’s family is supported by kindly neighbours who donate food and baby clothes to him, one such is the wife of Seisaku Hagihara, an assistant instructor of swordplay (shihandai). She sympathises with Kōbē’s plight and Kōbē is very grateful for the gifts he receives and for the empathy of his neighbours.  

For a while it looks like his situation is improving but this doesn’t last as a loan shark comes to take away money and clothes in lieu of prepayment of his debts. With the sounds of happiness coming from neighbouring houses Kōbē considers committing family suicide but he cannot bring himself to when he sees the smile of his baby. He gives way to sorry and despair – eventually having a mental breakdown starting to dance and sing.

His neighbours (Sangoro the richshaw man and Hagihara) run to is rescue when they hear the noise but can do nothing to help and Kōbē jumps into the Okawa river with his baby. 

Umibe-machi Kawagishi no Ba (Scene of the River Bank in Umibe-machi)

Kōbē is recued by Sangoro and Tamio, a patrol office (policeman?), and is startled into sanity by the shock of the jump into the river. The baby was also saved from drinking the salt water by a plaque of the Suiten-gu Shrine which Kōbē had carried with him. 

The papers having spread news of their plight and of the children’s family devotion, a huge sum of money is donated to them. A miracle medicine is also found to cure Oyuki’s blindness and Kōbē feels blessed by all around him and believes it is due to his faith in the Suiten-gu God.

Cast for the 1885 premiere at the Chitose-za

Kōbē/Yojiro Shotengu … Onoe Kikugoro V
Sangoro/Seisaku Hagihara … Ichikawa Sadanji I
Daughter, Oyuki … Onoe Kikunosuke II (*in my records I have Onoe Einosuke I [尾上栄之助])
Denji Ibaragi … Onoe Matsusuke IV

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