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Introduction:“Yoshitsune Senbonzakura


「義経千本桜〜大物浦」 解説

*Portrait of Tomomori played by Somegoro the 7th

1) Historical Background

In the late of Heian period (the middle of 12th century), the Japanese aristocracy was losing their power, and Samurai began to gain power instead. Two major clans of Samurai were “Heike
平家” and “Genji 源氏” both of whom kept growing more and more powerful.

It was Taira no Kiyomori 平清盛 (Heike) who firstly built the foundation of Samurai-ruling government. Heike clan enjoyed their utmost prosperity, however, it rapidly deteriorated after Kiyomori’s death. Then, the war began between Heike and Genji clans again. The chief commanders were Taira no Tomomoari 平知盛 (Heike) and Minamoto no Yoshitsune 源義経 (Genji). Yoshitsune won the sea battle of Dan-no-ura 壇ノ浦(the coastal area in present Shimonoseki City in Yamaguchi Prefecture) in 1185 and put an end to Heian period. Minamoto no Yoshitsune made a great contribution for Genji’s victory, but aroused his brother Yoritomo’s jealousy and antipathy at the same time. He was eventually pursued and sent away to Oshu Hiraizumi (present Iwate Prefecture) where he was destined to die.

The story of rise and fall of Heike and Genji was passed down from generation to generation mainly by Gin-yu-Shijin (wandering minstrels) after Kamakura period (13th century). This word of mouth was formed into a masterpiece of Japanese literature called “Heike Monogatari” (The Tale of the Heike 平家物語) and “Gikei-ki 義経記”. “Mono no A-wa-re” (pathos もののあはれ) is described in the story as it starts saying, “The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.” This way of thinking gave a great impact on the posterity.

2) About “Yoshitsune Senbonzakura / Daimotsu-no-ura”

“Yoshitsune Senbonzakura” of Kabuki is a historical play consisting of five acts, which takes a whole day if all the five played. The time setting is after Dan-no-ura sea battle in 1185 where Heike clan is annihilated.

There is a fictional setting in “Senbonzakura” that three Heike worriors, Taira no Tomomori, Koremori 維盛, and Noritsune 教経 are not actually killed in the battle. They are the key persons and the mysteries of the play, and Tomomori appears in Act 2.


“Daimotsu-no-ura”, the last scene of Act 2, is based on “Funa-Benke 船弁慶” of Noh drama, however, “Daimotsu-no-ura” differs greatly from the original. In “Funa-Benkei”, late Tomomori attacks Yoshitsune as a vengeful ghost, while in “Daimotsu-no-ura”, Tomomori is still alive when he attacks Yoshitsune. When Tomomori dies in the play of Kabuki, he begs Yoshitsune to believe that it is not Tomomori himself but his ghost who attacked Yoshitsune. It shows a unique character of Kabuki adapting a story of Noh as a base but also adding new ideas to develop the story more dramatically. It is well acknowledged that “Yoshitsune Senbonzakura” is one of the largest-scale historic Kabuki plays at present.


Kabuki plays about historic people such as aristocrats and samurai are called “Jidai-mono 時代物.” “Jidai-mono” tends to be large-scale, and “Daimotsu-no-ura” is not an exception. Tomomori kills himself by drowning in the sea holding a big anchor on his shoulder. This is one of the most sublime scenes in Kabuki. Emotional tremble the audience receive may be similar to that from Greece tragedy.

3) Outline of “Daimotsu-no-ura”

<Scene Tokai-ya 

Minamoto no Yoshitsune achieves a great victory by annihilating Heike clan, however, he is mistrusted by his brother Yoritomo, the top general of Genji clan. Yoshitsune reluctantly decides to leave Daimotsu-no-ura coast in Settsu-no-kuni and sail to Kyushu, the western part of Japan, to wait for his opportunity. Yoshitsune accommodates at Tokai-ya, the shipping agency in Daimotsu-no-ura. The key point is that the owner of Tokai-ya named Gimpei is actually Taira no Tomomori who is believed to have died in the battle. His wife Oryu is Suke no Tsubone, a nurse who protects the child Emperor Antoku. They disguise themselves to avenge on Yoshitsune.


In the middle of the night, wind and rain are getting harder, turning into a storm. When Yoshitsune sets sails to the west, Ginpei reveals his identity as Tomomori. Tomomori wears white kimono and white armors to look like a ghost, and tries to kill Yoshitsune with his fellow warriors. However, Yoshitsune has already known Ginpei’s disguise, and snatches victory. Suke no Tsubone watches their sea battle from the seashore and sadly understands Tomomori’s defeat. She accepts her destiny and decides to throw herself into the sea holding the child Emperor Antoku, but Yoshitsune stops her by the skin of the teeth.


<Scene Daimotsu-no-ura 大物浦>

Tomomori is still fighting against Yoshitune. The child Emperor Antoku tells him not to regard Yoshitsune as an enemy but forgive him, and Suke no Tsubone commits suicide in the end. These two incidents shock him and make him finally realize that the true reason of Heike clan’s fall is a tyranny by his father Kiyomori. Tomomori asks Yoshitsune to protect the child Emperor. He smiles and says “Yesterday’s enemy is a today’s friend.” He puts an anchor rope around his body, and throw himself into the sea from the top of the sea rock.


Written by Yamamoto Kichinosuke
Translated by Kayo
All rights reserved.

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