On March 25th, the Kimmel Center is going to be alight with the magic of kabuki. Bando Kotoji will be leading the celebration of kabuki with the Bando School. To really enjoy the full weight of a kabuki performance, the audience needs a familiarity with the story and themes at work. Let’s look at the michiyuki, 道行, included in their lineup titled Chou no Michiyuki, 蝶の道行.
A michiyuki is a kabuki danceplay. This means that the entire play is expressed in dance form and accompanied by chorus and music. Typically michiyuki stories are of lovers traveling, often to their deaths, or are two people traveling together with romantic potential. They also can be light-hearted or fantastical. For example, one famous michiyuki is about a woman who puts on a lion mask and transforms into a lion who then plays with little butterflies. Michiyuki are usually an act from a larger play comprised of many acts. Due to their nature, they are frequently performed independently of their play.
Chou no Michiyuki is the fifth act of a play entitled Keisei Yamato Zoushi. Chou no Michiyuki depicts lovers Komaki and Sukekuni reincarnated as butterflies who remember their human past, including the time they met and fell in love. By seeing and understanding this play, you’ll become familiar with some of the core kabuki themes that are repeated throughout Japanese literary culture. The first glaring Japanese theme is that of tragic suicide. Because Komaki and Sukekuni’s families have a bitter feud, the two star crossed lovers are forbidden from being together. They chose to end their lives as Komaki and Sukekuni so that in death and reincarnation they can be together. The idea of suicide as an answer, particularly as a sacrifice for the sake of some greater good (saving another life, etc) is prevalent in Japanese literature.
To compound the lovers’ problems, substitute bodies are needed so that another couple, Kitabatake Yukienosuke and Princess Yayoi, can survive their ordered deaths. This brings us to another theme: substitute deaths. When high ranking or otherwise important people are ordered to death for political reasons, often someone else is assassinated in their stead and their body (or head) is presented as theirs. You’ll see this often when young princes or noblemen’s sons are ordered to die to punish their families for rebelling or losing in a war. Usually a retainer of the family’s, or a secret sympathizer, will, out of loyalty, behead his own son so that the son of his master can survive. The idea of someone having to, out of loyalty and honor or other rules of obligation, having to make a horrible sacrifice is replayed in many forms in Japanese stories. In Keisei Yamato Zoushi, the suicide of Komaki and Sukekuni not only gives them freedom from the bonds of their human life to be together in their next lives but it serves the practical purpose of providing the substitute bodies to fake Kitabatake Yukienosuke and Princess Yayoi’s deaths. The fact that they become butterflies is a third a Japanese theme as butterflies are symbolic of souls.
While it is bittersweet, Chou no Michiyuki is a celebration of love and freedom. In a field of flowers, the lovers are free to be together and dance through their happy memories. With life renewing and bursting into bloom, it’s a perfect play for Spring! Please enjoy the show at the Kimmel Center on the 25th of March.
Learn more at the Cherry Blossom Festival Homepage!