JULY KABUKI – 蜘蛛の絲梓の弦 – The Spider’s Web and The Stringed Catalpa Bow

Katsukawa Shuntei - Defeat of the Ground Spider
Katsukawa Shuntei – Defeat of the Ground Spider

The end of July has brought suffocating heat with it to the Northern Kantō. Much is happening as I pack for Sapporo where I begin my cross Japan journey with my love. I am excited as I am going to attempt to visit old kabuki theatres across the country on this adventure. Failing that I will try to see kabuki outside of the regular Tōkyō theatres. There will not be any  posting of live kabuki in August as I made the error in booking my flight before the Kabuki-za had released its opening day schedule. As the Kabuki-za is doing three productions a day in August, they have decided to begin their August program on the 6th rather than earlier in the month as I had hoped. I regret not booking later and making sure, but these things happen. I will still be posting something in August.

In the mean time I shall do a brief write-up about an amazing dance play I saw at the Kabuki-za a week or so ago. Kumo no ito asuza no yumihari – The Spider’s Web and the Stringed Catalpa Bow* (hereafter called Kumo no ito) was performed with plenty of exciting tricks (keren) and acrobatics. Ichikawa Ennosuke starred, in five roles, as well as Ichikawa Ukon, Bandō Minosuke, Nakamura Shido, and Ichikawa Ebizō. This dance highlighted the acrobatics of Ichikawa Ennosuke who will headline the ONE PIECE adaptation into kabuki in October at the Sinbashi Enbujō.

Kumo no Ito was first performed at the Ichimura-za in 1765.  The story of the “ground spider” is not new to Japanese theatre, having been a noh play called Tsuchigumo or The Ground Spider  (土蜘蛛) which I had the opportunity to see in 2006 at the Royal Ontario Museum. Tsuchigumo was the final portion in a five play noh production (gobanme mono), called the ki, or demon part.** The other four segments before gobanme mono are, kami/shin (deity), otoko/dan (man), onna/jo (woman)  and kurui/kyō (madness). What is carried into the kabuki dance version of Tsuchigumo from the noh is the role, played by Ichikawa Ennosuke, of the shite(して).***

The shite is the supernatural protagonist camouflaging itself into different benign characters in order to get close to its intended target, either a human being such as in this production of The Spider’s Web, or an item such as in the dance play, Demon Ibaraki. In Tsuchigumo the shite is camouflaged as a priest, while in Kumo no ito the supernatural spider changes into five different characters plus its true form at the climax. This quick changing term in kabuki is called hayagawari and the kabuki dance is called a henge mono (transformation dance). This was a predominantly 19th Century device to show off the talents of actors of the day, notably Bandō Mitsugorō IV, and Nakamura Utaemon III. Much like the different characters played by Ennosuke in this production; the child Noshimaru, the tea seller Hikosaku, the apprentice courtesan Yaezato, the blind masseur Kameichi and the courtesan Usugumo, all vary in age and gender highlighting the versatility of an actor like Ennosuke. It’s a fun ride with the speed of Ennosuke’s changes to watch him move from character to character and not miss a beat.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi - Mirror of the Quarters of Retainers of Famous Generals (Usui Sadamitsu, Urabe Setae, Watanabe no Tsuna, Sakata no Kintoki)
Utagawa Kuniyoshi – Mirror of the Quarters of Retainers of Famous Generals (Usui Sadamitsu, Urabe Setae, Watanabe no Tsuna, Sakata no Kintoki)

Based on the historical Minamoto no Yorimitsu (948-1021), son of Minamoto no Mitsunaka (912?-997) and a leader during the Heian Period (806-1184) he was part of the illustrious and successful Seiwa Genji (Minamoto).  Yorimitsu held various positions such as governor of provinces such as Izu (Shizuoka) and Kōzuke (Gunma) as well as Secretary of War. Yorimitsu was popular in stories and legends as well, such as The History of Sakata Kintoki, where Yorimitsu discovers a child, Kintoki adopting him and training him as a warrior. Yorimitsu also makes an appearance in Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s (1653-1725) final play Tethered Steed and the Eight Provinces of Kantō written in 1724 where Yorimitsu, represented as shogun, oversees his younger brother Yorinobu (968-1048) becoming the new shogun over his other brother Yorihira (dates unknown). He then becomes embroiled in an affair which questions honour and loyalty, family and compassion. In Kumo no Ito, Yorimitsu is ill in his mansion. He is guarded by his retainers Usui Sadamitsu (Nakamura Shido), and Sakata no Kintoki (Ichikawa Ukon), the same man he adopted in the earlier stories and raised himself. These two characters are famously known as the Shitennō Guardians and are always by Yorimitsu’s side.

Playwrights like Chikamatsu, would use characters like the ground spider, and items such as swords, to critique or praise the Tokugawa leadership during the Edo Period (1603-1868).  Andrew Gerstle writes that the ground spider in plays such as TsuchigumoKumo no Ito, and Chikamatsu’s Tethered Steed and the Eight Provinces of Kantō, (especially the final two acts) represent a power struggle for “legitimate government.” The Tokugawa regime claimed to be descended from the auspicious Genji lineage. All of the characters that Ennosuke plays represent external attacks to the government of Yorimitsu which in turn are hidden comments regarding the Tokugawa regime. When the spider is fought in the final portion of Kumo no Ito the warriors supporting Yorimitsu are battling for the legitimacy of their power. The special sword Kumokirimaru used by Yorimitsu to attack the spider in the end is the symbol of this legitimate power. Kabuki as social commentary is worth writing about fully in a later posting.

In Kumo no Ito both Kintoki and Sadamitsu, guarding Yorimitsu soon begin to nod off. Before they become sleepy both men had hoped to refresh themselves with some tea. Just as they slip into unconsciousness they are greeted by the maid Noshimaru (Ennosuke), entering through the suppon, a trap door device in the hanamichi which reveals supernatural characters. The men don’t see her enter at first but when they do she is questioned, and answers to their satisfaction. All three go on to chat amicably about various topics like children’s games. Noshimaru dances pantomiming various games that they discuss. As she dances she attempts to get closer to the rooms of Yorimitsu but is blocked by Sadamitsu and Kintoki. Having been discovered, Noshimaru throws webbing made of rice paper (chisuji no ito) at her attackers and escapes quickly through the kuromisu, an offstage room where musicians are located.

Located on stage right (left of the audience) the kuromisu is hidden from view by being a part of the scenery. The musicians hidden behind the rattan play many different instruments and provide sound effects during various points within the dance or play.  What was amazing about Noshimaru’s escape was the fact that the audience is always accustomed to seeing the kuromisu hidden in plain view. One would never expect a trap door to be there. The door quickly opened and Noshimaru jumps, sliding down a ramp and disappearing from view. Both Sadamitsu and Kintoki are now alerted to someone or something wanting to harm Yorimitsu.

The medicine seller Hikosaku enters and he too is rebuffed by the guards when he attempts to enter the bedchamber of Yorimitsu. Again webs are thrown and an escape is made with quick tachimawari between Yoshimitu’s guards and Hikosaku. Yaetazo the courtesan enters next holding a love letter from her mistress saying that the mistress and Yoshimitsu are lovers. The chanters sing about love and describe love letters themselves and the writing of them. Once again, Yaetazo gets too close to the bedchamber where Yoshimitsu rests and is summarily prevented from entering. Yaetazo throws more webbing at her attackers and flees. Sadakichi and Kintoki begin conversing about staying awake with a little entertainment, and coincidentally the final character enters, the masseur Kameichi.

Kameichi plays Sendai jōruri on the shamisen (仙台浄瑠璃),pre-Genroku Period (1688-1704) form of ballad entertainment, printed and distributed from the northern provinces. Kameichi says that he is from the northern province of Oshu, another name for Mutsu province which today are the modern prefectures of Iwate, Fukushima, Miyagi, Aomori and parts of Akita. After playing for a time Kameichi cannot hold back and attempts to get into the bedchamber of Yorimitsu, and again is thwarted by Sadamitsu and Kintoki. After Kameichi’s escape both warriors decide to find what is going on and where these spirits are coming from. Having left, down the hanamichi, there is a scene change with a large spider climbing down from the rafters. It is large and grotesque, hairy and ugly. We then find ourselves in Yorimitsu’s bedchamber where the spirit of the spider has transformed into the courtesan Usugumo. She speaks to Yoshimitsu as a lover and wonders why he has not come to visit her. The lyrics describe the pain she has had to go through in order to see him again. Suspicious of her intentions, Yorimitsu exposes her for who she truly is. Alerted to their lords shouts two other retainers Watanabe no Tsuna (Bandō Minlosuke), and Urabe no Suetake (Nakamura Shido) come and attack the spider, now exposed. After her escape they all decide to end this at her lair the same night.

The final scene is the most exciting as all the warriors including Yorimitsu attack the spider in the finale. Ichikawa Ebizō plays Hirai Yasumasa the most powerful of warriors and enters during the tachimawari on the hanamichi with bravado. The spider being cornered attacks over and over again with its own spider warriors, over and over again wave after wave. The melee of the spider and the warriors is quite something to see. All four of Yorimitsu’s warriors attack and attack with the newly arrived Hirai Yasuamasa, with tonnes of webbing being thrown everywhere. Finally, a red box is brought onto the stage and the final hippari no mie occurs, with the powerful spider standing amongst the warriors in a dramatic pose. Kumo no Ito was a fun and powerful play to see, a great example of how much excitement kabuki can offer. Fantastic.

* This title was translated by me and may contain errors, as I literally translated it from the Japanese.

** In noh the final and fifth part called gobanme mono is a part of the five play arrangement in noh called shin dan kyō ki. You may notice that there are two readings one in Japanese and one in Chinese. This is a faithful rendering from Samuel L. Leiter’s definition.

*** The term shite is predominantly used in noh rather than in kabuki, but as I cannot find the Japanese term for a kabuki protagonist, and Kumo no Ito is influenced on the noh play Tsuchigumo, I have taken the liberty to describe Ennosuke as a shite. 

Tadanori Yokoo - Earth Spider Kumadori
Tadanori Yokoo – Earth Spider Kumadori


Books: Chikamatsu, Monzaemon, and C. Andrew Gerstle. Chikamatsu 5 Late Plays. New York: Columbia UP, 2001.

Leiter, Samuel L. Historical Dictionary of Japanese Traditional Theatre. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 2006.

Markus, Andrew Lawrence. The Willow in Autumn: Ryūtei Tanehiko, 1783-1842. Cambridge, Mass.: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard U, 1992.

Redesdale, Algernon Bertram Freeman. Tales of Old Japan. Rutland, Vt.: C.E. Tuttle, 1966.

Sansom, G. History of Japan to 1334. Vol. 1. Stanford UP, 1958.


“Invitation to Kabuki | Kabuki Stage Mechanisms.” Invitation to Kabuki | Kabuki Stage Mechanisms. Web. 29 July 2015. <http://www2.ntj.jac.go.jp/unesco/kabuki/en/3/3_01.html&gt;.

“KABUKI GLOSSARY (S~T).” KABUKI GLOSSARY (S~T). Shōriya Aragorō. Web. 29 July 2015. .

Theatre Program:

Kabuki-za. (July, 2015). 蜘蛛の絲梓の弦 13, July 2015, programme, Kabuki-za, Tōkyō.

2 thoughts on “JULY KABUKI – 蜘蛛の絲梓の弦 – The Spider’s Web and The Stringed Catalpa Bow

  1. Reblogged this on JAPANESE MYTHOLOGY & FOLKLORE and commented:
    Tsuchigumo or ground spider in Kabuki and Japanese mythology. The spider was synonymous in the ancient Kojiki and Nihongi chronicles with local indigenous renegade clans. The symbol later evolved into the yokai supernatural folkloric proportions that we know today. These clans were found from Yamato Katusragi to the easternmost Japan., and associated with mounds and caves or rockcut catacombs. They were thus either indigenous descendants of the Jomon, or another settled tribe of Eurasian or Southeast Asian origin. The Chu (Zhu) state, Zhou dynasty period people in Southeast Asia had a spider as their totem (and Chinese character name. Altaic shamans, in addition to deer and bird, sometimes had the spider spirit as helper in their travels to the Underworld. From Lappland to Central Asia, the spider was a divine or lucky emblem, but large hairy or venomous spiders were also best known there and associated with caverns and holes in the ground, among which species were the Ladectrus or the black widow spider, that commanded the respect of the land’s peoples. Japan has an East Asian species that spins characteristic webs very low from the ground, trapping predators and deterring mammals. A benevolent goddess spider is still known from the folklore surrounding the Joren Falls in the Izu peninsula in eastern Japan. The spider is also associated with the Orion constellation from ancient Eurasia across the Beringia to the Americas (among the folklore of the Chinook, Bigfoot and other tribes)


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