Funa benkei (Noh play) (船弁慶)

Funa benkei (船弁慶: Benkei in the Boat) is a Noh play based on "Heike Monogatari" (The tale of the Heike) and "Azuma Kagami" (The Mirror of the East). It is also written as '舟弁慶' (or '船辯慶' and '舟辯慶' in the old [Chinese] character form). The author is believed to be Kojiro Nobumitsu KANZE. The colorful and dramatic structure of this play features MINAMOTO no Yoshitsune, MUSASHIBO Benkei, Shizukagozen and TAIRA no Tomomori as the main characters, with Noh-Shite playing totally different roles in the first half and the second half.

Structure of the Play

This Noh play begins with MINAMOTO no Yoshitsune escaping to Saigoku (the western part of Japan [a region including Kyushu, but ranging as far east as Kinki]) because he was viewed with suspicion by MINAMOTO no Yoritomo after subduing the Taira clan. The play is divided into the first part, featuring a sorrowful parting between Yoshitsune and his lover Shizukagozen and the second part, focused on a dramatic scene in which the ghost of TAIRA no Tomomori harrows Yoshitsune and his retainers at sea. Shite-kata has to play totally different characters - Shizukagozen and then the ghost of Tomomori - in the first and second halves of the same noh play. The role of Yoshitsune is played by a ko-kata (a child player in a Noh dance). It is also a feature that kyogen (the kyogen actor), who plays a local fisherman, plays an important role from beginning to end. This type of actor is called a 'Noh kyogenkata' (actors who perform lighthearted mini-plays that are often staged between the more serious noh pieces).

The first part
Noh Shite-kata (main role in the Noh play): MINAMOTO no Yoshitsune
Noh Waki-kata (supporting role): MUSASHIBO Benkei, (Waki Tsure [companions who appear with the supporting actor in a Noh play]: three retainers of Yoshitsune)
Noh kyogen-kata: a fisherman from Daimotsu-ura cove
Mae Noh Shite-kata (main role of the first half in the Noh play): Shizukagozen

Benkei, who comes on stage with Yoshitsune, announces that Yoshitsune has decided to go to Saigoku because he got on the wrong side of Yoritomo. They have a plan to travel down the Yodo-gawa River to Daimotsu-ura cove in Amagasaki City, Settsu Province, from where to set sail. After a travel scene from the southern suburbs in Kyoto, they walk through Iwashimizu to Daimotsu-ura cove and arrive at their destination, Daimotsu-ura cove, and ask a fisherman who lives there to arrange accommodation and a boat for them. Once they are settled in their accommodation, Benkei puts forward a suggestion to Yoshitsune to send back Shizukagozen to Kyoto, and when Yoshitsune agrees Benkei goes to the other inn where Shizuka is staying. Turning down Benkei's suggestion - saying 'I cannot see myself going back to Kyoto alone' - Shizuka suggests they go to see Yoshitsune. Benkei involuntarily comes back to Yoshitsune's accommodation with Shizuka.

Praising Shizuka for her bravery in coming along with him so far, Yoshitsune tells Shizuka to go back to Kyoto and wait for a chance. Shizuka apologizes for having suspected that the suggestion had come from Benkei, and Benkei himself sheds tears of sympathy at the impending separation of Yoshitsune and Shizuka. Shizuka too sheds tears, saying that she will look after herself until she can meet Yoshitsune again. Yoshitsune directs Benkei to prepare a farewell party and Shizuka serves Yoshitsune with sake. Shizuka puts on eboshi (formal headwear for court nobles) and performs a dance in the costume of Shirabyoshi (costume for Japanese traditional dance). She dances while recalling the historical event of Mt. Huiji in China, wishing to be cleared of Yoritomo's suspicion. The boat prepared for Yoshitsune and his retainers including Benkei is unmoored and waiting for them. Shizuka leaves the scene in tears.

Ai kyogen (comic interlude in Noh)
Ai (the role of a kyogen actor in Noh): a fisherman from Daimotsu-ura cove
Waki (supporting actor): MUSASHIBO Benkei, (Waki Tsure: three retainers of Yoshitsune)
Ko-kata: MINAMOTO no Yoshitsune

The fisherman who arranged the boat comes on stage and announces that he shed tears at seeing the separation of Yoshitsune and Shizuka. Benkei replys saying that he too shed tears. When Benkei asks if he could arrange a boat secretly, the fisherman says that a fast boat is available. Benkei says okay, let's set out. A retainer of Yoshitsune arrives at that moment, and reports that Yoshitsune says they should postpone their departure because of strong winds. Benkei, guessing that Yoshitsune wants to stay there a little longer since he is reluctant to part from Shizuka, orders the fisherman to set the boat to bear off soon, saying that Yoshitsune, who entered a battlefield despite a tempest, shouldn't say such a weak-hearted thing.

Ai kyogen, or the fisherman comes to the stage with an artificial boat and tells everyone to get on the boat. When everyone is on the boat, the fisherman rows the boat out into the sea. While rowing the boat, the fisherman asks Benkei to help him be put in charge of this stretch of the sea when Yoshitsune returns to power at some future time. When Benkei agrees, he cautions Benkei not to forget. While they are talking, the sea is becoming perilous.

The latter half
Ko-kata: MINAMOTO no Yoshitsune
Waki: MUSASHIBO Benkei, (Waki Tsure: three retainers of Yoshitsune)
Nochi Shite (the leading role in the latter half of a Noh play): TAIRA no Tomomori

As the wind blows down from Mukoyama (present-day Mt. Rokko) and their boat is being swept further out from shore, a retainer worries that the boat has been possessed by a monster. As the waves get higher while they talk the fisherman tells the retainer not to say such an unlucky thing. Benkei raises his voice, 'Oh, it's strange! Over the sea from here is the Heike clan that was ruined at Saigoku,' to which Yoshitsune replies nonchalantly that he is not suprised the Heike clan might create a curse in this way, since they themselves sank into the ocean after many bad deeds.

At that moment, the ghost of Tomomori, who has a halberd on his shoulder, appears from the hashigakari (bridge-form passageway to main stage). He says that he is here to sink Yoshitsune into the sea, and he dances furiously. Yoshitsune doesn't make a sound (as in the original noh song) and instead draws his sword to fight with the ghost. Saying that Yoshitsune cannot use a sword against a ghost, Benkei instead recites sutras and tells his rosary beads. The ghost initially fades because of the power of the prayers, but draws close to them once again. Both sides fight hard, and eventually Benkei's prayer helps to get the ghost of Tomomori to recede with the ebb tide.