"Kanjincho" is a kabuki program which is based on the Noh play "The Ataka Barrier." It is one of the kabuki juhachiban (the eighteen best plays of the Ichikawa family of kabuki actors), and it also set a precedent for a series of kabuki plays called Matsubamemono, which is typically performed against a backdrop of pine trees.
It was originally performed by Danjuro ICHIKAWA the First as a part of "Hoshiai Junidan" (Twelve Scenes of the Love Stars), and was premiered in February 1702. It was written by Gohei NAMIKI, with music composed by Rokuzaburo KINEYA the Fourth.
The program's current format is derived directly from the performance of "Kanjincho" which premiered at Kawarazaki Kabuki Theater in March 1840. The original cast was as follows: Danjuro ICHIKAWA the Seventh as Musashibo Benkei; Danjuro ICHIKAWA the Eighth as MINAMOTO no Yoshitsune; Danzo ICHIKAWA as Yasuie TOGASHI.
Since that time, the three roles of "Kanjincho" have been some of the major roles which are to be performed by marquee players once in their lifetimes. The "Kanjincho" that was performed during the early Showa Period - with Koshiro MATSUMOTO the Seventh cast as Benkei, Kikugoro ONOUE the Sixth as Yoshitsune, and Uzaemon ICHIMURA the Fifteenth as Togashi - in particular was considered a masterpiece, and the performance was also recorded on film.
The story is set at the Ataka Barrier (now Komatsu City, Ishikawa Prefecture) in Kaga Province, where MINAMOTO no Yoshitsune and his company, on the run after having provoked the wrath of MINAMOTO no Yoritomo, are passing through on their way to Mutsu Province via the Hokuriku District. Yoshitsune's group, led by Musashibo Benkei, attempts to pass the barrier disguised as yamabushi (mountain priests). However, a piece of information to the effect that Yoshitsune's group would be disguised as yamabushi had already reached Saemon TOGASHI, the barrier keeper, before their arrival. When Benkei tells Togashi that they are on the road soliciting contributions to reconstruct the burned-down Todai-ji Temple, Togashi orders him to read out the kanjincho, the statement for donation. Benkei takes up a scroll he had with him by chance, and, pretending it is a real kanjincho, he "reads" it aloud sonorously (the Scene of Reading Kanjincho Aloud).
Togashi, who is still in doubt, questions Benkei further about special knowledge as yamabushi and their secret mantra. But Benkei responds to all the questions without a sign of hesitation (the Scene of Yamabushi Mondo, the questions and responses about yamabushi). Although Togashi allows them to pass, one of his subordinate officers throws suspicion onto Yoshitsune. However, Benkei hits his master Yoshitsune with his kongozue (a big walking stick used by a mountain priest in his training), and so is able to satisfy their doubts. Yoshitsune and his company have now passed the crisis, and Togashi offers them sake to make up for his rudeness, while Benkei performs a dance (the Scene of the Ennen no mai (Ennen Dance)). While Benkei dances, he lets Yoshitsune and others escape, then greets Togashi with his eyes and hurries after his master (the Scene of the Roppo Exit).
It is said that in the early rendering, Togashi was represented as a mediocre man who was fooled by Benkei far too easily. However, in later performances, he is portrayed as a good-hearted man who, despite the fact that he detects Benkei's lie, pretends to be fooled by him because he understands Benkei's sincere heart.
The oratory displayed in the Scene of 'Reading Kanjincho Aloud' and the Scene of 'Yamabushi Mondo.'
The thrill experienced during the moments in which the true identity of Yoshitsune is nearly revealed. The moving bond displayed between the master Yoshitsune and his subordinate Benkei. The excellent Ennen Dance and the splendid Roppo Exit. There are many highlights in Kanjincho, and the play captivates the audience throughout the performance. This is the main reason why Kanjincho is always voted one of the most popular kabuki programs.
The beautiful 'mie' (poses), displayed one after another during the play, such as Tenchinin no mie (the combination of three poses between Benkei, Togashi and Yoshitsune), Benkei's Fudo no mie (a pose as the fearsome Buddhist deity Fudo) and Ishinage no mie (a rock-throwing pose), are also one of the highlights of Kanjincho. At the first performance of Kanjincho, Danjuro ICHIKAWA the Seventh had Noh music in mind, so he chose not to use the typical sound effect for the mie called "tsukeuchi," produced with wooden clappers. This policy with regard to the music is continued even today: there is no musical accompaniment in the performance except for during the 'Ishinage no mie', which represents an army, and the mie displayed just before the Roppo Exit at the end.
During the play, Togashi, who reads Benkei's mind and empathizes with him, raises his head with his eyes closed as if he is trying to stop the tears rolling down his face, and exits the stage. It is said that this performance was first rendered by the acting master Kodanji ICHIKAWA the Fourth, who acted with Danjuro ICHIKAWA the Eighth as Benkei.
There are several scripts which have been based on Kanjincho, such as the relaxed and somewhat old-fashioned "Gohiiki Kanjincho" (Our Favorite Kanjincho), written by Jisuke SAKURADA the First during the Tenmei Period, and "Ataka no Seki" (The Ataka Barrier), which is a modern interpretation of the story written during the Taisho Period. The former is commonly called 'Imoarai Kanjincho' (Potato-washing Kanjincho), taken from the last scene, in which Benkei throws the severed head of a guard into a large barrel and tosses it around with a thick stick as if he is washing potatoes. The latter was written especially for Chusha ICHIKAWA the Seventh, who was bad at dancing.
"Kanjincho" is the basis for the film "The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail," directed by Akira KUROSAWA.
When someone talks as if he or she is reading a script, but in fact is improvising his or her speech, the expression 'kanjincho' is used, which is derived from the Scene of Reading Kanjincho Aloud, where Benkei pretends to read the scroll he happened to have with him aloud and sonorously.