Funa-Benkei (船弁慶)

Contributed by David Surtasky

Funa-Benkei  船弁慶 (summary)

A fourth category play, attributed to Kanze Kojirō Nobumitsu

Minamoto no Yoshitsune has gathered together his retainers, and prepares to leave Kyoto and go into self-imposed exile.  Along with his friend and loyal servant, the warrior monk Musashibō Benkei – he is fleeing the conflict that has arisen between he and his brother Yoritomo. Benkei speaks, talking of the troubles between the brothers and the party’s intention to head to the provinces west of the capital. In this way Yoshitsune hopes to ameliorate the situation with Yoritomo, even though they should have a close relationship since they fought together to overthrow the Heike clan.

The party expresses their hesitance in leaving the capital, reflecting on their triumphant setting forth the previous year while following the fleeing Heike. Now they gather together at the river’s edge preparing to board a boat. Looking upon a statue of the Genji guardian deity Hachiman, they indicate that only the deity would know about the true feelings in their hearts, offering prayers to him for their fortunes.

Benkei approaches a boathouse, asking the boatman to give them a place to stay for the night and to be ready to take the party into the west. Traveling with the group is the Lady Shizuka. Benkei speaks with Yoshitsune, telling him that he feels it would be a poor choice for her to accompany them into exile and that she should instead return to Kyoto. Yoshitsune accedes to his opinion.

Seeking out Lady Shizuka at the inn she’s staying at, Benkei informs her that his lord is deeply moved by her affections and loyalty but feels it best for her to go back to the capital. Shizuka is astonished and hurt and accuses Benkei of orchestrating this decision. She insists on speaking with Yoshitsune in person, and is brought to him. They speak together and Yoshitsune talks regretfully of his exile, and of the uncertainty that awaits him. Lady Shizuka is utterly heart-broken, but in great reluctance agrees to stay behind.

A departure party is held, and Lady Shizuka is given a cup of sake. It is requested that she perform a dance for the party’s good fortune. Given an eboshi, Shizuka prepares a Shirabyōshi dance. She compares Yoshitsune’s broken relationship with his brother with an old Chinese tale, and expresses her hope that the two can be reconciled. The Lady Shizuka dances the chu-no-mai. The moment for departure comes and Shizuka is overcome by inconsolable grief, touching deeply all those who witness it. Her tears mingle with the river as she returns to the inn and Yoshitsune to the boathouse.

A retainer informs Benkei that Yoshitsune is not ready to depart, that the weather and tides are too rough. Benkei believes this is because of Yoshitsune’s reluctance to leave the Lady, and insists that they depart forthwith. The party boards the boat, and they make off into the unsettled waters.

The boatman notices the weather starting to turn worse, and the boat is tossed on the waves. Quickly a storm engulfs them. Benkei urges the travelers to pray, and one of the retainers believes that the boat has been seized by a demon. Benkei admonishes him for speaking such unlucky words. Looking out over the turbulent waves, Benkei can see the ghosts of the vanquished Heike clan appearing. Rising from the depths they’ve come to seek revenge. Yoshitsune is unafraid of the evil spirits.

With eyes filled with hatred, the ghost of Taira no Tomomori comes forth. Brandishing a fearsome naginata he approaches the boat and confronts Yoshitsune. Having been drowned in battle of Dan-no-ura he has returned to treat Yoshitsune to the same fate and drag him to the depths. Blowing his foul breath in their faces he kicks up the waves to frighten the retainers, and slashing his naginata about wildly advances to exact his vengeance.

Yoshitsune remains calm, and grasping his katana assaults the phantom enemy. Benkei realizes the futility of a corporeal battle with an evil spirit, and defending his lord begins to pray to the five myō-ō deities. The East, the South, the West, the North and the Center. He calls upon the deities to bind the ghost of Tomomori. A spiritual battle ensues between Benkei and the ghost, and Benkei eventually manages to repel him through the power of his prayers. In time the spirit is exhausted and dissapears. The waves become calm again.

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About Theatre Nohgaku

Noh, one of the oldest continuing stage arts, combines highly stylized dance, chant, music, mask and costume with intense inner concentration and physical discipline, creating a uniquely powerful theatrical experience. Theatre Nohgaku’s mission is to share noh’s beauty and power with English speaking audiences and performers. We have found that this traditional form retains its dramatic effectiveness in languages other than Japanese. We believe noh techniques hold a powerful means of expression in the context of contemporary English language theatre.
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One Response to Funa-Benkei (船弁慶)

  1. Pingback: 今何時、我々は何処ですか | Theatre Nohgaku Blog

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