Made in Japan: Kanjinchō (The Subscription List)

Made in Japan: Kanjinchō (The Subscription List)

September 25, 2018 Blog History Humanities Japan Made in Japan 0
Antagonist, Togashi Saemon.

I found a terrific video of a live kabuki performance of Kanjinchō 勧進帳 (The Subscription List),  which is a favorite of yours truly. The play is listed among the 18 Famous Kabuki Plays (歌舞伎十八番) in the kabuki repertoire and still hugely popular to this day. The leading character is a fierce warrior named Benkei, regarded an exemplar of loyalty and honor, and the story demonstrates the ends to which he will go to protect his master.

The role of Benkei is considered a supreme test of an actor’s abilities, demanding strong oration/projection, great physical presence/acting and graceful/emotive dancing. This version features three kabuki superstars (links to biographies listed below), performing at the peaks of their careers. The video is accompanied by a superb audio commentary that helps explain things without getting in the way of the spoken dialogue and musical accompaniment. The following is a short program guide to help you appreciate this master work of live theatre. Enjoy!


The story is set shortly after the end of the Genpei War. The play opens to a scene of the Ataka security checkpoint deep in the mountains, guarded by a senior official named Togashi Saemon. A small group of mountain priests, yamabushi, approach the checkpoint. In fact these are warriors traveling in disguise: Minamoto Yoshitsune, his retainer Musashibou Benkei, and four more Minamoto samurai.

During the aforementioned war, Yoshitsune was instrumental in helping his older half-brother Yoritomo emerge victorious. Unfortunately, Yoritomo became suspicious that his handsome and popular younger brother might usurp him and take over ruling the country. He issued a death sentence on Yoshitsune, who fled Kyoto and tried to reach allies in another province.

Benkei cautiously approaches the checkpoint, knowing the lives of his beloved master and brothers in arms are completely in his hands…


Yoshitsune, Yoritomo and Benkei (maybe) were real historical figures. Most of the tales regarding them come from the 14th-century war chronicle, Heike Monogatari (Tale of the Heike). This chronicle covers the Genpei War (1180–1185), which was fought between the ruling house of Taira (Heike) and rebelling house of Minamoto (Genji). Young and charismatic, Yoshitsune’s military prowess is rumored to have come from being trained by the Tengu King and there are many ukiyoe woodblock prints depicting this elite training. Benkei, if he truly existed, was an orphan raised and educated by temple monks, hence his deep knowledge of esoteric Buddhism.

While the Ataka checkpoint incident is probably fictional, Yoshitsune and his followers were indeed persecuted and escaped to the city of Hiraizumi in Mutsu province (Iwate prefecture) where they were sheltered by the powerful Fujiwara house. Unfortunately, the Fujiwara caved in to Yoritomo’s demands. Armed warriors surrounded the house where Yoshitsune was hiding, and he committed suicide shortly before they stormed in. Benkei was killed while defending his master. It was said his loyalty and determination were so great, that even after death he remained standing upright with his eyes glaring wide open. This legendary death for the consummate warrior is called the “standing death of Benkei” 弁慶の立往生.


The original play was titled Ataka and was originally written for and performed as noh theatre, an older and more stylized stage art. The current version of Kanjinchō premiered as kabuki in 1840 (the first kabuki was performed much earlier, but that script was lost), and very quickly became a fan favorite. The kanjichou is a temple subscription list, in this case a list of donors who have pledged to help rebuild the famous Todaiji Temple in Nara that had been damaged in a fire.

Things to look for during the performance:

  • Benkei intones the long and complex Buddhist introduction from memory as he reads the “subscription list”, which is just a blank scroll.
  • Togashi’s interrogation of Benkei, the yamabushi mondo, slowly intensifies as it becomes clear the two men are in a death-battle of wits.
  • At the height of the dramatic tension, the three actors simultaneously hold their poses for a moment, as if they were part of a ukiyoe woodblock print.
  • A drunken Benkei spontaneously breaks into a dance (buyou) of relief and gratitude, with a hint of sadness.
  • Benkei’s stage exit via the hanamichi walkway, which begins with a standing pose and heroic cross-eyed glare, the mie. He then exits using an exaggerated jumping stride called tobiroppo.

Main Actors:

Additional comments:

  • Togashi’s costume is the most formal type for government officials, called daimon. Normally worn for formal occasions at the Imperial Court or Shogunate Castle.
  • The onstage musicians are wearing the family crest of the Naritaya house, to which the lead actor (Ichikawa Danjuurou) playing Benkei belongs.
  • The four samurai retainers are collectively referred to as Shitenno (Four Heavenly Kings, a Buddhist reference.)
  • You may hear shouts of appreciation from the audience during high points of the performance. Often they shout the name of the actor’s school, “Naritaya!” (Ichikawa Danjuro XII), “Tennoujiya!” (Nakamura Tomijurou V), “Otowaya!” (Onoe Kikugoro VII) Or you may hear, “Matte imashita!” (“The moment we’ve been waiting for!”)
  • Benkei’s costume—with tiny cap, large pompoms and of course prayer beads—is the traditional theatrical costume for yamabushi (mountain priests). You will see this costume in noh, kabuki and kyogen theatre.
  • The plaid pattern of Benkei’s kimono is called benkeigoushi “Benkei plaid” and will vary slightly depending on which actors is playing Benkei. This plaid of brown/green/black on cream ground, for example, represents the Naritaya school.
  • The Genroku Era (1688-1704) within the Edo Period (1603-1868) was a “golden era” for arts and culture, particularly around the urban centers of Kyoto, Osaka and Edo (Tokyo).
  • Yoshitsune was very young and said to have the effeminate features of a beautiful young woman. Hence the frequent casting of actors who specialize in playing female characters.
  • The low-born, rough-mannered Benkei is regarded as the polar opposite of the noble-born, refined Yoshitsune. There are many stories of his bawdy personality, incredible strength, and unflagging loyalty.
  • Kabuki stages are constructed over special sound chambers, in the old days huge urns, to enhance the stamping sounds by the actors.
  • The commentator likens the heroes’ daring escape to “men treading on a tiger’s tail”. The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail is the title of an early movie by Kurosawa Akira about this incident.