Play title Heike Nyogo no Shima  In Japanese
Author Chikamatsu Monzaemon

The play "Heike Nyogo no Shima" was originally written for the puppet theater (Bunraku) and staged for the first time in the 8th lunar month of 1719 in ďsaka at the Takemotoza. It was adapted for Kabuki the following year and staged for the first time in the 1st lunar month of 1720 in ďsaka at the Naka no Shibai [casting]. It quickly became a classic and the role of Shunkan was closely associated to the Ichikawa Danz˘ line of actors, from Ichikawa Danz˘ III to Ichikawa Danz˘ VI. Great 20th century performers of Shunkan were Nakamura Kanzabur˘ XVII, Nakamura Kan'emon III, Nakamura Kichiemon I, Ichikawa En'˘ I or Kataoka Nizaemon XIII. Nowadays best performers are Nakamura Kichiemon II, Matsumoto K˘shir˘ IX and Kataoka Nizaemon XV.

About the title: "Heike Nyogo no Shima" could be translated as "The Heike and the Women-Protecting Island". This women-protecting island was of course not Kikai-ga-Shima (Devil's Island) of Act II. In Japan legends, Nyogo Island was in fact a mythic island full of women. Why Nyogo Island in the title? The key to understand it was in fact in Act III, with the story of the disappearance of young men every night near the house of Taira no Kiyomori's mekake Tokiwa Gozen.


The original puppet drama was made up of 5 acts. "Shunkan", a scene frequently staged nowadays, was the final scene (kiri) of the second act. A few others scenes are rarely staged at the National Theatre.

Key words Ama
Fujiwara Naritsune
Gidayű Ky˘gen
Goshirakawa Tenn˘
Heian Jidai
Itsukushima Jinja
Minamoto Yoritomo
Minamoto Yoshitomo
Noto-no-Kami Noritsune
Nyogo no Shima
Rokuhara Yakata
Senoo Kaneyasu
Shishigatani Jiken
Shishigatani no Inb˘
Shunkan (N˘)
Taira Kiyomori
Taira Noritsune
Taira Shigemori
Taira Yasuyori
Tokiwa Gozen


In the days when Taira no Kiyomori [1118~1181] ruled Japan, there were many attempts to overthrow him, because he was extremely arrogant and relentless in persecuting those who displeased him. One such attempt, the Shishigatani plot, was made by three men: a priest and two noblemen. Their names were Shunkan, Taira Yasuyori, and Fujiwara Naritsune. Their plot was discovered and they were apprehended at Shunkan's residence. Subsequently all three were exiled to Kikai-ga-Shima, a lonely island some distance from Kyűshű.

Act I, scene 3: Rokuhara
At Kiyomori's Mansion in Rokuhara [1]

After Priest Shunkan and his followers have been exiled to a remote Island on charge of plotting a revolt against Taira no Kiyomori, head of the Heike Clan and the supreme ruler of Japan, his wife Azumaya is confined to the clan's headquarters at Rokuhara Palace in Ky˘to. By Kiyomori's order, ladies-in-waiting perform a dance to cheer her up. Ecchű Jirobŕ Moritsugu, one of Kiyomori's leading retainers, visits the headquarters to tell Azumaya that Kiyomori wants to make her his concubine (mekake). Courageously rejecting the offer, Azumaya kills herself with a dagger. Ari˘maru, Shunkan's servant, breaks into the Heike headquarters, intending to assassinate Kiyomori. He is, however, forced to give up by Noto-no-Kami Noritsune, who is known for his marvellous strength.

Act II, scene 1: Toba no Tsukurimichi
On the New Toba Road
This scene is no more part of the current Kabuki repertoire [2]

To celebrate the birth of the son of empress, the second daughter of Taira no Kiyomori, it has been decided to allow the exiles to return to civilization. Not all of them: Kiyomori's anger and hatred for Shunkan is so deep that he has officially refused to grant Shunkan any amnesty.

Noto-no-Kami Noritsune meets on the new Toba Road Tanzaemon Motoyasu and the bush˘ Senoo Tar˘ Kaneyasu, the two j˘shi selected by Kiyomori to go to Kikai Island to bring back the pardoned ones. Taira no Shigemori has negotiated with his father the mitigation of his sentence regarding Shunkan. He has instructed Noritsune to issue a second order: Shunkan will also leave Kikai Island, not to go back to Ky˘to but to settle in his native province of Bizen, far from the Imperial City. This second order is secretly given to Tanzaemon Motoyasu only. Senoo keeps the original order.

Act II, scene 1: Kikai-ga-Shima
On Kikai Island [3]
--> A dedicated summary: "Shunkan"

Shunkan has lived a miserable life of exile on Kikai Island for three years together with Naritsune and Yasuyori, the fellow plotters of the abortive revolt against Taira no Kiyomori. Meanwhile, Naritsune has fallen in love with the ama Chidori, a woman diver of the island. Hearing of the romance between Yasuyori and Chidori, Shunkan smiles for the first time in many months. He asks Naritsune to bring Chidori. Shunkan unites the lovers in a simple wedding ceremony with the traditional toast made with mountain water instead of sake.

The celebration is barely over when a ship is sighted. The ship has brought a messenger (j˘shi), Senoo Tar˘ Kaneyasu, with an Imperial order announcing an amnesty for both Naritsune and Yasuyori. Shunkan is shocked to find that his name is not on the amnesty list. The heartless Senoo sneers at the old man's pitiful dismay.

A second messenger (j˘shi), Tanzaemon Motoyasu, then reveals that, since Shunkan is regarded as the ringleader of the conspiracy against Kiyomori, he has not been granted a complete pardon with freedom to return to the capital but he may go to his home town in the province of Bizen. Shunkan is overjoyed at the good news and the three men and Chidori move to board the boat which will take them home. Senoo, however, declares that he has orders to take only three persons and refuses, in spite of the exiles' protest, to accept Chidori. Naritsune says he would rather remain with his wife in poverty on the island than return to the capital without her but he is forced on board, leaving Chidori behind. Shunkan appeals to Senoo for mercy hut Senoo refuses to listen. Then Senoo adds to the old man's grief by telling him that his wife Azumaya killed herself, spurning Kiyomori's amorous advances. Enraged and grieved, Shunkan snatches Senoo's sword and kills him. Then he urges Chidori on board to join Naritsune, telling Tanzaemon that, by the killing of Senoo, his pardon must now be considered as invalid and he must remain in exile but, since the government order is to take back three persons, Chidori must go in his place.

The young couple and Yasuyori bid him farewell. As the ship moves away, Shunkan is left with the mooring rope (tomozuna) slipping through his reluctant hands. Climbing on top of a rock, Shunkan waves desperately to the ship, which vanishes over the horizon and sails away from Kikai Island.


The first two scenes of act three focus on a sick and dying Shigemori who bears the weight of the evil of his father's actions. He had intervened to save Yoritomo, the son of Kiyomori's rival the late Minamoto no Yoshitomo, who now threatens to overthrow the Heike. Yoritomo, however, is presented as an ingrate and villain. The final scene switches to the residence of Tokiwa Gozen, wife of Yoshitomo, the Genji leader killed by Kiyomori. Unlike Shunkan's wife Azumaya, she has agreed to be the mistress of Kiyomori. In fact, her plan is to gather an army to overthrow Kiyomori by enticing men into her residence. She has gathered women in her house, a veritable 'Island of Women' (Nyogo no Shima) of the play's title, to entice men who, as she says, "by nature, easily fall prey to a woman's erotic charms." The climax is focussed on the figure Munekiyo (sent by Shigemori to investigate Tokiwa Gozen) and his long-lost daughter Hinazuru (in service to Tokiwa Gozen), who are caught between loyalties to both the Genji and Heike sides.

Source for act III: SOAS Japan Research Centre.

Act IV, scene 1: Funaji no Michiyuki
The Seafaring Travelling Lovers [4]

When the ship carrying Naritsune, Yasuyori and Chidori arrives at Shikina Bay in the province of Bingo, Shunkan's retainer Ari˘maru, who has come from the capital, asks its passengers whether Shunkan is on board. Disappointed to learn from Naritsune and Yasuyori that Shunkan is still on Kikai Island, he tries to kill himself but is dissuaded by Chidori. Motoyasu, who on Kikai Island informed Shunkan of the Government's permission for his return to his home town, suggests to Ari˘maru to take Chidori to Ky˘to secretly because Kiyomori will get angry ýf he finds that Chidori has boarded the Heike ship without official permission.

Act IV, scene 2: Shikina no Ura
At Shikina Bay [4]

As a ship carrying Kiyomori and the former Emperor Goshirakawa arrives at the Shikina Bay in the province of Bingo. They are on their way back from a visit to the Itsukushima Shrine. This ship comes alongside Tanzaemon's ship. Tanzaemon reports to Kiyomori that Shunkan killed Senoo and is therefore remaining alone on Kikai Island. Kiyomori gets angry and blames Tanzaemon who should have killed Shunkan. After Tanzaemon's ship has left for the capital, Kiyomorý accuses the former Emperor Goshirakawa of his alleged conspiracy with Shunkan and others against the Heike Clan and demands that he atone for his crime by killing himself. As the former Emperor refuses to do so, Kiyomori throws him into the sea. Chidori immediately jumps into the sea and brings the former Emperor ashore. Angry at her interference, Kiyomori crushes her to death. Then suddenly the sea rages and Chidori's ghost rises from the angry waves. Flames suddenly move around Kiyomori's head, causing him to pass out temporarily. Terrified, Kiyomori orders his boatmen to carry him back to the capital immediately.

Act IV, scene 3: Rokuhara
At Kiyomori's Mansion in Rokuhara
This scene is no more part of the current Kabuki repertoire [2]

Taira no Shigemori, who was ill since the day of the killing of Chidori, keeps on suffering from the frightening appearances of the vindictive ghosts of both Azumaya and Chidori in the Rokuhara Palace. Plagued by these supernatural mental tortures, he dies victim of high fever.

Act V: Mongaku no Yume
Mongaku's Dream
This scene is no more part of the current Kabuki repertoire [2]

Exiled to Izu, where he has met and has won the patronage of the head of the Genji clan, Minamoto no Yoritomo, the priest Mongaku dreams of a powerful army gathering one by one all the Genji soldiers scattered to the different provinces of Japan. Following this dream, Mongaku urges Yoritomo to raise an army against the ruling Heike clan.


"The author was much influenced by the play "Shunkan", which portrays Shunkan's loneliness when abandoned on an island." (Aubrey and Giovanna Halford in "The Kabuki Handbook")


[1] Occasionally revived at the National Theatre (in April 1967, October 1995 and October 2007).

[2] Neither in the Bunraku repertoire!

[3] Kikai Island can be translated as Devil Island.

[4] Revived only once after WWII, in October 1995 at the National Theatre.

Illustration taken from the ezukushi banzuke for the production of "Heike Nyogo no Shima" in February 1889 at the Kadoza with the actors Nakamura S˘jűr˘, Band˘ Jusabur˘ II, Arashi Rikan IV, Nakamura Jakuemon II, Onoe Taminosuke [*] and Nakamura Sangor˘ playing the roles of Shunkan, Chidori, Tanzaemon Motoyasu, Senoo Tar˘ Kaneyasu, Tanba no Sh˘sh˘ Naritsune and Hei Hangan Yasuyori

[*] reported as Onoe Tamisuke in National Theatre's "J˘en Shiry˘-shű 364"

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