Dance title Kokaji  In Japanese
Authors Kimura Tomiko (lyrics)
Hanayagi Jusuke II (choreography)
Kineya Sakichi IV (Nagauta music)
Tsurusawa D˘hachi (Gidayű music)

The dance-drama "Kokaji", a Kabuki adaptation of the eponymous drama mixing Nagauta and Gidayű musical musical accompaniments, was staged for the first time in September 1939 at the Meijiza. The leading role of this dance was performed by Ichikawa Ennosuke II.


"Kokaji" is divided in three parts.

Key words Shosagoto
En'˘ Jűshu

The story is relatively simple. It is set in around 980, and at the start of the dance we're to understand that the emperor Ichij˘ has had a dream in which he was told to procure a new sword. He's commissioned the swordsmith, Munechika to make this and Munechika has accepted, despite the fact that he feels the task to be beyond his own capabilities. He needs an equally skilled assistant, but such a man does not exist. Therefore, as the dance begins, Munechika comes to the Fushimi Shrine in Ky˘to to pray that the god Inari will help him. Suddenly, the lights are dimmed and the figure of a young page-boy appears on a lift on the right of the stage. he carries a stalk of rice because this is the manifestation of the Inari, the god of grain and harvest. The boy surprises Munechika by knowing the reason for his presence here, and then he begins the highlight of this first section, which is a dance describing prince Yamato Takeru in his fight against the barbaric Ebisu of the east. When trapped and surrounded in a field of burning reeds, the prince used his sword to cut at the grasses around him, thereby escaping the fire. That imperial sword had divine properties and enabled Takeru to defeat his enemies. It was thereaftert known by the name "Kusanagi", "The Grass-cutter", and became an Imperial treasure. The boy tells Munechika that, with the god's help, he too will make a blade of supreme quality, and then he disappears.

The second section is set before Munechika's house in Ky˘to, and features two of his apprentices and a local shrine maiden who have all been told to prepare a special platform upon which the new sword is to be forged. Due to the divine nature of the work, the platform is to be located far away from other people in the forest, and these three must purify the place and set up Shinto offerings. This is the most traditional section of the work and, in typical Nagauta fashion, the dances here end up describing something only distantly related to the main theme. though one apprentice begins by listing famous swordsmiths from the past, the dance soon slips into a description of life in the countryside in spring and autumn. The addition of the "shinobue" flute here and the beauty of the melody make this section very lovely to listen to, while the choreography illustrates the complicated lyrics very well.

The third and last scene takes place in the forest at night, where the platform has been set up with the anvil. Munechika sits behind this and prays again for divine assistance. Seated to the right of the platform is the Imperial envoy, Michinari, who has come to oversee the making of and then and then to receive the new sword. Eventually the fox-god Inari does appear along the hanamichi, wearing a magnificent costume based on that of the theatre with a large white wig. On his head there is also the figure of a leaping fox. The actor's face, however, is painted with typical Kabuki kumadori make-up, and as a special treat for the audience, he even wears fake silver teeth! After a section of slow music which makes use of the kokyű, both Munechika and the god start hammering out the metal to make the new sword. The rhythm of their hammer blows becomes increasingly complicated as they hit the anvil alternately, but in the end the sword is done and both lift it up to inspect their glorious crafstmanship. Inari declares that the sword should be named "Kogitsune-maru", "The Little Fox", and then disappears back down the hanamichi bringing the dance to a close.

Courtesy of Paul M. Griffith


The dance is fascinating from an historical point of view. Other dances with the same title and subject have existed since at least 1813, when the character of a swordsmith, ("kokaji"), was included in the work "Onagori Obana no Tomesode", danced by Sawamura Tanosuke II. However, the dance called "Kokaji" that's most often encountered in dance recitals today is originally from a group of five hengemono, "transformation dances", entitled "Sugata no Hana Nochi no Hinagata", performed by Sawamura Tossh˘ I in 1832. But, perhaps because they are only short, rather light-weight pieces, these older versions of the dance are now very rarely, if ever, performed as part of a true Kabuki programme. Instead, it is En'˘'s much longer and more substantial version that is performed.

En'˘'s "Kokaji" is a completely re-written version with text by Kimura Tomiko, and it was premiered in 1939. This in itself is interesting because the military undercurrents in the piece are typical of the period. In this context one could interpret the dance as a kind of eulogy praising Japan's military skills on the one hand, and assuring the people of divine protection on the other. It's very nearly a call to arms! However, this would be a rather shallow interpretation, and to go on to say that En'˘ himself must have had Imperialist leanings would be far too hasty and almost certainly false.

"Kokaji" is also fascinating from a purely theatrical point of view, and regardless of its theme, it stands as a very successful example of 20th century Kabuki dance. Like other dances in the En'˘ Jűshu, it incorporates music from the Bunraku puppet theatre as well as standard Kabuki Nagauta accompaniment, and chanters and shamisen players from Bunraku appear specially this month. The deep and powerful tone of the Gidayű shamisen with its thicker neck and larger body adds a very dynamic touch to the first and third sections of the dance, while the smaller shamisen of the Nagauta school brings its lighter and more lyrical feel to the second. Very unusually, the bowed instrument called kokyű is also heard in the final section which, along with the Bunraku chanters and shamisen players, also features the drums from the Nagauta school. Such combinations are innovative and typical of En'˘'s new dances. Other 20th century effects are found, for example, in the lighting, which employs spotlights and the artificial dimming of the stage whenever this is called for.

Courtesy of Paul M. Griffith

The dance master Hanayagi Jusuke II performing the leading role of "Kokaji" in a print made by Natori Shunsen in 1954

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