Minamoto no Yoshitsune safely escapes from the capital following the war between the Minamoto and Taira clans. During their journey, Yoshitsune and his retainers are confronted by a succession of Taira generals who were thought to have died in battle. Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura is a Japanese puppet theater masterpiece, intermixing historical facts, various legends, and fabrications to create a new version of the Genpei story.
At the end of the Heian Period, fighting broke out among warriors rising to power. This was a major civil war between the Minamoto and Taira clans involving the Imperial court (Jisho-Juei War). Minamoto no Yoshitsune defeated the Taira clan but finds himself under pursuit. The life of this individual whose name is etched in history arouses feelings of “hōgan biiki” (sympathy for a tragic hero) in the heart of Japanese people.
In the course of the centuries spanning from the Heian Period thru the Edo Period, the Genpei war and the fate of Yoshitsune became not only subjects of recitations such as Heikyoku (recitation of the Tale of Taira against biwa music) and Jōruri (narrative singing accompanied by shamisen music), but were also repeatedly taken up in theater, such as Noh and puppet theater. Over time, these stories spread among the masses for their historical value, as well as for teaching the transient evanescence of the ever-changing world of humans.
Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura is a work that was created based on numerous preceding works. While centered around the vicissitudes of Yoshitsune, the work illustrates the dynamic events of a range of characters, including the Taira generals that were thought to have fallen.
Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura was first performed at the Takemoto-za Theater in Osaka in November 1747 at the peak of puppet theater. Gaining significant popularity, the story was immediately adapted to kabuki, and is considered one of the three great plays along with Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami (Sugawara’s Secrets of Calligraphy) and Kanadehon Chūshingura (The Treasury of 47 Loyal Retainers) written by the same authors.
Yoshitsune, being chased by his older brother Yoritomo and losing his wife to suicide, separates from his mistress Shizuka and tries to escape to Saigoku. Just then, the Taira generals that had actually survived the battle and lived as fugitives come to defeat Yoshitsune once again. In addition to them, other characters also play significant roles, including the young scoundrels who try to rescue the sheltered generals as well as the fox that appears at the sounding of a hand drum presented by the Imperial court.
The events surrounding the wounded general who drowns in the sea tied to an anchor, the young woman who professes her love fervently, an unrequited death owing to a misunderstanding, the travels of a couple set against merry music, and the fox’s affections illustrated by puppet and stage tricks, are some examples in which this work uses beautiful poetry to portray characters’ attempts to resist their dark fate.