This play is one of the “Kabuki-juhachiban” (Eighteen Kabuki Pieces), and is commonly known as “Sukeroku.”
The story of this play concerns Soga no Goro Tokimune, who has become a kyokaku (a self-styled chivalrous person) known as Hanakawado no Sukeroku, and goes in and out of the Yoshiwara red-light district in search of a sword called Tomokirimaru, a treasure of the Minamoto clans (as known as the Genji). Sukeroku is in love with a courtesan from the Miura brothel named Agemaki, and has heard that an old man named Ikyu who spends a great deal of money in Yoshiwara has the sword, which he takes back.
The performance is nearly two hours long, and during this time a variety of roles appear on stage, including a sake seller [actually Sukeroku’s elder brother Soga no Juro] whom Sukeroku teaches to start fights, Sukeroku’s mother Manko, who warns Sukeroku against fighting and gives him a kamiko (paper kimono), and Kanpera Mombei and Asagao Sempei, Ikyu’s followers who provoke a fight with Sukeroku and lose to him - this play does not bore its audience.
The first half of the play includes a scene in which Agemaki, berated by Ikyu for her relationship with Sukeroku, insults him in return, saying that Sukeroku is a fine man but that Ikyu has a mean-spirited look. She puts her life on the line to declare that the two are as different as, say, snow and black ink, and she would not mistake Ikyu for Sukeroku even in the dark.
It is customary for Agemaki, a high-class courtesan who is both beautiful and cultured, to be played by a tateoyama, the highest-ranking actor who plays female roles. This is an important scene that demonstrates the tateoyama’s dignity.
When Sukeroku enters from the hanamichi (walkway) stage, his self-introduction and an explanation of the origin of his purple headband are performed together with narrative music with shamisen; these lines, delivered in the style of a jaunty dance, are also the first highlight for the actor playing Sukeroku. The role of Sukeroku combines elements of wild and heroic aragoto (exaggerated style) performance and soft and elegant wagoto (a softer, more realistic style) performance – the way he enters the stage shows the character’s personality.
The narrative music played when Sukeroku enters is called kato-bushi, and is only used when an Ichikawa Danjuro family actor plays Sukeroku.