“Kanjincho” is a matsubame-mono play, based on the Noh play “Ataka.” It depicts the verbal fencing that occurs when Minamoto no Yoshitsune, Benkei, and their party, dressed as mountain priests, are passing through the checkpoint barrier at Ataka as they escape to Hiraizumi in Oshu (north-eastern Honshu). The barrier guards, who have received orders to capture Yoshitsune, persistently question the party, while the party use all their resourcefulness to try to pass through the checkpoint.
This play is full of highlights, including the thrilling yamabushi-mondo (questions and answers about the lives of mountain priests) between Benkei and the chief barrier guard Togashi no Saemon, a verbal battle between Togashi and Benkei as the latter holds back the shitenno (Yoshitsune’s four armed retainers), Benkei’s Ennen no Mai dance, and his tobiroppo, jumping on the hanamichi (walkway) stage.
Benkei’s performance demands a heroic and stirring yet thoughtful character, and is a difficult role that needs both oratorical skill and accomplishment in dance. His opposition, Togashi, must have the heart to let the group pass the checkpoint barrier even though he knows they are Yoshitsune and his party. Meanwhile, the role of Yoshitsune demands that the actor shows the elegance of a scion of the Minamoto clans (as known as the Genji) with very few movements.
“Kanjincho” was first performed in 1840 by Ichikawa Danjuro VII (Ichikawa Ebizo V at the time) as one of the “Kabuki juhachiban” (Eighteen Kabuki Pieces), which were established based on the art of aragoto (exaggerated style) performance, the specialty of generations of Danjuros. Its nagauta musical accompaniment is famous, and the production has been refined by many famous actors, making “Kanjincho” a very popular repertory that is performed regularly even now.
Roppo is a performance style that symbolically expresses walking and running with exaggerated movements of the hands and feet. It is mainly performed when an actor playing an aragoto role exits the stage from the hanamichi. This performance sees the actor exit down the hanamichi after the curtain has come down on the stage and is one of the highlights of the Benkei role, symbolizing the character running after Yoshitsune.