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Once lost, centuries-old Japanese play to be performed in Great Britain

A scene from a rendition of "Kochi Hoin Godenki" as performed by the Echigo Saruhachi-za troupe is seen. (Mainichi)

A centuries-old Japanese play with only one original copy still remaining that is now kept in the British Library in London is to be performed in Great Britain for the first time in June next year.

    Columbia University professor emeritus and scholar of Japan Donald Keene, 94, helped the play to become a reality by urging his adopted son Echigo Kakutayu (real name Seiki Keene), a shamisen player for puppet plays, to perform the piece.

    Donald Keene (Mainichi)

    The play is of a type called "Kojoruri," registered in 2003 as a non-tangible cultural asset of Japan thought to be the predecessor to "Ningyo Joruri Bunraku," or classical Japanese puppetry plays. There are around 500 Kojoruri stories that are still in existence.

    The play at the British Library is called "Kochi Hoin Godenki" and was printed in 1685. The monk Kochi Hoin, whose mummified remains are kept at Saijo-ji temple in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, is the model for the story. After a life of debauchery, the protagonist sets out to become a monk following the death of his wife. He travels around Japan, passes through various ordeals and dies a sacrificial death as a Buddhist monk.

    Around the same time that the book was printed, German doctor Engelbert Kaempfer, who was staying in Dejima, Nagasaki, snuck the book out with him when he left the country. After Kaempfer's death, the book passed into the hands of British collector Hans Sloane, after which it was put in the British Library as a part of Sloane's collection.

    The book was rediscovered in 1962. Bunzo Torigoe, 88, one of the foremost researchers into theater, was teaching at the University of Cambridge. He heard from someone that there was a Japanese-style book of unknown origin at the British Library. When he checked, he found it was Kochi Hoin Godenki, said to have been long-lost. Over the course of four years Torigoe worked on having the book published and re-introduced in Japan.

    A drawing from the "Kochi Hoin Godenki" book, kept at the British Library. (Mainichi)

    In 2008, Torigoe's friend Keene suggested to Seiki, who would later become his adopted son, to perform the play in Niigata Prefecture. Seiki, together with others including Nishihashi Hachirobee, a practitioner of "Bunya Ningyo," a type of traditional puppetry passed down on the island of Sado, set up the Echigo Saruhachi-za troupe. Using the early Gidayubushi style of traditional puppetry as a guide, Seiki recreated the music for the play, which was successfully held in the city of Kashiwazaki.

    The play in the book's second home of London will be held on June 2 and 3 next year at the British Library. Local children will be invited to experience this ancestor of today's "Cool Japan" initiative. Torigoe and Keene, calling the realization of the play the result of encounters and coincidences, have expressed their hope for a successful showing.

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