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'TAMASHIZUME': A Musical Exploration of Hyakunin Isshu and Its Secrets

Is there a hidden message in the famous poetry anthology "Hyakunin Isshu?" Artist Mimei Sakamoto shares how her upcoming musical explores this theory.



Soprano singer Marie Tatsumi as Princess Shikishi and tenor singer Kazuma Asano as Fujiwara no Teika. (©Mimei Sakamoto)

Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, a classical anthology of 100 Japanese Waka poems, stands as a cherished cultural gem in Japan. The poems were chosen by renowned poet Fujiwara no Teika during the late Heian period. Hyakunin Isshu has long been enjoyed through the card game karuta since the Edo period

In recent times, the popularity of karuta has surged, partly owing to the success of Yuki Suetsugu's manga Chihayafuru. This has led to an increased number of competitive karuta players.

Despite its cultural significance, the background of Ogura Hyakunin Isshu's creation remains unfamiliar to many, even in Japan. I, too, lacked knowledge of it until I took on the scriptwriting for the upcoming musical TAMASHIZUME: Jonen no Hyakunin Isshu ("Appeasing the Spirit: The Passion Behind the Hyakunin Isshu").

Mimei Sakamoto, producer of TAMASHIZUME and the author of this article.

From Classical Verse to Musical

My inspiration for this project ignited in 2017 when I attended a concert by Japanese composer Shoichi Yabuta. The concert was held to celebrate the release of his song collection based on Hyakunin Isshu. Yabuta is a talented composer and the younger brother of a close friend of mine. He has been setting poems to music since his youth, such as those by Chuya Nakahara. In 2015, he became the first Japanese composer to win the top prize in the composition division at the Geneva International Music Competition.

Mimei Sakamoto with Shoichi Yabuta (far right) and his sister. (©Mimei Sakamoto)

At the concert, Yabuta performed 100 songs consecutively, each lasting around a minute. While the melodies were beautiful, the concert felt somewhat monotonous. On a whim, I suggested turning 10 to 20 of those songs into a musical with a narrative to accompany them. To my surprise, both my friend and her brother embraced the idea with enthusiasm. I had no idea how to adapt Ogura Hyakunin Isshu into a play, but I couldn't back out after proposing the idea.

Fortunately, I later connected with Hikaru Ikeda, a scholar of Japanese culture. He recommended I read Shokichi Oda's Kenrantaru Ango ("A Brilliant Code"). Oda's exciting interpretation of Ogura Hyakunin Isshu inspired me. So much so that I came up with the structure for the musical not long after reading his book. 

A copy of Kenrentaru Ango by Shokichi Oda (1986, Shueisha)

Oda's Theory on 'Hyakunin Isshu'

Interestingly, Oda points out the existence of another poetry anthology called Hyakunin Shuka, which few people know about. This is understandable, as the Hyakunin Shuka remained forgotten until it was discovered in the archives of the Imperial Household Agency during the Showa era. It is very similar to the Hyakunin Isshu, differing by only three poems.

Notably, Hyakunin Isshu also remained out of public view for a long time after its compilation. It wasn't until the Muromachi period (1336–1573) that it became a publicly known work. The anthology was studied and presented by Sogi, a master of renga, a type of collaborative poetry. 

Baritone singer Yoshitaka Murata as Emperor Gotoba. (©Mimei Sakamoto)

A Hidden Message

Why was Hyakunin Isshu hidden for so long? According to Shokichi Oda, it was probably because the anthology includes poems by Emperor Gotoba and Emperor Juntoku, who opposed the ruling Kamakura shogunate. In that era, merely presenting the poems of these two individuals could mean execution.

Oda, who is an independent researcher, undertook a meticulous study and comparison of Hyakunin Isshu and Hyakunin Shuka, the latter of which was only published in the Showa era. He concluded that the two poetry anthologies align and contain a "secret message" discreetly included by Fujiwara no Teika. This "secret message" essentially conveys Teika's support for the Imperial Family, including Emperor Gotoba, and not the shogunate.

While Oda's theory is not widely accepted in academic circles, it provides intriguing material for a theatrical narrative. Therefore, I decided to develop the storyline for the musical based on this premise. 

A replica of a poetry card written by Fujiwara no Teika. (©Hiroyuki Suzuki)

Appeasing the Emperor's Spirit

Fujiwara no Teika had a close association with Emperor Gotoba, but they clashed over the selection of poems for Shin Kokin Wakashu (New Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern). As a result, Teika did not participate in Emperor Gotoba's rebellion against the Kamakura shogunate in the Jokyu War.

Teika's decision to stay out of the war proved fortuitous, allowing him to continue his ascent to prominence. Meanwhile, Emperor Gotoba remained confined in exile on the Oki islands until his death. It is said that the emperor cursed the shogunate and Teika until his last breath. 

In the musical TAMASHIZUME, Fujiwara no Teika compiles the Hyakunin Isshu as a means to seal this curse. 

Rehearsing for the musical. (©Mimei Sakamoto)

I hope that the musical will not only introduce newcomers to the brilliance of Hyakunin Isshu but also provide a fresh perspective for those already familiar with it. Hyakunin Isshu stands as a unique facet of Japanese culture, and Oda's book reveals another layer of its richness.

Watch the Musical

  • Musical name: TAMASHIZUME: Jonen no Hyakunin Isshu
  • Date and time: February 12, 2024, 6:00 pm (doors open at 5:00 pm)
  • Venue: Kinokuniya Southern Theater, Takashimaya, Tokyo
  • Price: ¥8000 JPY (about $56 USD)
Poster for musical "TAMASHIZUME."


(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Mimei Sakamoto

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