Figures of the Showa Scene #3

Ichimura Uzaemon XV as firefighter Tatsugoro of Me-gumi brigade in "Megumi no Kenka" (The fight of the firefighters of the Me-gumi brigade) - Series Figures of the Showa scene #3

め組辰五郎 - 十五代目市村羽左衛門丈    昭和舞台姿  その三


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The Play

The complete title of the play is « Kami no Me-gumi Wagô no Torikumi », but it is better known as « Me-gumi no kenka » (the fight of the firefighters of the brigade Me-gumi). It was premiered in 1890 and is based on a real incident that took place in 1805, a fight between drunken firefighters and a group of sumo wrestlers. The brawl left one firefighter dead and over 100 persons injured.  It represents the confrontation between the commoner class (the firefighters) and the aristocracy, patrons of the sumo wrestlers. The play is made of 4 acts and 9 scenes.

Note: Edo firefighters on the West side of the Sumida river were organised in 48 fire brigades identified with a letter of the hiragana alphabet, here (me) (there are 48 letter in the hiragana alphabet) with an additional 16 brigades for the East side of the Sumida river. In 1850 in the 48 brigades, organized in 8 groups, there were over 24,000 firefighters (hikeshi) who had a reputation for courage, bravado and rough manners. Each fire brigade was very jealous of its prerogatives and defended its territory. It has a symbol called matoi, a flag-like object bearing the brigade's letter. Firefighters wore multilayered cotton jackets that were reversible with the outside bearing each fire brigade’s insignia, while the inside was more decorated, unique to each. They were also tatooed. Firefighters were equipped with bamboo scales and a long hook in metal (tobiguchi) to tear down the wooden buildings and slow down the spread of the fire.

Main characters

Act 1 -  An evening in a restaurant, a drunken sumo wrestler crashes though a partition and lands among firefighters

The plot

Act I

The popular sumôtori wrestler Yotsuguruma Daihachi has been invited to a party by one of his patrons at a geisha restaurant in Shinagawa, Edo. The party becomes rowdy and one of the drunken sumôtori loses his balance and falls against the sliding paper door partition, which strikes a member of the Me-gumi (the "Me" group, one of the 48 firefighting brigade in Edo). The wrestlers refuse to apologize reminding them that wrestlers have samurai status and their insulting arrogance increases the firefighters’ anger. A fight is about to start when Tatsugorô, the head of the Me-gumi orders his men to withdraw. However, Tatsugorô himself has become so incensed at the insulting attitude of the wrestlers and their patrons that he vows revenge. 

The second scene takes place outside the restaurant.  Tatsugoro ambushes Daihachi and they fight in the dark, jostling passers-by as well as Kitadashi Kisaburo, the local boss riding a palanquin. He stops their fight and Tatsugoro flees, but drops his tobacco pouch, picked up by Kisaburo who understands what it is about. 

Act II

Next spring, a kabuki troupe is performing in the precinct of a local shrine. The fire brigade is responsible for keeping the peace in the area. They throw out a drunkard who was a nuisance. But some sumo wrestlers intervene on the side of the drunkard and a verbal fight ensues. Tatsugoro comes in and admonishes his men, but when he sees the wrestler Daihachi, he begins to act belligerently. A big brawl is about to erupt when the playhouse proprietor asks everyone to stop and they withdraw. 

Act III 

The situation has now reached a point of no return. The firefighters are preparing their weapons and are waiting for the end of the daily wrestling bouts. Tatsugoro goes back home, fights with his wife who believes he is a coward and notifies her of wanting to divorce. In fact, he wants to protect his family. They drink the traditional farewell cup of water. The drum signalling the end of the wrestling matches can be heard. Tatsugoro’s wife understands his motive, refuses the divorce and helps him to get ready for the fight. He then realizes that it may be the last time he sees her. 

Act IV

The firefighter group is assembled near the shrine. They drink the traditional cup of water and get ready. In the meantime, the sumotori wrestlers are going through similar preparations. The two groups meet and a tremendous brawl starts, the agile and dynamic firefighters against the powerful and heavy wrestlers. This 'tachimawari' (fight scene) between firefighters and sumō wrestlers is very spectacular! Kisaburo hurries to the scene and orders them to stop, but to no avail. Finally he steps with a bamboo scale in the middle of the fight, showing two haori (over-shirts), one with the emblem of the firefighters, and one with the emblem of the wrestlers, claiming that he can speak for both sides. The fighters, in deference to Kisaburo’s courage agree to a truce. The fight is over. 

The actor

Ichimura Uzaemon XV (1874-1945) was one of the best « Tachiyaku » (actors playing young male roles) of his time. He always played young men, even in his old days. He had a lot of presence on stage and a superb voice. His partnering with Onoe Baiko VI is very famous and known as “Goruden kombi” (Golden combination). 

The Me-gumi fire brigade with on the left the matoi, flag-symbol of the brigade  

Natori Shunsen - Bando Jusaburo III as wrestler Seigoro (1928) (Image Artelino)