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Episode 1 – ‘A Gilded Cage’

Monday, 25 November, 2013· Last Updated on: Wednesday, 27 November, 2013

in A Gilded Cage

The Court Lady and the Kabuki Actor

Edo (much later to become Tokyo), Japan, 1714

Episode 1 - A Gilded Cage‘Hurry, or we’ll be late!’

Ejima stood, arms outstretched, as her ladies milled around her, touching up her makeup and tugging her over-kimono into place. It was a beautiful garment of red silk with a golden phoenix embroidered across the back and a thick quilted hem that swirled at her feet. They tucked in a last strand of her glossy black hair which was swept up into an elegant loop at the back of her head.

She gazed around the room with its coffered inlaid ceiling, its gold leaf screens painted with birds and flowers and its pale straw matting edged with gold. A wind wafted through, setting the reed blinds swaying, and she strained her ears, imagining she heard the roar of crowds and smelt grilling octopus and incense smoke rising from the temples. But it couldn’t be. The grounds were too huge, the city and its noise and bustle too far away outside the palace walls.

The bush warbler in its cage in a corner of the room chirruped. ‘I’m no more free than you,’ she thought wistfully. She knew she should have been the happiest person on earth. She led a life of splendour, ease and luxury, and even the humblest of her attendants wore kimonos more lavish than people outside the palace could dream of. Yet, for all her wealth and privilege, she too couldn’t spread her wings and fly away. A lifetime of ritual and protocol stretched before her, laid out hour by hour, day by day, month by month, season by season.

But every now and then something happened to break the routine. Ejima smiled to herself. She was hard put to control her excitement – for today was one of those days.

In the distance bells jangled. It was approaching the hour of the snake, when the shogun made the first of his three daily visits to the women’s palace.

Lifting her skirts, Ejima swept out of the room at the head of a long train of ladies. They glided in stockinged feet along corridors and across verandas, past gardens of raked gravel and artfully manicured pine trees. The palace was a labyrinth of private rooms, audience chambers, kitchens, dining halls, shrine rooms and great baths surrounded by landscaped gardens dotted with lakes, boating ponds, moon-viewing pavilions and tea-ceremony huts.

Three thousand women lived there and only one man could enter: the shogun. The staff from highest to lowest – chamberlains, elders, secretaries, cooks, gardeners, cleaners and the multitude of attendants – were all women. Even the guards were women. Ejima knew that no matter how beautiful she was, no matter how much luxury she enjoyed, a lifetime of celibacy stretched before her. She would only ever see one man, and never be touched by one.

There were only two doors out of the women’s palace. One was the tradesmen’s entrance where petitioners waited with gifts and merchants with silks and delicacies to sell. The other was at the far end of the Bell Corridor, where the women’s palace abutted the men’s.

The jangling of bells grew louder. Ejima and her ladies turned a last corner and entered the Bell Corridor. It was a splendid passageway, lined with reed blinds and hung with huge red tassels, suitable to receive the most powerful man in the realm. Other groups of ladies – the sixth shogun’s widow and her attendants, the seventh shogun’s mother and hers, top administrators and officials – were filing in and taking their places on their knees in order of rank, gazing expectantly at the gold-encrusted doors at the far end. Only women of the highest rank were allowed to enter the presence of the shogun.

Bolts ground noisily on the other side of the doors. The elderly heralds shouted, ‘Your Highness! Welcome!’ and the women bowed in a ripple of shimmering kimonos as the doors slid slowly open. There was a glimpse of the courtiers who attended the shogun on the other side, the only chance the women ever had to see a man other than him, before the doors slid shut again.

For most of Ejima’s years in the palace, the personage who had stepped through those doors had been the sixth shogun, a grizzled, imposing elderly man in a formal kimono with pleated skirts and winged shoulders and his hair oiled into a glossy topknot. But he had died suddenly at the age of fifty one, leaving his son, a toddler of four. This little boy was now the seventh shogun.

The child hesitated for a moment in the doorway, solemn-faced, then ran in, looking around for his mother. While he was under age, the rule prohibiting men other than the shogun from entering the palace had had to be set aside. The little boy was followed by the grand chamberlain, a tall, handsome man who would be regent until the shogun came of age. Averting his eyes from the rows of women, the chamberlain picked up the boy and walked with measured pace along the Bell Corridor, into the women’s palace.

The women rose and followed behind to the audience chamber. There the little boy took his place on a throne on the dais, with the regent at his shoulder, his mother, Gekkoin, to one side and the late shogun’s widow to the other.

Ejima was Gekkoin’s chief lady-in-waiting and the chief administrator of the women’s palace. It was her job to conduct the ceremony. Usually the shogun would ask, ‘What matters are there to be discussed?’ and Ejima would lay out the day’s schedule – a boating party, a tea ceremony, a trip to view the cherry blossom blooming in the grounds, depending on the season.

But today, she knew very well, was different. She held her breath as the regent leaned forward and whispered in the little boy’s ear. The child listened, his chubby face solemn, then recited in his piping voice, ‘Forty nine days have passed since my father’s death. Today we must go to his tomb and carry out the ritual observances in honour of his memory.’

The shogun, Gekkoin, and the grand chamberlain were too high-ranking to leave the palace. Ejima was next in line and it fell to her to carry out this duty.

She bowed gracefully, brimming over with excitement. There were only two occasions when the women were allowed to leave the palace: to pray at the tombs of the shoguns and when a family member was ill. When the last shogun died, the women had not been part of the funeral cortège that conveyed his body across the city to the shogunal graveyard. This was the first time she’d been able to leave the palace in all the ten years she’d been here. Today she would have the chance to glimpse the great world outside, breathe the air, smell the smells, see the faces, even if only for a few hours. There was another reason too to be full of eager anticipation, for on such occasions, as she knew very well, she was allowed – indeed, expected – to take her ladies to the kabuki theatre afterwards for a treat.

She raised her head and said as calmly as she could, ‘Sire, your word is my command. I will perform this duty.’

As Ejima led her ladies back to her chambers, she was burning with impatience. She could hardly wait to see the city again. Her eyes filled with tears as she remembered the house where she’d grown up, large, prosperous, solid and down to earth, and thought of her family. She wouldn’t have a chance to see them but at least she’d pass close by those familiar streets. She thought back to those days and remembered running through the narrow alleys with her hoop and ball, playing badminton with her friends, going to the hills outside the city to fly her kite.

Wherever she went when she was a child she’d always seen the great five-storeyed keep of Edo Castle, with its white walls and gleaming roofs topped with huge bronze dolphins, rising over the city. But she would never in a million years have imagined that she would end up living there herself. After all, she was a humble merchant’s daughter and the people there were grand beyond belief.

It was ten years ago that the letter had come. Ejima had been just fourteen. Maybe one of her teachers had recommended her, or maybe her parents. Her mother had hired sedan chairs to take them across the city to the castle gates.

They’d made their way along endless corridors. Finally Ejima had been presented to a tall aloof woman with a glossy black wig and a kimono glittering with gold thread. She’d scrutinised Ejima, then turned to her mother, kneeling timidly behind, and said, ‘She’s certainly pretty, quite lovely, in fact. You say she writes beautifully too.’ She’d turned to Ejima. ‘Write something, child.’ Her hand trembling, Ejima had written a poem, wielding her brush with care. The woman glanced at it. ‘Accomplished, I see,’ she said. ‘Very nice manners, and a good head on her shoulders too. She will do well, very well.’

All the other women in the palace were the children of aristocrats. It was an extraordinary honour for a merchant’s daughter to be accepted and Ejima was thrilled and afraid in equal measure. Then, as her mother packed a chest for her, she’d realised that she was leaving home for ever. She’d been so excited at the new life ahead of her that she hadn’t given it a thought.

Her mother took her across town and said ‘Goodbye’ for the last time outside the towering palace gates. Installed in the labyrinth of chambers surrounded by women, Ejima smelt small and lost and yearned for home. She felt guilty too that she’d been given such an opportunity and didn’t appreciate it properly.

Then one day she met Gekkoin. Like Ejima, she was a minor attendant. She was sweet-natured and kind-hearted and comforted Ejima like a sister. She was also beautiful, with wide eyes and a lovely smile which seldom left her lips. Soon they were inseparable.

Ejima wasn’t the only one who adored Gekkoin. As soon as the shogun cast eyes on her, she was promoted to ‘lady of the side chamber’, as the shogun’s concubines were called. He quickly gave up sleeping with his other concubines and spent every night with her. Then she bore him a son. Most of the other women were overjoyed – though not all. The shogun’s official wife, for one, was consumed with jealousy.

As the mother of the shogun’s heir Gekkoin was high in the palace hierarchy and when the old shogun died and her son inherited the throne, she rose to the very top. She chose Ejima, her dearest friend, as her chief lady-in-waiting.

As she rode through the city in her luxurious sedan chair, carried by four liveried bearers, Ejima peered through the tiny window at the crowds outside. She heard the hubbub of voices and smelt grilling squid and octopus and chicken and smiled to herself. For this one day she was free and she intended to enjoy it.

A hundred of her ladies had come with her, the highest-ranking in sedan chairs, the others walking alongside in a grand procession. The bearers set the chairs down at the temple where the sixth shogun was buried and they walked through the grounds to his tomb. Ejima carried out the ceremonies to honour his memory. She lit candles, she burnt incense, she chanted prayers. But she was already thinking of the treat that was to come.

It was a sizable distance to the theatre district. Crowds gathered to watch, jostling to catch a glimpse as Ejima stepped out of her sedan chair in front of the Yamamura Theatre, a magnificent building with posters outside depicting that season’s stars. Staff pushed the crowd back so that she and her ladies could walk through.

Her attendants had booked the entire upper gallery. The manager, a fat man with a sweaty forehead, ushered them to their seats. Below them, two walkways led from the back of the theatre through the audience.

‘So gracious of Your Ladyship to honour our humble theatre with a visit,’ said the manager. He leaned forward, all ingratiating smiles. ‘If I may say so, Your Ladyship is in for a treat today. Our star is the legendary Shingoro Ikushima. I know Your Ladyship is far too busy to pay attention to such trivial matters but among us ordinary folk he’s much admired. Half the women of Edo are in love with him, so I’m told.’

Ejima smiled graciously. Ikushima’s fame had spread even as far as the cloistered corridors of the castle. She was excited to hear that he was to perform.

‘The show today is Sukeroku.’ The manager bowed again. ‘I assume Your Ladyship is familiar with it?’ Ejima nodded. It was one of the most popular plays in the repertoire, the rollicking story of Sukeroku, a dashing swordsman who defends the poor, gets the better of the rich and charms the ladies.

Ejima and her ladies had barely settled in when there was a thunderous drum roll. A procession of actors portraying courtesans, in glossy wigs studded with tortoiseshell hairpins and ornate kimonos with huge sashes, paraded down the walkway. The most splendid of all, teetering on high clogs, began to recite in a sing song voice.

Then silence fell and off stage a flute struck up a jaunty tune. Ejima leaned forward to get a better look as a figure appeared on the walkway.

Ikushima’s face was painted in stage makeup, his eyes outlined in black and his eye sockets in red, but nothing could conceal the fine line of his nose and the curve of his cheekbones. He was dressed in a black robe with a gold sash with a sword and a flute poking out of it and holding a huge black and white oiled paper umbrella. Striking a pose he turned his face slowly towards the audience. A roar went up. ‘Ikushima, Ikushima!’

Then he turned and bowed towards the gallery. Ejima rose to her feet and tossed her fan down to him. He caught it deftly, unfurled it, then strutted towards the stage, twirling his umbrella. Ejima watched as the play unfolded, mesmerised by his dashing swordplay, his jokes and bravado. As the hero despatched the last of his enemies to win the courtesan, the audience rose to their feet, cheering till the thin wooden walls of the theatre shook.

When the play was over, the actors came up to the gallery to pay their respects to their distinguished guests. Ejima greeted each of them in turn with a few gracious words. Ikushima was the last to appear.

He held out the fan she had thrown to him. ‘Your Ladyship, I believe this belongs to you,’ he said, with a quizzical smile.

His voice was deep and without make up his face was even more striking. Their eyes met and to her horror she found herself blushing.

‘It is yours. Please keep it,’ she said, staring at the floor, trying to hide her discomfiture.

He bowed and tucked it into his sash. ‘I will treasure it for ever. It will be a precious souvenir of your visit and of you.’

At least he was respectful, she thought. She had expected him to be brash and cocky, like his stage persona. She was dismayed at her own loss of composure. She was a high-ranking court lady, he a mere actor, beyond the pale, the lowest of the low, yet she felt bashful, tongue-tied in his presence, like a child. Perhaps it was because she hadn’t seen any men besides the shogun for so long. She was not used to their company, she didn’t know how to respond to their banter. Perhaps that was it.

Her ladies didn’t seem to have any problem at all. They were flirting with the actors for all they were worth, teasing, greeting overly familiar behaviour with squeals of laughter, all no doubt well aware that it might be another ten years before they had the chance to see a man again.

It was hard to drag them away but they had to return to the palace.

Jogging along in her sedan chair, Ejima tried to focus on the next day’s tasks – meetings to be held, decisions to be made. But the image of Ikushima’s face and the sound of his voice, the few words they’d exchanged, kept intruding into her thoughts.

It was utter folly, entirely impossible. And yet, and yet … she found herself wondering if there wasn’t some way she could meet him again.

(Originally published in My Weekly)

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Sarah Williams November 25, 2013 at 7:52 pm

Wonderful story, Lesley. I have been watching a lot of Kurosawa movies lately. I realize they are of a more modern era, but, still, they paint a picture of a world lost to Japan (except for some of its formalities). Yours does, too. It reminds me slightly of the experience I had at the Santa Catalina convent in Arequipa, Peru, where the second girl child in a family was dedicated to the convent, and forever hidden behind bars in a world of women only. Each child had her own room and luxuries were allowed, and encouraged. But they never left the convent and spent their lives creating rich embroideries for the religious icons throughout the convent. The only portraits of them were painted when they had just died, so all portraits of the nuns show them with eyes closed. It is so hard for women today to imagine such lives. It is a good thing to honor them.

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