07 March 2015

Ningyōgeki Sangokushi 3: Zhang Jue’s Last Gasp

Puppet Theatre Romance of the Three Kingdoms
(人形劇 三国志 / Ningyōgeki Sangokushi, 1982-4, 45’x 68, TV)

Episode 3: Zhang Jue’s Last Gasp
張角の最期 / Chōkaku no Saigo (original airdate: 16 October 1982)

Central Characters in Order of Appearance:

Liu Bei   劉備玄徳 りゅうび げんとく
Guan Yu 関羽雲長 かんう うんちょう
Zhang Fei 張飛翌徳 ちょうひ よくとく
Sūrin  淑玲 すうりん
Mei Fan 美芳 めい ふぁん
Cao Cao  曹操孟徳 そうそう もうとく

Zhang Liang (Yellow Turban rebel leader) 張梁 ちょう りょう
Zhang Bao (Yellow Turban rebel leader) 張宝 ちょう ほう
Zhang Jue  張角 ちょうかく
Ron-Ron  竜々 ろんろん
Shin-Shin  紳々 しんしん
the new Shōgun Dong Zhuo (warlord)  将軍 董卓 とうたく

Episode 3, Part 1

Historical Introduction

Our mop-headed hosts Shinsuke Shimada and Ryūsuke Matsumoto, with their stylish 80s sweaters and white pants, begin this episode with a reminder that at the end of that last episode, we left our 3 heroes surrounded by the Yellow Turbans and with their horses stolen. 

Horses were an integral part of life during the Warring States period.  Emperor Qin (260-210 BC) introduced horses from abroad.  They were particularly useful in battle, as a mounted soldier was more likely to win a battle against foot soldiers.  If you didn’t have horses, you couldn’t win wars.  They were so important that they were also immortalised in clay as part of Emperor Qin’s Terracotta Army.

Hosts Shinsuke Shimada and Ryūsuke Matsumoto then interact with their puppet selves:   Ron- Shin-Shin and Ron-Ron.  They are acting a bit smug because their alter-egos are members of the Yellow Turbans, who currently seem to be winning.  


Our three heroes Liu Bei (aka Gentoku), Guan Yu (aka Kan-u) and Zhang Fei (aka Chōhi) are under attack at the saké shop.  The women, Sūrin and Mei Fan, scream as arrows rain down upon their hiding spot, scaring away the horses.   Hot-blooded Zhang Fei is indignant at the loss of the horses and wants to fight for them, but level-headed Liu Bei points out that they are out-numbered by the Yellow Turbans.  Through the fog they can make out that the rock escarpment is swarming with the enemy. 

Sūrin spots the horses, causing Zhang Fei to shout at the horses to come back.  Zhang Fei’s rash action provokes another volley of arrows from the Yellow Turbans.  He cracks a sexist joke about the horses attracting more arrows than the women do because they are cuter.  Zhang Fei heedlessly runs to catch the horses and is rewarded with an arrow in the arm.  Mei Fan is worried about Zhang Fei’s safety, but Guan Yu is less concerned.  He points out that Zhang Fei still has one good arm.  Yellow Turbans appear to be approaching and Sūrin is worried about their safety.  The men fight off the Yellow Turbans and Sūrin passes out in all the excitement.  Guan Yu offers to take the arrow out of Zhang Fei’s arm.  He claims he can handle the pain, but he nearly passes out when the arrow is removed. 

Our three heroes have come up with a cunning plan to fight off the Yellow Turbans.   At the moment however, things are too quiet . . . until a flaming arrows interrupts the calm.  Mei Fan looks after Sūrin while the men put their plan into action “Yosh… Ikko!” (Okay, Let’s Go!”).  .  .  They are interrupted by the sounds of drums.  The great warlord Cao Cao has arrived.   Guan Yu and Zhang Fei introduce themselves as Liu Bei’s “brothers”.  Mei Fan interrupts the proceedings with her concerns about Sūrin’s health.  Sūrin sighs and faints for the umpteenth time, calling out Liu Bei’s name: “Gentoku-sama!”  

Cao Cao remarks that a woman as beautiful as Sūrin is rarely seen, not even in the capital city.  He tells Mei Fan that she is beautiful and calls upon her to introduce herself to him.  Mei Fan introduces herself as the proprietress of the saké shop that has unfortunately been burnt down by the Yellow Turbans. 

Side Note on Mei Fan: In the first episode, I mistakenly identified Mei Fan as Zhang Fei’s wife.  I found her identified as such from an online cast list, and as she and Zhang Fei seemed to both live at the saké shop, I presumed this was the case.  It would seem that at the present time he is just a regular customer.  They do clearly have a close relationship and Zhang Fei does have a keen interest in Mei Fan, but they are not yet married.  I have also noticed in this episode that Zhang Fei often calls her “Mi-wa”, possibly an endearment.  It is hard to keep on top of the names of characters in this story.  The male historical figures have at least two names in Chinese (the name they were born with and their courtesy name).  The Japanese seem to have developed their own readings of these names –some similar to the Chinese, some based on Japanese readings of Chinese characters.  I will note them from time to time, but I have chosen to use the English names for historical figures / characters as found in standard translations of Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms. 

Cao Cao is displeased to hear that the ladies have been ill-treated by the Yellow Turbans and offers to take care of them.  This causes Zhang Fei to become jealous.  He steps in front of Mei Fan in a protective manner and announces that he has always had his eye on Mei Fan and plans to make her his wife one day.  Mei Fan reprimands him, but he cuts her short.  He adds that Sūrin is meant for Liu Bei, warning Cao Cao off in no uncertain terms.  As usual, Liu Bei advises Zhang Fei to calm down and be more reasonable.  Zhang Fei remains irritated.  Cao Cao suggests making a bet: he who kills Zhang Jue (aka Chōkaku), the leader of the Yellow Turbans, gets the girl. Zhang Fei puts on a show of bravado: “With these arms I will take the head of Chōkaku” he declares.  As they talk, a plaintive trumpet melody can be heard, reminiscent of the kind used by Ennio Morricone in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966).  Liu Bei take the moral high road and refuses to be drawn into a bet concerning the women.  He declares that the women should be left out of the equation, but that he will happily join the quest to knock off Zhang Jue.  

The scene shifts to the enemy camp.  We are introduced to two of the leaders of the Yellow Turbans: Zhang Liang (Chō Ryō) and Zhang Bao (Chō Hō).  The men think that things are going well for them so far.  They claim to have 50,000 men under their command.  They joke about their success and laugh at the emperor’s attempts to thwart them.  Their commander, the infamous Zhang Jue displays a more serious demeanor.  He declares that he is exhausted and not feeling very well.  A yellow candle burns in the foreground. 

Shin-Shin and Ron-Ron are in the corridor standing on guard.  They are a bit impatient with just standing around and talk about the likelihood of the Yellow Turbans winning the rebellion.  The sound of a door creaking startles them back into their positions.  Zhang Jue exits the room and walks down the corridor.  Shin-Shin and Ron-Ron are confused when Zhang Jue turns down a corridor with a dead end and vanishes.  Perhaps there is a secret corridor that these two fools are ignorant of?

Meanwhile, our heroes are on horseback heading through the fog.  Everything seems to be fine until Zhang Fei freaks out at the sight of a snake.  We can always count on Zhang Fei to provide comic relief, in this case going from bravado to being as terrified as a child in a matter of minutes.  Liu Bei and Guan Yu just laugh at him.  Their laughter is short-lived however as they hear the approach of an army of Yellow Turbans.  They lie low and come up with a new cunning plan.  They split up.  Liu Bei goes to incite the troops to come towards them by shooting an arrow at them, while Zhang Fei and Guan Yu set up a trap.  The heavy fog allows them to hide a rope across the valley.  When the troops on horseback approach, they lift the rope and knock the riders off their horses.  Their plan works a treat.  
In the next scene, we meet the warlord Dong Zhuo (aka Tōtaku) for the first time.  He has a grumpy demeanour and would seem completely fierce if he weren’t comically playing with a disentanglement puzzle made of metal (what the Japanese call chi-e no wa /知恵の輪).  He praises our three heroes for defeating such a large number of Yellow Turbans, but he damns with faint praise.  Liu Bei introduces himself, but Dong Zhuo is not impressed.  This enrages Zhang Fei who bickers with Dong Zhuo about matters of rank.  Dong Zhuo insults the three men, saying that they are not in his league at all.  He leaves abruptly after taking a smug delight in suddenly solving the disentanglement puzzle.  Zhang Fei is simmering with rage and wants to punch Dong Zhuo in the face.  The other two advise him against being rash.     

Episode 3, Part 2

Historical Information

The historical introduction to the second half talks looks at the historical roots of Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  In particular, the Emperor Qin Shi Huang (260-210BC), whose mausoleum is guarded by the famous life-sized Terracotta Army.  I must admit that a lot of the information imparted during these interludes goes right over our heads because my husband and I do not understand the subtleties Kansai-ben – especially when delivered at such a rapid fire place.  They do point out that Emperor Qin lived about 4 centuries before the story we are seeing – which takes place between 169 and 280AD.  I would imagine the reason for invoking Emperor Qin is that the discovery of his Terracotta Army in 1974 led to a remarkable wealth of new information about the people and culture of ancient China.  This series was made a less than a decade after the discovery and the ongoing excavations and restorations relating to this site continue to reveal fascinating new information.  They also show an illustration of Xianyang Palace (咸陽宮), in Qin (Xianyang/咸陽), 15 km east of modern Xianyang, Shaanxi province.  This was the royal palace of the state of Qin before the Chinese unification, and then the palace of the First Emperor when China was unified.  It was burnt down by Xiang Yu after the fall of the Qin Dynasty.

Referring to the closing scene of the first half with the Shōgun Dong Zhuo, Shimada and Matsumoto joke about what social level they might have been at during the Three Kingdoms Period.  They speculate that they would have been at the bottom of the ladder and remark upon how lucky they are to be living in modern times!


The scene opens with Dong Zhuo playing another of his disentanglement puzzles: “Yatto! Dekitta!” (Finally, I did it!) – he delights in his little victories like an obnoxious child.    News arrives from the battlefield, but Dong Zhuo seems more interested in having his lackeys find him more puzzles to play.  A guitar riff indicates growing tension.  .  .  the news from the battlefield is increasingly bad.  A camel looks into the tent, looking unperturbed by the commotion. 

Our three heroes are on their own, having rejected the support of troops.   They have the impression that many of Dong Zhuo’s commanders are skilled, but for some reason he is not utilising them as he should.  In fact, many of them were sent in but have not come back, which seems strange to Liu Bei.  They decide to find out for themselves what’s going on.

The three heroes are spotted by Shin-Shin and Ron-Ron, who are on duty for the Yellow Turbans.  They are surprised to see only three, but recognise Liu Bei as a figure of importance.  Smoke billows ominously behind the rocks.  Liu Bei warns that the enemy is likely to attack at any moment.  As if on cue, the younger brother of Zhang Jue chuckles in an evil way from off screen.  The camera turns to show him on horseback.  He introduces himself as Zhang Bao (aka Chō Hō).  Guan Yu and Zhang Fei both declare they want to take Zhang Bao on singlehandedly.  Zhang Bao dares all three of them to take him on at once.  The three heroes are ready for the challenge.  Zhang Bao then appears to run away.  Guan Yu and Zhang Fei take the bait and follow hot on his heels, while the ever-cautious Liu Bei shouts that they should not follow him.  By the time Liu Bei catches up with his friends, Zhang Bao appears to have disappeared into thin air.  Liu Bei expects that they will be attacked at any minute.  

Our heroes become enveloped in evil laughter and billowing smoke or clouds.  It becomes as dark as a cave.  Zhang Bao appears like an apparition – likely shot using rear projection and mirrors to distort the image.  He speaks as if using an echo-y speaker: “Are you afraid?  You won’t be going anywhere anymore.”  A large rock knocks over Guan Yu, pinning him to the ground.  Zhang Fei is panicking.  “One down, two to go.”  There appears to be some kind of magic at work.  Sūrin and Mei Fan’s voices can be heard calling for help.   Liu Bei warns Zhang Fei not to fall for this trick, but Zhang Fei heedlessly charges in to rescue the women.  Sūrin and Mei Fan have been captured by a giant snake, which we learned earlier this episode is Zhang Fei’s greatest fear. 

Zhang Fei conquers his fear by deciding to attack with his eyes closed, inadvertently causing the vision to disappear.  He calls the women’s names to no avail.  Liu Bei asks him what is wrong and Zhang Fei explains what he saw.  Liu Bei has suspicions as to what is really going on, he whispers to Zhang Fei: “Don’t move and clear your mind.”  Poor Zhang Fei finds that difficult to do.  Darkness falls again and the vision of Zhang Bao reappears shouting “This will be your grave!” with an army of Yellow Turban warriors at his side.   Liu Bei and Zhang Fei don’t react and manage to keep their eyes closed.  Something resembling feathers / snow / white cutout paper appears to fall from the sky, startling the protagonists. 

Meanwhile, Guan Yu awakes to find himself on horseback instead of under a rock and wonders aloud if he is alive or has died and returned to life.  Liu Bei has unmasked Zhang Bao as a trickster.  Finding his magic no longer works on them, Zhang Bao backs out of his original threat of fighting all three of them at once and says it would only be fair if they each attack him individually.  For the umpteenth time, Zhang Fei gets to ready to charge in but gets stopped by Liu Bei.  Liu Bei declares it time for him to prove himself.  He raises his sword and fights Zhang Bao.  For a moment they seem evenly matched, but then Liu Bei forces Zhang Bao from his horse.  He falls dramatically off a cliff to his doom.

Shin-Shin and Ron-Ron are running into a cave for shelter and banter in Kansai-ben about the fate of Zhang Bao.    In spite of his demise, they still believe that the three are no match for Zhang Jue.  A title card tells us that the Yellow Turbans are now losing and the final battle is approaching. 
Back at the camp, Sūrin overhears guards chatting about the huge rewards for bringing back the head of Zhang Jue.  Sūrin worries about Liu Bei’s safety.  Later, Mei Fan comes to wake Sūrin but she is no longer in the tent.

The three heroes are back in the presence of Dong Zhuo.  They want his permission to kill Zhang Jue.  He doesn’t object.  Liu Bei takes this as acquiescence and declares that they should go, Zhang Fei complains that he wants to eat something first.   Comically, Dong Zhuo is once again more interested in his toys. 

Our three heroes arrive at the Yellow Turban fort to find it in flames.  Cao Cao is inside with his blade drawn.  He is looking for Zhang Jue: “Chokaku!!”  Instead, he finds Zhang Liang (aka Chō Ryō) and they fight.  Cao Cao brutally slashes him with his sword.  Zhang Liang falls against the wall, revealing a secret passageway.  Here Cao Cao discovers Zhang Jue in his hiding place.   Zhang Jue’s body falls to the ground --- it turns out that he is already dead!! (dramatic violins!!)

Cao Cao is back on his horse with his men.  He declares Liu Bei as the winner because Zhang Jue was already dead when he found him.  Actually, it’s more of a draw because he killed one brother and Liu Bei killed the other brother.  At any rate, it doesn’t matter because Sūrin has run away anyway.  “I guess she didn’t like me,” Cao Cao laughs at his own joke and rides away.  Liu Bei has remained silent throughout this exchange and looks nonplussed— “Sūrin!

Our live action hosts, Shinsuke Shimada and Ryūsuke Matsumoto, end the show by saying farewell to the puppets of Zhang Jue, Zhang Bao, and Zhang Liang.  Despite the fact that these three have exited the game, they point out that there are still many Yellow Turbans around and trouble in brewing in the Three Kingdoms. 

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2015

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Episode 4: The Rebel Heroes Head tothe Capital / 英雄 動乱の都へ / Eiyū dōran no Miyako e