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Kabuki is spectacular and you don’t have to know anything to enjoy it. But a little bit of information about a few of the terms and the plays makes it even better.
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Shunkyo Kagami Jishi / 春興鏡獅子
—The Kagami Lion Dance—

In the Edo period, since the classical Noh theater was the official art form of the samurai class, the shogunate banned the commoner kabuki theater from copying it too closely. The lion dance is based on the noh play "Shakkyo (The Stone Bridge)" and in Edo period kabuki, it was performed in an adaptation for an onnagata female role specialist. Usually a courtesan would dance on the themes of the shishi lion, peony blossoms and butterflies, sometimes dancing with a lion mask, and in the second half, would appear as a delicate (but powerful) feminine version of the shishi.

"The Kagami Lion Dance" was created in 1893 by the great kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjuro IX and since it was written after the end of the Tokugawa shogunate, sets the dance in the ooku women's quarters of the shogun's palace. Although Danjuro IX was primarily an actor of male roles, the first half of the dance shows an elegant lady-in-waiting doing a series of elegant dances before being possessed by the spirit of the lion in a puppet of the lion. It is a kind of crystallization of the entire tradition of dance for an onnagata female role specialist. In the second half, the actor appears as a vigorous masculine version of the lion spirit together with child actors as the spirits of butterflies.

Also see The Beauty of Onnagata" and "Unique Kabuki Props" in the 2014 season.

Bo Shibari / 棒しばり
—Tied to a Pole—

First performed in 1916, this is a kabuki dance version of a classical Kyogen comedy and is an example of a matsubame (“pine board”) mono play performed on an imitation of the simple stage of the Noh and Kyogen theaters with a picture of an ancient pine on the back wall.

A master is tired of having his servants Taro Kaja and Jiro Kaja drink his sake when he is out. He has Jiro Kaja demonstrate stick fighting and then ties him to the pole. He then ties up Taro Kaja as well and goes out. But the two get into the sake anyway and start to sing and dance. The fact that they are tied up makes it very funny, but also a great challenge for the actors.

Finally the master comes home and, as most Kyogen plays end, chases them around saying that he will not let them get away with this.

Kuruwa Bunsho / 廓文章
—Izaemon and the Courtesan Yugiri—

This play is the best example of the gentle wagoto style of acting from Kamigata (the area around Kyoto and Osaka). Wagoto is exemplified by Izaemon, the son of a fabulously wealthy family who has been disowned because of all the money he has spent on the courtesan Yugiri. He is spoiled and petulant and gets jealous when he thinks that Yugiri is with his rival, but his gentle charm makes it impossible to dislike him. Yugiri is based on a real courtesan and exemplifies the kabuki version of the ideal courtesan of the highest rank.

The play we have now is based on a puppet play by the great Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653 – 1724), but it really preserves the acting of Sakata Tojuro I (1647 – 1709), the man that created the wagoto style of acting. Izaemon is one of his famous roles and most of the routines in this play seem to have been specialties of Tojuro I. The original play also commemorated a real top-ranking Osaka courtesan named Yugiri who died at the height of her fame and beauty.

Also see The Beauty of Onnagata" and "Kabuki's Leading Male Roles" in the 2014 season.

Shinju Ten no Amijima – Kawasho / 心中天網島~河庄
—The Love Suicides at Amijima – The Kawasho Teahouse—

First performed as a puppet play at the Takemoto-za theater in Osaka in 1710, this is one of the last and perhaps most complex and deep love suicide plays written by Chikamatsu Monzaemon. It shows the love suicide of Jihei, the paper seller, and the courtesan Koharu, but also shows the complex relations of Jihei’s family, his wife Osan and brother Magoemon and the bond of obligation and loyalty between Osan and Koharu, the two women who love Jihei.

It is in three acts with the first act set at the Kawasho teahouse, the second act in Jihei’s home and the third act the actual love suicide. The third act includes the michiyuki travel passage showing the couple searching for their place to die. These scenes, which were pioneered by Chikamatsu, use all the resources of classical poetry to dignify these last, sad moments of a couple’s life with great beauty. As with many of Chikamatsu’s plays, instead of Chikamatsu’s original text, performances today in both kabuki and Bunraku use elements from rewritten versions that add more theatrical plot devices to the rather spare lines of the original play. In this way, although sometimes there are full length performances of “The Love Suicides at Amijima,” in the main performance tradition in Kyoto and Osaka with Kansai actors, the first act of Chikamatsu’s original play has become an independent play and goes by the title “Kawasho.”

In the original play, Sangoro, the simple minded servant of Jihei’s household does not appear in the Kawasho scene, but he has been added to provide some comic relief in this very serious scene.

Also see "Wagoto: Ladies' Man as Hero" in the 2014 season.

Igagoe Dochu Sugoroku - Numazu / 伊賀越道中双六~沼津
—The Vendetta at Iga – The Numazu Scene—

This scene is part of a long puppet play first performed in 1783. The main story is about the vendetta that was carried out at Iga Ueno with the help of the famous swordsman Araki Mataemon, a vendetta that is considered to be one of the most famous vendettas in Japanese history. But the scene at Numazu is a side story that shows the merchant Jubei as he travels and encounters an elderly porter named Kyusaku. But it turns out that Kyusaku's daughter was once a top-ranking courtesan in the pleasure quarters and has sacrificed everything to help in the vendetta. They are now searching desperately for the enemy Matagoro and it turns out that Jubei knows where he is. Moreover, Jubei was adopted when he was a baby and he realizes that Heisaku is his father. Jubei is so obligated to Matagoro that he cannot reveal Matagoro's whereabouts, but finally does so when Heisaku sacrifices his life.

Koibikyaku Yamato Orai - Fuin Giri / 恋飛脚大和往来 ~ 封印切
—The Money Courier from Hell – Breaking the Seals—

"Koibikyaku Yamato Orai" first appeared as a puppet play in 1757 in Osaka and is a rewritten version of Chikamatsu's famous "Meido no Hikyaku" written in 1711. It is usually referred to as "Ume-Chu," short for "Umegawa Chubei" after the names of the main characters. Between the time of Chikamatsu in the early 18th century and the time of these plays in mid-century, several things happened. In Chikamatsu's time, puppets had only one operator, so the range of movement was quite limited. By mid-century, there were three puppeteers for some roles and all kinds of stage devices were used. Also, generations of performers enriched and enlivened the roles, creating performances that might not have been as realistic as Chikamatsu's originals or of as high a literary quality, but were vastly more entertaining to Edo period audiences. "Koibikyaku Yamato Orai" is one of those plays and in turn, different actors developed different ways to perform these key scenes and these moments of acting became traditions unique to a particular acting family.

Chubei is a money courier who comes from Ninokuchi village on the Nara plain. He was adopted to be the heir of a money courier business in Osaka, which carried money for merchants and samurai mansions and also arranged for transport of money between Osaka and Edo. To guarantee security, the gold coins were wrapped in paper, the amount written on it and then were signed and sealed. An unauthorized person breaking the seals would be punished with death.

Chubei happens to be carrying a delivery of money and makes the fateful decision to stop in at the pleasure quarters and see his favorite courtesan Umegawa. The brothel mistress arranges for him to meet secretly with Umegawa. But Chubei's rival in love Hachiemon appears with the money to buy out Umegawa's contract. Chubei tries to pretend that he has money as well, and by accident breaks the seals on the coins he is carrying. Now that his fate is sealed, Chubei decides to buy out Umegawa's contract and they will flee together, going for as long as they can, until the money runs out.

The other scene that is played is called "Ninokuchi Village" and shows Umegawa and Chubei as they go to his hometown. In Chikamatsu's original, Chubei cannot meet with his father Magoemon, because that would mean implicating him in his crime. But in the rewritten version, they have a tearful reunion before his father urges the couple to hurry on their desperate journey.

These are the only scenes performed in both kabuki and the Bunraku puppet theater. In Chikamatsu's original, soon after the scene at Ninokuchi village, Chubei and Umegawa are captured and separated, so that they cannot even die together. This scene is never performed today.

Also see "Wagoto: Ladies' Man as Hero" in the 2014 season.

Komochi Yamamba / 嫗山姥
—The Mountain Hag and Her Child—

There is a legend about the Yamamba or "Mountain Hag" who is a terrifying female demon who nonetheless is also famous for the graceful dance the "yama meguri (making the rounds of the mountain)" which shows the beauty of mountains in the four seasons. In this puppet play, Chikamatsu transformed the Yamamba mountain hag from a terrifying demon to a graceful former courtesan who becomes pregnant from her husband, a dying samurai and retreats to the mountains to raise her child, the superstrong Kintoki, who tests his strength wrestling with wild animals. This is a very different image from the original legend and the depiction of the Yamamba in a classical Noh play, but this became the standard image of Yamamba in the Edo period and can be seen a famous Ukiyo-e woodblock print by Utamaro. Today the play is never performed in its entirety and the only scene that is usually performed shows a former courtesan as she searches for her husband, but occasionally the scene with the Yamamba and her child is shown.

Renjishi / 連獅子
—Parent and Child Lion Dance—

This is an example of a matsubame mono ("pine board play") performed on the kabuki version of the simple stage used for Noh and Kyogen. In Noh, the play "Shakkyo (The Stone Bridge)" can performed with one or more shishi lions, but there is no particular relationship among them. But in the kabuki dance version, this is explicitly a story about father and son. In the first half of the play two traveling performers appear with puppets of lions. They act out the story of how the parent lion throws his son down a steep cliff, hoping that he has trained the boy to climb up again. In the second half of the play, the two appear as the actual spirits of the lions, the parent lion with long white hair and the child with long red hair. Occasionally, especially with actors from the Kansai, this is performed in a variant version in which the mother shishi appears as well.

Sonezaki Shinju / 曽根崎心中
—The Love Suicides at Sonezaki—

First performed as puppet theater in 1703 at the Takemoto-za theater in Osaka, this is probably the most famous play that Chikamatsu ever wrote. Since being revived in 1953 in kabuki with a script by Uno Nobuo and starring Nakamura Ganjiro II as Tokubei and his son Nakamura Senjaku (the current Sakata Tojuro) as Ohatsu, it has become one of the most popular plays in both kabuki and Bunraku puppet theater. Its simple story and fresh sensuality felt like a link between the Genroku period in which it was created and the modern atmosphere of post-war Japan.

The play shows a shop clerk named Tokubei who wants to buy out the contract of the courtesan Ohatsu. He has some money which he must return to his master, but in the meantime, his friend Kuheiji asks to borrow the money for a few days as a matter of life or death. But when Tokubei asks Kuheiji to return the money, he denies ever having borrowed it and accuses Tokubei of being a swindler. Humiliated, Tokubei decides on death and he and Ohatsu commit love suicide in the Sonezaki district of Osaka.

This play established the three-act format for a sewamono and also established the convention of the michiyuki or travel scene in the conclusion. As the couple travel to their place of death, this moment is made beautiful with all the resources available to poetry, giving dignity to what was actually a sad and dirty death and ending the play in a kind of fantastic space between this world and the next. The play is also notable for the staging in the Tenmaya scene where Tokubei is hiding under the veranda in Ohatsu’s skirts while Kuheiji is in the room above. Ohatsu berates Kuheiji scornfully for betraying his friend and seemingly speaks to Kuheiji, but actually is trying to find out Tokubei’s feelings. Tokubei must stay silent under the veranda, but in a stunning dramatic and erotic moment, draws her foot across his throat to indicate his willingness to commit love suicide. This is a very artificial moment, but shows the emotions and relationship of these three characters very clearly and expresses very real human emotions.

Chikamatsu is very famous for his love suicide plays, but they became so popular in the Edo period that they were banned. When love suicide plays could be performed again, Chikamatsu’s original plays were not performed because stage technique had changed greatly from his time and the story of a play like “Sonezaki Shinju” was too simple for Edo period audiences that wanted complex intrigue. It was not until 1953 that this play became standard, first in kabuki then in Bunraku where it originated.

Also see "The Shakespeare of Japan : Chikamatsu Monzaemon" in the 2014 season.