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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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Shin Usuyuki Monogatari / 新薄雪物語
—The New Tale of Princess Usuyuki—

This play was originally written by Bunkodo and a large group of playwrights and was performed as a puppet play in 1741 at the Takemoto-za in Osaka. Later it was adapted to kabuki. It is one of the first puppet plays to be written by a group of playwrights, rather than just one or two. It dramatizes the story of Princess Usuyuki, which first appeared in an ukiyo zoshi storybook in the early Edo period, then was dramatized in kabuki a number of times and finally reached its definitive form in this play. The staging of the scene at the Kiyomizu temple became standard and was used in many different plays with very different stories. Virtually the same set is used in the opening scenes of "Sakurahime Azuma Bunsho (The Scarlet Princess and the Letter from the East)" by Tsuruya Namboku IV and "Benten Kozo (Benten, the Thief)" by Kawatake Mokuami which show chance romantic encounters that lead to long and complex stories.

"Shin Usuyuki Monogatari" is the story of the tragic results of the love of Princess Usuyuki, the daughter of Kozaki, Lord of Iga and Sonobe Saemon, the son of Sonobe Hyoe. Princess Usuyuki and Saemon happen to meet while viewing the cherry blossoms at the Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto and fall in love at first sight. But the villainous Akizuki Daizen wants to take over the realm and denounces Princess Usuyuki and Saemon to the shogun as traitors. They await execution and each is put in the custody of the other's parent.

In one of the most famous scenes of the play, the two fathers each decide to spare the lives of the two young people by committing suicide in their place. The two men cut their bellies and then bind their wounds so that they can meet the other and then go to the shogun and explain what they have done. At first each father is afraid that the other has beheaded their child, as they have been ordered to do, but then they find that each father has had the exactly same idea, sacrificing their own lives for a young person, hoping that the other father will feel the same. Happy that the lives of the two young people have been saved, the two men and their wives laugh ceremonially, even while the two men are in agony and the four are filled with sadness at the sacrifice.

Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura / 義経千本桜
—Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees—

Written as a puppet play and first performed in 1747 at the Takemoto-za theater in Osaka, together with "Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy" and "Chushingura: The Treasury of Loyal Retainers," this is one of the "Three Classics" written by the trio of playwrights Takeda Izumo, Miyoshi Shoraku and Namiki Senryu. Like the other "Three Classics, "it is performed frequently in both kabuki and the puppet theater.

The play takes place after the wars between the Genji and Heike clans leaving the Genji clan victorious and making its head Yoritomo the ruler of Japan as shogun. But although his brother Yoshitsune was largely responsible for the victory, Yoritomo came to suspect Yoshitsune of treason. When Yoshitsune is attacked, his lover Shizuka is rescued by his loyal retainer Tadanobu. But this Tadanobu is actually a magical fox in disguise that wants to be close to the skins of his fox parents that cover a tsuzumi drum that Shizuka carries. Yoshitsune says that his road of escape is too dangerous for a woman and leaves her in the safekeeping of Tadanobu.

The travel scene, “Michiyuki Hatsune no Tabi (Travel Scene: The First Birdsong of Spring,"is a dance and often performed independently. Shizuka and Tadanobu have heard that Yoshitsune has taken refuge on Mt. Yoshino, long a stronghold for the imperial family and with many temples, and above all famous for its mountains covered with cherry trees. These scenes are actually set in the very early spring when the first birdsong is supposed to greet the plum blossoms, but the image of the cherry blossoms of Mt. Yoshino is so overwhelmingly strong that on stage, it is always later in spring at the time of the cherry blossoms. In this dance, surrounded by the cherry blossoms in full bloom, Shizuka and Tadanobu share their thoughts about Yoshitsune. In a vigorous dance, Tadanobu recalls the battle in which his brother sacrificed his life to save Yoshitsune.

In the following scene at the Zaodo temple, a scene often called “Shi-no-Kiri (Finale of Fourth Act)" because that is where it comes in the original play. At first the presence of the fox Tadanobu throws suspicion on the real Tadanobu, but in the end, the fox Tadanobu magically helps to rescue Yoshitsune and his party and it is famous for the many stage tricks that show the magic of the fox.

Also see the explanation of plays for the "Kabuki Kool Special: Kabuki Dance Evolution."

Natsu Matsuri Naniwa Kagami / 夏祭浪花鑑
—The Summer Festival in Osaka—

This play was first performed as a puppet play in 1745 at the Takemoto-za theater in Osaka. Although it is not counted as one of "The Three Classics," it is one of the earliest plays by the same trio of playwrights. It shows the spirited heroism of the boisterous commoner men and women of Osaka and the passion of their gallantry is set against the background of the overwhelming heat of Osaka in summer and the excitement of a festival.

The play follows three gallant commoners in Osaka and in the most famous scene, the commoner Danshichi Kurobei is trying to protect his young samurai patron and is taking care of his patron’s lover, a geisha. But Danshichi’s greedy father-in-law Giheiji tries to abduct the geisha for money and Danshichi just barely rescues her by lying to his father-in-law and saying that he will give him money. When Giheiji realizes that he has been deceived, he shouts out and by chance Danshichi cuts Giheiji with his sword. Eventually Danshichi is forced to kill Giheiji in a long fight in a muddy pond by a well. The scene is cruel and beautiful and Danshichi shows his body covered with tattoos. Finally he kills Giheiji just as the procession of the night festival at the local shrine approaches. Danshichi washes off the mud with real water and manages to get his kimono on and to hide his face just moments before the raucous crowd passes carrying the portable shrine.

Momijigari / 紅葉狩
—Viewing the Autumn Leaves—

This is a dance first performed in 1887 that is the kabuki version of a classical Noh play. It is notable for having three forms of music: Gidayu, Nagauta and Tokiwazu. Also in the dance of Princess Sarashina, two dance fans are used, a very unusual technique that seems to have come from Kansai dance and was a favorite technique of Ichikawa Danjuro IX (1838 – 1903) who created the role of Princess Sarashina and also used the technique in "Kagami Jishi," another dance he first performed. "Momijigari" is also notable because there is a brief film of the last moments of the play, which is the only film record of Danjuro IX and Onoe Kikugoro V (1844 – 1903), the two great actors of the Edo period who brought kabuki into the modern period.

A Taira general named Koremochi is traveling through the mountains of Togakushi and encounters a party of women enjoying the autumn leaves. They insist that he join them and dance to entertain him, the culmination of the performance of Princess Sarashina herself. The drink and the dances send Koremochi and his retainers to sleep. The god of the mountain appears and warns Koremochi that the women are actually demons and tries to wake him, but without success. In the second half, Princess Sarashina appears in her true form as a fearsome demon and she and Koremochi fight. Finally, the power of Koremochi’s sacred sword vanquishes the demon.

The program on "The Beauty of Onnagata" featured the play "Onizoroi Momijigari" which is the same story, but a modern version that features many demons in the second half, rather than just the one of the original.

Kiichi Hogen Sanryaku no Maki – Kikubatake – / 鬼一法眼三略巻 菊畑
—Kiichi Hogen and the Scroll of Strategy Secrets –The Chrysanthemum Garden– —
"Kikubatake (The Chrysanthemum Garden)" is one act of a long puppet play written by Bunkodo and Hasegawa Senshi and first performed at the Takemono-za theater in Osaka in 1731. It deals with legends around the early rise of the Genji clan and the tradition that Minamoto no Yoshitsune became such a powerful warrior because he was trained by a tengu goblin. This act is often performed independently and shows kabuki at its most stylized best with gorgeous costumes and set in a lavish chrysanthemum garden, the perfect symbol of its master, an elderly strategist in the autumn of his life. Kiichi Hogen is a strategist serving the ruling Heike clan, but the young heir of the Genji clan Ushiwaka (Yoshitsune's childhood name) wants Kiichi's scroll of strategy secrets. He enters Kiichi's service as a page named Torazo and his retainer Kisanda comes disguised as a footman named Chienai. But Kiichi's daughter Minazuru falls in love with Torazo and there are various plot complications of romance and intrigue before they are granted the scroll of secrets.
Yuki no Yube Iriya no Azemichi / 雪暮夜入谷畦道
—The Snowy Road Through the Rice Fields of Iriya—

This is part of the play "Kumo ni Magou Ueno no Hatsuhana" first performed in 1881 at the Shin Tomi-za theater in Tokyo and written by Kawatake Mokuami. The full-length play is about the "Tenpo Rokkasen," six criminals, strongmen and their companions from the late Edo period including the tea priest Kochiyama, the former samurai Naozamurai and his lover, the courtesan Michitose. This became a popular topic for Kodan storytelling and was adapted to kabuki. Often only the sections about Kochiyama or the sections about Naozamurai are performed. "Yuki no Yube Iriya no Azemichi" is actually the title of the Kiyomoto piece of music which accompanies the final farewell between Naozamurai and his lover Michitose and often, this title is used when just the Naozamurai sections are performed.

Kataoka Naojiro is a former samurai who has become a thief. His nickname is "Naozamurai (Nao, the samurai)." He has long been deeply involved with the Yoshiwara courtesan Michitose, but he has never told her that he is a thief and instead, always pretended he was a wealthy merchant while using his stolen money.

Now Naozamurai is on the run and about to leave Edo. It is actually early spring, but it is the kind of spring when it gets to be bitterly cold again and it snows heavily. In a soba noodle shop in Iriya, near the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters he hears that Michitose has gotten sick longing for him. He goes to the villa where she is recovering and they have a last meeting, which is accompanied by sensuous Kiyomoto music, then he has to leave when arresting officers try to capture him.

Also see the explanation of plays for the "Kabuki's Leading Male Roles" program for the Kochiyama sections of "Kumo ni Magou Ueno no Hatsuhana."

Koi Bikyaku Yamato Orai – Ninokuchimura / 恋飛脚大和往来 新口村
—The Courier from Hell – Ninokuchi Village —

"Koi Bikyoku Yamato Orai (The Courier of Love on the Yamato Plain)" is the title for the adapted and elaborated versions of Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s 1711 puppet play "Meido no Hikyaku (The Courier from Hell)" about the love of the money courier Chubei and the courtesan Umegawa. Two sections from that play are performed today, usually separately but sometimes together: "Fuin Giri (Breaking the Seals)" and "Ninokuchimura." In "Fuin Giri," pride goads Chubei into breaking the seals on the official money he is carrying and uses it to ransom Umegawa. "Ninokuchimura" shows the couple on their road of escape.

Chubei and Umegawa have been fleeing through the areas around Osaka. Afraid of being seen, they have used up nearly all the money Chubei embezzled, spending their days together in the intimacy of a palanquin and nights of love in various inns the Yamato plain around Nara. Finally they come to Chubei’s native village Ninokuchimura. Chubei was adopted as the heir to the money courier shop in Osaka, but his real father Magoemon lives here. In the Edo period, family members were all collectively responsible for each other and could be punished for the crimes of another family member. Whatever individual feelings Chubei and Magoemon have for each other, since Chubei was adopted, they are legally unrelated. But if they were to meet and Magoemon do something to help Chubei, he would again become subject to punishment.

Chubei and Umegawa intend to take refuge briefly at the house of a family friend and then commit suicide together. Umegawa is overwhelmed to see her lover’s hometown. Chubei explains why he cannot meet his father. At that point, Magoemon walks by and slips on the ice. Umegawa rushes out of the house and takes care of the old man. They each realize who the other is, and speak in veiled terms. Umegawa says she is caring for him because he resembles her father-in-law. He says that her father-in-law would be glad to know this, but he is also angry at the woman who led his son to commit a crime. But he gives them some money for the road. Umegawa knows that father and son want to have a final farewell, but cannot meet, so she blindfolds Magoemon and he and Chubei clasp hands. Then, Umegawa removes the blindfold and father and son embrace. But then there is the sound of arresting officers and Magoemon urges the couple to continue on their road of escape and to go on living for as long as possible.

Also see the explanation of plays for the "Wagoto: Ladie's Man as Hero" program for "Fuin Giri."