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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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Imoseyama Onna Teikin – Michiyuki Koi no Odamaki / 妹背山婦女庭訓~道行恋苧環
—A Mirror for Virtuous Women – Michiyuki (Travel Scene): The Spool of Love—

This is part of a long, complex puppet play by Chikamatsu Hanji first performed in 1771. The play as a whole shows the land suffering under the dictatorship of Soga no Iruka and the way he is finally overthrown. The first half culminates in a famous act where two young people from feuding families eventually lose their lives, but their deaths bring the two feuding families together. The two families are shown with the houses on either side of the stage and a river flowing between them.

The second half focuses on the actual campaign to assassinate Iruka. It is led by Fujiwara no Kamatari and Kamatari's handsome son Tankai lives undercover as a humble court cap maker named Motome. Iruka is magically invulnerable, but he can be killed with an arrow dipped in the blood of a jealous woman.

Motome romances Princess Tachibana, Iruka's sister, to get into the palace, but he is also loved by Omiwa, the daughter of a sake shop owner living next door to Motome's house. In the michiyuki, which is a dance, the two women of highly contrasting character and social situation compete over him.

In the final act, Omiwa follows Princess Tachibana and Motome into Iruka's palace and her jealousy grows until she makes killing Iruka possible.

Meiboku Sendai Hagi – Goten / 伽羅先代萩~御殿
—The Troubles in the Date Clan – The Women's' Quarters of the Palace—

This is a play based on a real crisis within the Date clan that ruled Sendai. In the play, the lord of the Date clan is lured by evil advisors into spending all his time with a top-ranking courtesan and is ordered to retire, making his young son the lord of the clan. The young lord is protected in the women's quarters of the clan's mansion by his nurse Masaoka. She keeps her son Senmatsu with them, both to keep the little lord company and as a poison taster. Masaoka throws away all the dinner trays sent in and uses her delicate tea implements to cook rice for the young lord. The young lord is visited by two high-ranking women who are plotting to take over the clan and who bring a gift of cakes. Senmatsu eats one of the cakes and realizes it is poisoned and is killed by the villain. Masaoka shows no emotion when her son is killed and protects the young lord. The villains believe that she must have substituted the two boys and give her a scroll with a list of the conspirators. Alone, Masaoka can finally give in to her grief as a mother and she praises her son for sacrificing his life in place of his lord and for giving her the scroll as evidence against the conspirators. But the scroll is taken by a rat, actually the leader of the conspiracy, Nikki Danjo, who has magical powers. An aragoto hero named Otokonosuke has been trying to protect the young lord from the floor below, but Nikki Danjo escapes. He exits triumphantly along the hanamichi runway as though walking on the clouds.

This is the explanation from "The Beauty of Onnagata" program, but the play also appears in the "Unique Stage Structures" program where it shows the use of stage lifts, and also in the "Charming Villains" program where the play is presented together with "Date no Juyaku," a special version of this story where the star plays ten major roles, some original and others the key characters of the original story.

Kuruwa Bunsho (A Letter from the Pleasure Quarters) / 廓文章
—Izaemon and the Courtesan Yugiri—

This simple play is a classic of wagoto acting. A man named Izaemon is the son of a wealthy family, but he spent so much money on his favorite courtesan Yugiri, that his family disowned him. He now lives in poverty dressed in a paper kimono. But Izaemon hears that Yugiri has been very sick, but is at the Yoshidaya teahouse. He goes and the proprietor of the Yoshidaya brings him together with Yugiri. At first, Izaemon acts petulantly and jealously, but finally the couple is reconciled and moreover, Izaemon's disownment is forgiven and his family sends the money for Yugiri to be redeemed.

The play we have now is based on a puppet play by the great Chikamatsu Monzaemon, 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. The roles of both Izaemon and Yugiri are specialties of Kazutaro's acting family. The role of Yugiri has a special connection to his family because the historical Yugiri belonged to the Ogiya brothel and the mother of Nakamura Ganjiro I was the last owner of the Ogiya and had to see its bankruptcy and destruction.

Yugiri's costume and wig exemplify a top-ranking courtesan. She wears two uchikake overrobes, the first one with a pattern of auspicious pine, bamboo and plum and the second used for the very final moments with the happy end. Sakata Tojuro, Kazutaro's grandfather, has had a special uchikake made for these final moments and it has a lavish pattern of a waterfall and wisteria blossoms (the "to" in the name "Tojuro.")

Also see "Nakamura Kazutaro: The Rising Star of Kabuki," the first program this season and "The Beauty of Onnagata" and "The Shakespeare of Japan" in the 2014 season.