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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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Koi Tsukami / 鯉つかみ
—Wrestling with the Carp—

This is a routine from old kabuki where a powerful character wrestles a giant carp, often using real water. This is probably related to the carp as a symbol of strength, as with pictures of carp swimming up waterfalls and carp banners displayed on Boys Day. One of the oldest versions is in Chikamatsu Monzaemon's puppet play "Futago Sumidagawa (The Twins at the Sumida River)" but even that might be Chikamatsu using a routine that already existed. In that play, villains make a picture of a carp come to life and it causes havoc until a heroic servant wrestles and vanquishes the carp and returns it to the picture. The version that is often performed now is a play from the Kansai using standard kabuki intrigues to showcase the routine with the carp presented on stage with a spectacular fight in real water.

Kagamiyama Kokyo no Nishiki-e / 加賀見山旧錦絵
—Mirror Mountain: The Women's Chushingura—

This play was first performed as puppet theater in Edo in 1782. Part of it was inspired by an incident in which a lowly lady-in-waiting wore the zori slippers of the chief lady-in-waiting by mistake and was so tortured and humiliated by the chief lady-in-waiting that she committed suicide. Often the play is called a "woman's Chushingura" and it was performed frequently in the third month when women serving in samurai mansions had leave to return home and they took the opportunity to go to the kabuki theater.

The play is set entirely in the women's quarters of a samurai lord. The chief lady-in-waiting Iwafuji (who is played by an actor who usually plays male roles) is plotting to take over the clan. Her main obstacle is the senior lady-in-waiting immediately under her, Onoe, who is totally loyal to the princess of the clan. Onoe's primary weak point is that she did not come from the samurai class and is from a wealthy merchant family, so apart from the status difference, she is not trained in fighting as a woman from the samurai class would. Onoe is protected by her maid, Ohatsu who does everything she can to help her mistress. Iwafuji insults and torments Onoe, especially by beating her with a zori slipper. Onoe is so humiliated that she commits suicide. But her death is avenged by Ohatsu.

Kanadehon Chushingura – Act IX: Yamashina Kankyo / 仮名手本忠臣蔵~九段目
—Chushingura: The Treasury of Loyal Retainers – Act IX: Yuranosuke's Retirement Home in Yamashina—

As a whole, the play Chushingura shows Lord Enya Hangan attacking a high shogunate official and being forced to commit ritual suicide and his clan disbanded, then the process by which forty-seven of his former retainers band together and avenge his death. But much of the play follows the tragedies of characters around this main drama as their lives are affected by events. From the beginning, Lord Enya Hangan and Lord Momonoi Wakasanosuke are treated as parallel characters and it is only a trick of fate (and the fact that Wakasanosuke's chief retainer Honzo bribed Moronao) that made it Enya Hangan's clan that was destroyed. The ninth act of Chushingura deals with the families of the chief retainers of these two lords, Yuranosuke (the eventual leader of the vendetta) Enya Hangan's chief retainer and Kakogawa Honzo, Wakasanosuke's chief retainer. In particular, it focuses on the women of these two families.

This act is highly regarded and performed independently, but due to its length and difficulty is not performed as often as some of the other acts of the play. Tonase and Konami come asking that Konami be married to Rikiya. Yuranosuke's wife Oishi gives various excuses and finally says that this marriage is impossible because Honzo held back Enya Hangan when he attacked Moronao, preventing Hangan from killing him. Oishi says that the wedding is impossible and goes into the back. Left alone with her daughter, Tonase laments the failure of her mission and says that the two must die. She will kill her daughter and then commit suicide herself. Konami says that she will be happy dying in the house of her betrothed. As the two prepare for death, a komuso priest appears outside the door wearing a basket-like hat that hides his head and playing a shakuhachi flute. When Tonase prepares to behead Konami, a voice calls out to stop. At first it seems that it might be telling the flute player to stop, but then Oishi comes out and says the wedding might be possible with a proper gift and asks for the head of Honzo. The komuso priest comes in. It is Honzo himself. He insults Oishi until Rikiya, listening in the back can no longer stand it and comes out and stabs Honzo. He is about to kill him when Yuranosuke tells him to wait. He has realized that Honzo planned this as the only way to make the wedding possible. Honzo says that he has a gift and presents a map of Moronao's heavily defended mansion, the last thing they need to carry out the vendetta.

Also see the notes to the program "Chushingura: The Treasury of Loyal Retainers" for more about the full play.

Futatsu Chocho Kuruwa Nikki – Hikimado / 双蝶々曲輪日記~引窓
—Two Butterflies in the Pleasure Quarters – The Skylight—

First performed as a puppet play in 1749 at the Takemoto-za theater in Osaka, this is the last play by the team of playwrights that wrote "Chushingura" and other classics. It is a complex play following several pairs of lovers, but focuses on two sumo wrestlers, Nuregami Chogoro and Hanarekoma Chokichi. "Chocho" means "butterfly" and is a pun, since the names of both wrestlers begins with the syllable "cho." "Hikimado" is the climactic act of the play and is frequently performed independently of the rest of the play. The role of Yohei is a specialty of the Nakamura Ganjiro family and in fact, the play is performed today because it was revived by Nakamura Ganjiro I.

Due to a variety of circumstances, the sumo wrestler Nuregami Chogoro is forced to kill two men. He flees and goes to the house of his real mother Okoh who sent him out to be adopted when she married a village magistrate. Her son is a merchant called Nan Yohei, and was tangentially related to the events that led to the killing. But in his case, it led to him being able to marry his true love, a courtesan named Miyako, who now is his wife under the name Ohaya and trying to live up to the standards of her mother-in-law Okoh, who values the standards of the samurai class. Nan Yohei is suddenly allowed to take his father's name of Nanpo Jujibei and act as magistrate, but his first duty is to arrest Chogoro. Jujibei is caught between his identities and duties as a merchant and samurai, a son to Okoh and a magistrate. Okoh is caught between her real son and her adopted son. All of these complex relationships are symbolized by the humble skylight. As it opens and closes, it suggests night and day; the night when Jujibei must carry out his duties and the day, when this is the responsibility of others.