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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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Kago Tsurube Sato no Eizame / 籠釣瓶花街酔醒
—Kagotsurube: Awaking from the Intoxication of the Pleasure Quarters—

This play was first performed at the Chitose-za theater (the precursor of Meiji-za) in Meiji 21 (1888) and was written by Kawatake Shinshichi III. This play is a kind of pageant of the Yoshiwara in its most fabulous days, but was written in the Meiji period, after many of these customs had actually disappeared. In a section of the play that is not currently performed, after killing Yatsuhashi, Jirozaemon tries to escape over the rooftops of the Yoshiwara, but is brought down by a modern fire hose and pump.

This is based on an old story about Sano Jirozaemon and about a real killing in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters. In the section that is now performed, Jirozaemon is a silk merchant from the village of Sano. He comes to Edo to sell his silk and is about to return home, when he goes to the Yoshiwara and sees Yatsuhashi, the top courtesan of the quarter. She smiles at him and goes on, but he is infatuated and starts visiting the Yoshiwara constantly and becomes her regular patron. This smile is very famous and, depending on the performer, can show her amusement at Jirozaemon, or can express her feelings about life in the pleasure quarters.

On the one hand, Jirozaemon becomes a constant patron and is just about to buy out Yatsuhashi's contract to make her his wife. Yatsuhashi is nominally connected with a man that pretends to be her father. When the brothel refuses to give him some money, he gets his revenge by telling Yatsuhashi's lover Einojo that she is about to marry Jirozaemon. Einojo goes to Yatsuhashi and forces her to break up with Jirozaemon. In the banquet chamber where Jirozaemon is with his fellow silk merchants and where he intended to announce that he was taking Yatsuhashi away from the pleasure quarters to be his wife, instead, Yatsuhashi says that she cannot stand Jirozaemon and never wants to see him again. Jirozaemon is crushed and humiliated. The people of the pleasure quarters are saddened and dismayed by this cruel treatment of a kind and generous patron. Jirozaemon's fellow silk merchants are contemptuous.

A year passes and Jirozaemon comes back to the pleasure quarters. At first Yatsuhashi is hesitant to see him, but he seems not to recall the past. But as they exchange a toast, he says this is her farewell to the world. He berates her for humiliating him and kills her with Kagotsurube, a famous sword passed down in his family. The scene ends as Jirozaemon says, "Kagotsurube, you cut well indeed!"

Dan-no-Ura Kabuto Gunki – Akoya / 檀浦兜軍記~阿古屋
—The Musical Interrogation of the Courtesan Akoya—

This play was first performed as puppet theater in 1732 at the Takemoto-za theater in Osaka and was written by Bunkodo and Hasegawa Senshi. It is a reworking of Chikamatsu Monzaemon's play "Shusse Kagekiyo (Kagekiyo Triumphant)."

Akushichibyoe Kagekiyo was famous as a powerful Heike general. A fight with the Genji general Mionoya no Shiro where the two had a tug-of-war with the flap of a helmet. The flap tore off and the two laughed at their equal strength. This episode was shown in "Yoshinoyama," the travel scene from "Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees" featured in the Kabuki Kool Special: "Kabuki Dance Evolution." After the Heike lost, Kagekiyo tried to assassinate the shogun Yoritomo when he visited Nara for the dedication of a new huge statue of the Buddha at Todaiji temple. This is an episode told in the Noh play, "Daibutsu Kuyo (The Dedication of the Great Buddha)." Kagekiyo was captured by the Genji, imprisoned and exiled. He tore out his eyes rather than see the world ruled by the Genji. This is a story told in the Noh play "Kagekiyo." Chikamatsu created the character of Akoya, a courtesan that Kagekiyo got to know when he was busy stalking Yoritomo. The highlight of this play features Akoya confronting Kagekiyo in prison. He thinks that she turned him in. She protests her love and innocence and even sacrifices their children in front of him to prove her love. "Akoya" is a kind of fantasy, set long before the kinds of pleasure quarters that appeared in the Edo period and its top ranking courtesans were created. But that gives it a scale different from more realistic pictures of the pleasure quarters.

The scene known as "Akoya" is set before Kagekiyo is captured. Kagekiyo's lover, the courtesan, Akoya, is interrogated by members of the Genji clan to find out where Kagekiyo is. She claims not to know. One interrogator Iwanaga is prepared to torture her to find out the truth, but the wise and merciful Shigetada instead orders her to play three musical instruments: the koto, the shamisen and the kokyu as a kind of lie detector. If she is lying, this will disorder the music.

The play is famous for the live performance on these instruments and only a few onnagata are capable of performing this role. Also, as he listens to the music, Iwanaga is played as a Bunraku puppet, with puppeteers manipulating his movements.

Soga Moyo Tateshi no Goshozome / 曽我綉侠御所染~御所五郎蔵
— The Gallant Commoner Gosho no Gorozo —

This play was first performed at the Ichimura-za theater in Edo in 1864 and was written by Kawatake Mokuami. This play takes routines from the earliest days of kabuki, but the sections that are left show the retainers and ladies-in-waiting to the main characters as they have left the samurai world. Gosho no Gorozo was once a samurai retainer, but he was expelled for a relationship with the lady-in-waiting Satsuki. Now he is an otokodate (chivalrous commoner) gang leader and Satsuki has become a courtesan in the Yoshiwara. Meanwhile, Hoshikage Doemon, a rival for Satsuki's affections in the samurai clan, has also become the leader of a rival gang. The two confront each other in a stately scene full of poetic speeches, but before the fight breaks out, it is stopped. This is another old routing in kabuki.

Shinju Ten no Amijima / 心中天網島
—The Love Suicides at Amijima—

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 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."

While this is a showpiece for the wagoto style of acting with the role of Jihei, the women in the play are also very important. Koharu is a courtesan who is so in love with Jihei that she is willing to commit love suicide with him when it looks like she will be forced to be the wife of another patron. But Jihei's wife Osan desperately calls on Koharu to save her husband's life. She cites the duty between women, especially the duty between women that love the same man. Koharu is moved and agrees and pretends that she does not want to commit love suicide. But in the second act, when Osan hears that Koharu is going to be ransomed by Jihei's rival, Osan knows that Koharu intends to die and now it is her duty to do everything she can to save Koharu's life.

A paperseller named Jihei has long been in love with the courtesan Koharu and they have pledged each other to die in a love suicide since he has a wife and children and it seems impossible that they will ever be united. Night after night he goes to the pleasure quarters hoping this will be the night that they can commit love suicide. Passion has transformed him into an empty shell. In the first scene, Jihei has heard that Koharu is meeting a customer at the Kawasho teahouse and hopes he can sneak her away.

But the owner of Koharu's contract is anxious to protect his property and does his best to make sure that Jihei cannot see Koharu. Moreover, Jihei's family is desperately worried about him. His wife Osan has written a letter to Koharu begging her to find some way of saving Jihei's life. Osan asks on the basis of the bond of common responsibility between two women that love the same man. At the same time, Jihei's older brother Magoemon, a flour merchant, has come disguised as a samurai patron to see what kind of woman Koharu is. Koharu is very gloomy, and when Magoemon asks what is wrong, she says that even though she didn't want to, she arranged to commit love suicide with a man named Jihei. She doesn't want to die and asks Magoemon to visit her regularly, preventing Jihei from seeing her and eventually he will see reason and they will not have to die. Jihei is listening from outside and furious at what he thinks is Koharu's faithlessness, he tries to stab her through the sliding paper screens. Magoemon recognizes the sword and ties Jihei to the lattice to punish him and he and Koharu go into the back. Jihei's rival for Koharu's affection Tahei comes and starts beating Jihei, saying that he must have committed some crime to be tied up that way. Magoemon comes and stops Tahei. Jihei is shocked when he sees his brother and Magoemon forces him inside to confront Koharu.

Magoemon tells Jihei to look at what a faithless prostitute Koharu is. Jihei is furious at her and wants to beat her. He is finally persuaded to return the written oaths that they wrote, promising to die together. Jihei throws Koharu's vows back at her and Magoemon takes Jihei's written vows from Koharu's amulet bag. But there is also a letter and Magoemon recognizes the handwriting of Jihei's wife Osan and understands why Koharu acted in that way. He realizes that in response to Osan's request, Koharu has sacrificed her love and perhaps her life in order to save Jihei's life. He is deeply moved and promises to burn this letter and keep everything secret. Jihei believes everything is over and Magoemon forces him to go home.

In the second act Jihei mopes at home and Osan is afraid that he is still in love with Koharu. But he says that he is still bitterly angry that he did not realize what a lying woman Koharu was. After all, she is being ransomed by Tahei. When Osan hears this, she knows that Koharu would sooner die than become Tahei's wife. Osan desperately says that now the bonds of obligation mean that she must do what she can to save Koharu's life. But before she can do anything, Osan's father comes and takes her away and finally Jihei and Koharu have no choice but to commit love suicide, which is shown in the third act.

Also see "Wagoto: Ladies' Man as Hero" in the 2014 series and "Nakamura Kazutaro: The Rising Star of Kabuki" in the Kazutaro series.