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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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Kamakura Sandaiki – Kinugawamura Kankyo no Ba / 鎌倉三代記~絹川村閑居の場
—Three Generations of the Kamakura Shogunate – The Retirement Villa at Kinugawa Village—

This play is only rarely performed and has a very complicated plot. It is particularly famous because of the role of Princess Toki, counted as one of the "Three Princess Roles." It was probably first performed in 1770 as a puppet play, but the details are very obscure. From the time the play first appeared it was heavily censored, first because it was about the Battle of Osaka Castle, the last fighting in Japan until the very end of the Edo Period and the time when with rather devious methods, Tokugawa Ieyasu got rid of his only rival for power, the remaining family of the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Second, Ieyasu himself appears under the name Hojo Tokimasa and the key to the plot is getting Tokimasa's daughter Princess Toki (a thinly disguised version of Ieyasu's granddaughter Senhime) to kill him. Even though it was over a century since the death of Ieyasu, this was still a very sensitive subject for the Tokugawa shogunate and in the course of rewritings to avoid censorship; the plot of the play became very difficult to understand.

It is a sequel to the story told in Chikamatsu Hanji's famous 1769 play "Omi Genji Senjin Yakata"better known as "Moritsuna's Battle Camp," which shows how the brilliant strategist Sasaki Takatsuna, defender of Sakamoto Castle, gets his brother Moritsuna, who is on the side of Hojo Tokimasa, to identify a false head as his by having his young son sacrifice his life.

The play is set during a battle over Sakamoto Castle, which is being attacked by forces led by Hojo Tokimasa. Princess Toki, the daughter of Hojo Tokimasa, is betrothed to marry Miuranosuke, one of the warriors defending Sakamoto Castle and she has gone to Kinugawa Village where Miuranosuke's mother lives. Miuranosuke's mother is old and sick and Princess Toki and as her daughter-in-law, Princess Toki obediently heats up her medicine and goes out shopping, acting like an ordinary commoner housewife. But there are ladies-in-waiting sent by her father to try to persuade her to go back to him. When Princess Toki refuses to go back, the ladies-in-waiting even contemplate killing Miuranosuke's mother to force her to go back. Miuranosuke returns from the battlefield because he knows this may be the last time for him to see his mother. The old woman refuses to see him because he is failing in his duties and insists that he go back to Sakamoto Castle. Miuranosuke is about to obey when Princess Toki begs him to stay and pours out all her feelings of love and loyalty to him in a kudoki. Miuranosuke agrees to stay. But a mysterious warrior named Tozaburo comes to Princess Toki with a message from her father to come home and a sword. He also presses her to become his wife. She threatens him with the sword and he flees. Alone, Princess Toki realizes that the sword is a veiled order from her father to kill Miuranosuke. Caught between her father and her husband, Princess Toki decides on her husband and tries to kill herself. Miuranosuke stops her. Tozaburo also reappears and reveals that he is Sasaki Takatsuna, famed strategist defending Sakamoto Castle. Miuranosuke had doubted Princess Toki's loyalty to him, but now that he knows the sincerity of her love for him, he presses her to go back to her father and use that opportunity to assassinate him. The scene ends as she resolves to go and assassinate her father.

Shochikubai Yushima no Kakegaku – Yagura no Oshichi / 松竹梅湯島掛額 ー 櫓のお七
—Pines, Bamboo and Plums: The Votive Plaque at the Yushima Shrine – Oshichi Climbing the Watchtower—

There are many plays and other forms of literature that were inspired by the story of "Yaoya Oshichi (Greengrocer Oshichi)." This is the true story of a girl who was burned at the stake in 1683 for arson. As legend has it, Oshichi was the daughter of a greengrocer and when her family was burned out of their home, they took refuge at a temple and she fell in love with a temple page. The following year, she set a fire in hopes of meeting him again. Since Edo was a city largely of wooden buildings and there were frequent fires, the penalties for arson were particularly severe and she was burned at the stake at the age of only around sixteen.

The story was retold as fiction by Ihara Saikaku in his "Five Women who Loved Love" and then dramatized for the puppet theater. But in the puppet theater, instead of arson, Oshichi is depicted as climbing a fire watchtower and sending out a false fire alarm. Gradually, her story got a whole set of supporting characters, her lover Kichisaburo, a lascivious priest named Bencho who is also in love with her and these characters appeared in all sorts of plays with all sorts of routines both comic and dramatic. But in all of these plays, the climax was the scene of Oshichi climbing the watchtower. In its final form, Oshichi sends the false alarm because she needs to get the town gates to open so that she can get a precious sword to her lover Kichisaburo. To show her passion, she moves like a giant version of a Bunraku puppet.

Imoseyama Onna Teikin – Mikasayama Goten / 妹背山婦女庭訓~三笠山御殿
—Husband and Wife Mountains: A Guide for Moral Women – The Palace at Mt. Mikasa—

This play appeared before focusing on the travel scene that occurs just before the "Mt. Mikasa Palace" scene showing the love triangle of Princess Tachibana, Motome and Omiwa. These are the concluding sections of Chikamatsu Hanji's 1771 play "Imoseyama Onna Teikin" which was first written for the puppet theater and soon adapted for kabuki. The full-length play is a massive epic with several story arcs depicting intense human drama. The overall story is about a world dominated by the dictator Soga no Iruka, who has displaced the emperor and the imperial court aristocrats. Two of the aristocrats, Kamatari and his son Tankai go into hiding to try to find a way to topple Iruka. The problem is that Iruka is nearly invulnerable because he was magically born by giving his mother the blood of a sacred deer. The only way to kill him is to play a flute that has been soaked in the blood of a sacred deer and a jealous woman. The sound will make him unconscious and then he can be killed. The story of Omiwa combines a semi-realistically depicted country girl from the Edo Period with ancient legends connected with the Miwa Shrine in Nara, one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan.

In the palace scene, Princess Tachibana returns home followed by the court cap maker Motome (actually the court noble Tankai) using the odamaki spool of thread to keep track of her. He confirms that she is indeed Iruka's sister and he gets her to cooperate with him and agrees to marry her. After they go to prepare, Iruka appears with his retinue and a fisherman named Fukashichi (who is dressed in a strange combination of commoner dress and formal court costume) comes with greetings from Kamatari. Iruka tries to poison Fukashichi and is suspicious of everything he does and finally has Fukashichi taken in for questioning.

Omiwa has followed Motome to the palace and is furious when she hears that he is about to be married to Princess Tachibana. She desperately begs the ladies-in-waiting to let her into the wedding ceremony (hoping somehow to take Motome away from there) and they torment her in all kinds of ways saying that they will let her in, but only if she pours the sake or sings a ceremonial song. She feebly sings the only song she knows, a horse driver's song holding the odamaki spool of thread that represents Motome. Finally they toss her into the air and abandon her, saying that they will never let a country girl like her interfere with the princess's happiness. Omiwa is filled with jealous fury and is about to burst into the back when she is stabbed by Fukashichi. As she dies, he reveals that Motome is actually the court noble Tankai and that he is Tankai's retainer Kanawa no Goro. Her dying blood is the crucial thing they need to vanquish Iruka. Goro declares that for her love and sacrifice, in the next world she will be the wife of the exalted court noble Tankai, even though she is a humble country girl. Omiwa dies happily, still embracing the spool of thread that represents her beloved.

Also see "Kabuki's Leading Male Roles" in the Kazutaro series.