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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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Kyoganoko Musume Dojoji / 京鹿子娘道成寺
—The Girl at Dojoji Temple—

"Musume Dojoji" was first performed in 1753 by Nakamura Tomijuro I and is based on the Noh play "Dojoji." It is a good example of how kabuki treated Noh materials during most of its history. On the one hand, the stories of Noh were very familiar, not only to the samurai class, but to commoners as well. On the other hand, copying Noh too closely carried the risk of censorship and punishment by the shogunate. In addition, "Musume Dojoji" is a milestone because it marks the end of one stage of development in kabuki dance. Dances based on "Dojoji" were a standard part of the repertory of onnagata female role specialists. But the usual format was to make it a dance of a courtesan in the banquet chamber. The second half of the Noh play where the female spirit appears as a fearsome, jealous figure symbolized by the Hannya mask was transformed into a graceful dance with the feminine, onnagata version of the shishi lion dance. The word "musume" in the title means "daughter" and in this case means that the character is an ordinary young girl rather than a courtesan. Originally, "Musume Dojoji" also eliminated the lion dance, ending with the performer posing as the jealous spirit after a graceful series of dances. Later, the "Oshi-Modoshi (Pushing Back)" scene was sometimes attached which substituted kumadori make-up for the Hannya mask and showed the spirit being pushed back by a vigorous, masculine aragoto hero.

"Dojoji" is based on a legend usually called the Anchin-Kiyohime story. A girl named Kiyohime fell in love with a monk named Anchin who would stay at her house every year when he was on pilgrimage. When she confessed her love to him, he ran away and she pursued him. She was stopped by the Hidaka river, but her jealous anger transformed her into a serpent. The serpent followed Anchin to Dojoji temple where he had taken refuge under the temple bell. The serpent coiled around the bell and destroyed it and Anchin together with it.

The Noh play of "Dojoji" is set after these events when a new bell is being dedicated. Women are forbidden to enter the temple. A female shirabyoshi dancer comes to dance for the dedication and talks her way in. The dance itself features a very long section of the special ranbyoshi step and music. When the priests keeping guard fall asleep, she runs to the bell and flies up into it. The actor changes costume and mask inside the bell. When the bell is raised, the character is wearing the fearsome Hannya mask. A priest says magical spells to try to drive away the spirit and she finally leaves.

The kabuki dance "Musume Dojoji" keeps the format of the shirabyoshi coming to dance for the dedication of the bell, but only the first section of the dance copies the Noh dance, including a very short version of the ranbyoshi section (just a few steps). Then it becomes a long series of dances in kabuki style showing off the beauty of an onnagata female role specialist using a variety of props. All of the dances have the general theme of a young girl's awakening to love.

For more information, see "Larger Than Life Heroes" for an introduction to "Oshi-Modoshi" and "Kabuki Dance Evolution" for an introduction to "Musume Dojoji."

Kanjincho / 勧進帳
—The Subscription List—

"Kanjincho" was first performed in 1840 with Ichikawa Danjuro VII as Benkei and is based on the Noh play "Ataka." It is the first example of a matsubame mono copying the Noh stage and its performance conventions directly and was very daring at the time since Noh was still considered the exclusive province of the samurai class and it was not only difficult for a low-class commoner like a kabuki actor to see an actual performance of Noh, copying it too closely risked being punished by the shogunate for the violation of class boundaries. In fact, later Danjuro VII was exiled from Edo for this and other infractions, the specific charge being that he used genuine samurai armor on stage.

The Noh play "Ataka" is about an episode after the wars between the Genji and Heike which the Genji won, making Minamoto no Yoritomo shogun. Even though Yoritomo's brother Yoshitsune was largely responsible for the victory, Yoritomo suspected Yoshitsune of treason, tried to capture him and when Yoshitsune fled, set up barriers throughout the country to stop him. The play is set at a barrier at a place called Ataka supervised by a man named Togashi Saemon. Yoshitsune's powerful retainer Benkei has had all of Yoshitsune's retainers disguised as yamabushi mountain priests gathering funds for the rebuilding of Todaiji temple and Yoshitsune himself as their porter, trailing unobtrusively behind them. Togashi refuses to let them through the barrier, but Benkei insists that the barrier is only to stop false yamabushi and insists that they are genuine yamabushi. Togashi says they should have a kanjincho, that is, a document in very difficult language giving them permission to collect funds. Benkei takes a scroll that he happens to have and says that it is a kanjincho and makes up the language. Togashi lets them through the barrier, but sees that the porter looks like Yoshitsune, the man he has been ordered to stop. Benkei scolds the porter for delaying them and beats him with his staff. He offers to beat the porter to death. In feudal society this was unthinkable and to do this, Benkei must be resolved to die himself. Overwhelmed by Benkei's strength of resolve, Togashi retreats and lets them through the barrier. Through the barrier, Benkei apologizes to Yoshitsune who forgives him and says that heaven must have protected them. Togashi appears once more and asks to share a toast to commemorate their encounter and Benkei dances. Finally, Yoshitsune and his men continue on their road of escape.

The kabuki play "Kanjincho" is in many ways a very faithful copy of the Noh play, but uses kabuki mie poses and movements to amplify the play. In Noh there are eight retainers, but in kabuki four and also, kabuki has added a very fast dialogue that is a display of elocution as Togashi questions Benkei on the fine points of the yamabushi. In the Noh play, Togashi shows very little emotion, but in kabuki there is a pose showing that he has been moved by the strength of Benkei's devotion to his lord and also that he knows he will have to die for failure in his duties. The most typical kabuki movement that has been added is after Yoshitsune and his men have left, as in a typical aragoto play, Benkei thanks the heavens and the earth (and the audience) for giving him the strength to perform this role and then follows after with the dynamic jump-step called a tobi-roppo.

See also "Unique Stage Structures" in the 2014 season.

Migawari Zazen / 身替座禅
—The Zen Substitute—

"Migawari Zazen" was first performed in 1910 with Onoe Kikugoro VI as Ukyo and is based on the Kyogen play "Hanago." It is a good example of a matsubame mono from the modern period. With the end of the dominance of the samurai class and its culture, copying Noh and Kyogen ceased to be a dangerous thing and rather, became a standard way to transform the Noh / Kyogen repertory into kabuki dances.

The Kyogen play "Hanago" is considered to be very difficult and is one of the pinnacles of Kyogen actor's art. A man has met a courtesan named Hanago while on a trip and when she comes to Kyoto, she says she wants to see him. But his wife is very jealous and protective and will not let him out of her sight. The man tries to make all kinds of excuses to get away, but she refuses every one. Finally he says that he has had very bad dreams that are an omen of misfortune and he must pray with Zen meditation in seclusion. Concerned, she finally agrees. The man says he will sit in zen meditation with a robe hiding his face. But he actually has his servant Tarokaja take his place and he goes off for a night of pleasure with Hanago. While he is gone, his wife discovers Tarokaja under the robe and learns that her husband has gone to see Hanago. She takes Tarokaja's place under the robe and when the man returns, listens from under the robe as the man happily describes his time with Hanago in a series of Kyogen kouta songs. Finally he takes the robe off and realizes who he has been telling his stories to.

The kabuki dance "Migawari Zazen" is a very faithful copy of the Kyogen play, but instead of the simple kouta songs of the original, it becomes the occasion for a very elaborate dance as the man, named Ukyo in this play, describes his night of love in great detail.