Key Kabuki Words Key Kabuki Words
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.
  • program tab
  • word tab
  • program tab
  • word tab
Katsuragawa Renri no Shigarami – Obiya / 桂川連理柵
—The Obi Shop—

First performed in 1776 as a puppet play and later adaped to kabuki, this is a compilation of many plays about Ohan and Choemon. Apparently there was an incident in 1761 when a thirty-eight year old man named Obiya Choemon was taking Shinanoya Ohan, the fourteen year old daughter of a neighbor, from Kyoto to Osaka and they were killed at the Katsura river. It was dramatized in many ways and was presented as a love suicide. Although very rarely performed, it is the classic play about a romance between a middle-aged man and a teenaged girl.

In this play, Choemon is in a very difficult situation. His father's second wife is scheming and greedy and plots with her own son Gihei to get rid of Choemon and take over the shop. Meanwhile, at an inn, Choemon encounters Ohan returning from a pilgrimage to Ise. The apprentice Chokichi tries to seduce Ohan and she flees to Choemon for protection, but she also has always been fond of Choemon and they become lovers.

In the scene in the Obiya shop, Gihei tries to discredit Choemon with a love letter to Choemon from Ohan, but Choemon's wife Okinu, even while knowing about the situation between her husband and Ohan, desperately tries to defend him and arranges for Chokichi, the apprentice from next door, to claim he is Ohan's lover. This provides the opportunity for an extended comic scene as Gihei gets Chokichi and questions him, all the time laughing that it is ridiculous to even think of Chokichi as Ohan's lover. Gihei is shocked when Chokichi indeed says that he is Ohan's lover and Gihei quickly gets rid of the inconvenient witness.

Choemon tries to get Ohan to separate and she seems to agree, but she is pregnant with Choemon's child and is going to commit suicide. Feeling responsible, Choemon goes to join her and they commit love suicide together.

This play is very typical of Kamigata in presenting a silly comic scene to enliven what would otherwise be a very grim tragedy. Also, one Kamigata production technique is to have the same actor play both the apprentice Chokichi and Ohan.

Hade Sugata Onna Maiginu – Sakaya / 艶容女舞衣
—The Sake Shop—

Also first presented as a puppet play, this play first appeared in 1772 and was one of many plays depicting the real life love suicide of a merchant named Hanshichi and a prostitute named Sankatsu. But today, the story of Hanshichi and Sankatsu has been almost forgotten and the play is mostly remembered for the lament of Hanshichi's wife Osono. This lament is both a musical and acting classic and shows Osono's love and concern for Hanshichi, even though they have never been intimate as husband and wife.

In the scene in the sake shop run by Hanshichi's family, there is an uproar because Hanshichi has killed a man. Long ago, Sogen, the father of Hanshichi's wife Osono took her away because Hanshichi paid no attention to her and Hanshichi's own father Hanbei also has disowned his son because of his relationship with Sankatsu. A mysterious woman with a little girl comes to order a ceremonial keg of sake and asks to borrow the apprentice to deliver it. But the woman disappears and the apprentice comes back, stuck with the little girl and the keg of sake. Hanbei's wife has the little girl go to sleep since her mother is sure to come for her.

Sogen comes with Osono, asking Hanbei to take her back as daughter-in-law. Hanbei says that he has disowned Hanshichi, but Sogen knows that in fact, Hanbei has taken the blame for Hanshichi's crime and has shown it by allowing the authorities to bind him with a rope. The two fathers go into the back to discuss what to do. Alone, Osono expresses her love and concern for her husband. Her expression of pure love despite the fact her husband didn't love her is the highlight of this play.

As it turns out, the little girl is the daughter of Hanshichi and Sankatsu. The ceremonial keg has been addressed to Hanbei's sake shop. Hanshichi and Sankatsu are going to commit love suicide and Hanshichi sends a last letter written on the kimono of his daughter. He asks that his family take care of the girl as he must die.

Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura – Sushiya / 義経千本桜~すし屋
—Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees – The Sushi Shop—

"Sushiya" is a scene of the puppet play "Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees"written in 1747 which is known as one of the "Three Great Classics" along with "Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy (1746)" and "Chushingura: The Treasury of Loyal Retainers (1748) all written by the same trio of playwrights: Takeda Izumo, Miyoshi Shoraku and Namiki Senryu. Even though Yoshitsune is the title character, the play really focuses on three other characters, the great general Tomomori who poses as a vengeful ghost, the magical fox Tadanobu and the villainous Gonta, the focus of the "Sushiya" scene.

For more on "Yoshitsune and the Cherry Trees," a future program will focus on the Tomomori and Tadanobu sections. A number of previous programs treated Tadanobu, especially in the dance travel scene with Yoshitsune's lover Shizuka Gozen. See "Four Seasons of Kabuki" in the Kazutaro season.

Minamoto no Yoshitsune was the younger brother of Yoritomo, the first Genji shogun and was one of the reasons the Genji won the wars with the enemy Heike clan. The play is set after the war and deal with three members of the Heike clan, that had been declared dead, but are actually alive. One of them is Koremori, the grandson of Kiyomori, the late leader of the Heike clan. Koremori's son is called "Rokudai (Sixth Generation)" since he was the sixth generation since the founder of the clan. In history, Rokudai was very important since the Genji clan wanted to exterminate even this little boy since he was a direct heir of the head of the clan. "Sushiya" mixes these larger-than-life historical characters with a humble sushi shop and instead of Koremori and Rokudai, the most memorable character is the fictional Igami no Gonta. This scene is played in two very different ways. Kamigata actors follow the puppet play and present Gonta as a Kansai ruffian, but Edo actors adapted the role to their own style of acting so there is an Edo style ruffian, even though this is supposed to be a sushi shop in Wakayama prefecture.

Yazaemon, the proprietor of a sushi shop is protecting Koremori, a very high-ranking Heike noble, by disguising him as an apprentice named Yasuke, telling his daughter Osato that he will be her husband. But the Genji general Kajiwara has discovered this and has ordered Yazaemon to behead Koremori. Yazaemon also has a delinquent son, Igami no Gonta who he has disowned.

While Yazaemon is out, Gonta comes to get some money from his mother, giving a sob story of how he must have this money or he will die. But just as he is about to leave, he sees his father coming home and he quickly hides the money in one of the empty sushi buckets. Yazaemon has found a dead body on the road and in a desperate measure to save Koremori, has cut off the head, intending to present this head to Kajiwara in place of Koremori's head. Yazaemon tells Osato to seal her marriage with "Yasuke." In a famous scene, she tries to get "Yasuke" to go to bed with her claiming she is very sleepy, finally she goes to bed. Koremori cannot bring himself to sleep with her when he is already married and lies down in the parlor. But his wife Wakaba no Naishi and his son Rokudai appear. They have been searching for Koremori, but come here by chance. Overhearing this, Osato realizes who "Yasuke" really is and quickly has Koremori and his family go to safety. But Gonta has also overheard and goes running to turn in Koremori, stopping to get the sushi bucket containing the money.

Osato tells Yazaemon what has happened and Yazaemon goes with his sword to stop Gonta. But he is pushed back by Kajiwara and his procession, who have come for the head of Koremori. Yazaemon goes for the head in the sushi bucket, but his wife thinks it's the money she gave Gonta. As they fight over the bucket, Gonta appears with Koremori's head and Wakaba no Naishi and Rokudai tied up. Kajiwara accepts the head and the prisoners and gives Gonta a battle coat that belonged to Yoritomo as a reward. As they leave, Gonta gazes longingly after the prisoners. Furious at his son's betrayal, Yazaemon stabs him. But as he dies, Gonta reveals the truth, since this was his last chance to redeem himself in his father's eyes. The head he presented was actually the head his father brought back and the people Gonta presented as Wakaba no Naishi and Rokudai were actually his wife and son.

As it turns out, Kajiwara was aware of everything that was happening and the battle coat in fact contains a message for Koremori to become a priest and disappear from the world. As he dies, Gonta ruefully laments that after a lifetime of swindling others, finally he has been swindled of his own life.