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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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Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura / 義経千本桜
—Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees—

First performed as a puppet play at the Takemoto-za theater in Osaka in 1747, this is the second of the three great plays written by the same trio of playwrights. It is based on many legends and plays about Minamoto no Yoshitsune, but the focus of the drama is not so much on Yoshitsune as it is on three other characters: The great Heike general Taira no Tomomori, Gonta, the villainous son of a sushi shop owner and the magical fox Tadanobu. Often performances today concentrate on the sections for just one of the characters. But while the sections about Tomomori all come from Act II and the Gonta story is restricted to Act III, the Tadanobu story is related to the precious drum Hatsune, which is a theme that runs through the entire play, even though the bulk of the Tadanobu story itself is in the "Fushimi Inari" scene of Act II and all of Act IV.

The play is set after the wars between the Genji and Heike clans, which the Genji clan won and now Minamoto no Yoritomo rules Japan as the shogun in Kamakura and his younger brother Yoshitsune serves as his agent in Kyoto. Although Yoshitsune was largely responsible for the victory, Yoritomo begins to suspect that Yoshitsune may be scheming with the imperial court to take power for himself and these suspicions are encouraged by people who want to divide the two brothers.

In the first scene of Act I, Yoshitsune receives the Hatsune drum from the retired emperor as a reward for his part in the victory. But the gift comes with the statement that the front skin of the drum represents the older brother (i.e. Yoritomo) and the back skin represents the younger brother (i.e.) Yoshitsune. So if Yoshitsune were ever to actually play the drum and hit the front skin, this could be interpreted as meaning he is determined to attack Yoritomo. Yoshitsune gets out of this by saying that he will treasure the drum, but will never play it, showing that he has no intention of going against Yoritomo.

In the second scene, this time it is an emissary from the shogunate in Kamakura that has come to investigate Yoshitsune among the accusations (including one about the drum), is that Yoshitsune presented three heads of high-ranking Heike generals that proved to be false: Tomomori, Koremori and Noritsune. Yoshitsune says that he knows that all three are alive, but presented the false heads to keep the country at peace and he can search quietly for the three. As far as anyone knows, in history all three died, but this fantastic idea sets up the framework for the entire play. Yoshitsune answers all these challenges as well, but Yoritomo couldn't wait and sent the warrior priest Tosabo to attack Yoshitsune's mansion in Kyoto. Moreover, Yoshitsune's hot-headed follower, the warrior priest Benkei has already killed one of the attackers. There is no turning back now and Yoshitsune and his men become fugitives.

Act III is the "Sushi Shop" about Gonta and the program focused on this in the program on "Kamigata Kyogen Set in Merchant Families." This act deals with the head of Koremori, who was actually a very important person, the grandson of Kiyomori, the despotic head of the Heike clan and the son of Shigemori, Kiyomori's wise and merciful son. There are persistent legends that instead of dying in the final sea battle at Dan-no-Ura, Koremori becamse a priest at the Kumano shrine on the Kii peninsula, or took off from there to go by boat to the Buddhist Fudaraku paradise (actually a way of committing suicide.) Both Koremori and his son Rokudai were regarded with great caution by the new shogunate since they were descendants of the main line of the Heike clan and could be used as a center of loyalty to gather Heike forces once more. "Rokudai" means "sixth generation," in other words the boy was the sixth generation from the founder of the Heike clan. The boy became a Buddhist priest, but eventually was executed by the Genji.

Nidanme: "Tokaiya" "Daimotsu Ura" / 二段目 渡海屋・大物浦
—Tomomori: from Act II: "The Tokaiya Boathouse" and "Daimotsu Bay"—

Yoshitsune and his men try to escape to Kyushu by boat and are waiting for the weather to allow them to leave at the Tokaiya boathouse near Daimotsu Bay, now part of Amagasaki City between Osaka and Kobe. They are well cared for by the boatman Ginpei, his wife Oryu and little daughter Oyasu. When men sent by Yoritomo try to capture Yoshitsune, Ginpei throws them out angrily. The weather has gotten better and Ginpei says to prepare to leave.

But in fact, Ginpei is actually the Heike general Taira no Tomomori (one of the three false heads), his daughter Oyasu is actually the child emperor Antoku and Oryu is Suke no Tsubone, the emperor's nurse. They have disguised themselves as commoners in order to attack Yoshitsune and avenge the destruction of their clan. The men that Ginpei threw out at the beginning of the act were actually his own men, who put on an act to convince Yoshitsune that Ginpei was on his side. Tomomori and his men are disguised as ghosts, based on the legend that the ghost of Tomomori and the other Heike angrily attacked Yoshitsune's boat at Daimotsu Bay. But Yoshitsune knew what was going on all the time and his side is victorious. In the end Yoshitsune agrees to take good care of Emperor Antoku and the heavily wounded Tomomori throws himself into the sea, tying the rope to a gigantic anchor around his waist, throwing the anchor into the sea until the anchor pulls him with it.

Nidanme: "Fushimi Inari Torii-mae" / 二段目 伏見稲荷鳥居前
—The Fox Tadanobu: from Act II: "In Front of the Gate of the Fushimi Inari Shrine"—

The first scene in Act II shows Yoshitsune and his party as they flee Kyoto and stop at the Fushimi Inari shrine (Inari shrines are associated with foxes.) Yoshitsune's lover, Shizuka Gozen wants to go with him, but Yoshitsune says it is too dangerous. But he gives her the precious Hatsune drum as a keepsake of him and ties her to a tree to prevent her from trying to join him by force. But while she is tied up, men sent by Yoritomo attack her, especially one who lusts after her. Suddenly Yoshitsune's retainer Sato Tadanobu appears mysteriously and rescues her. Yoshitsune is grateful and gives Tadanobu a set of his armor and his name and orders Tadanobu to keep Shizuka safe in Kyoto. But this "Tadanobu" is actually a magical fox that is attracted by the Hatsune drum and has taken the form of the real Tadanobu to get close to the drum. Various actors show Tadanobu's fox nature in various ways, including holding hands like fox paws, movements taken from the powerful aragoto style of acting, exaggerated wig, costume and make-up and the like.

Yodanme: "Michiyuki Hatsune no Tabi" / 四段目 道行初音旅
—The Fox Tadanobu: from Act IV: "Michiyuki Dance Scene: The First Birdsong of Spring"—

Frustrated in his attempt to go to Kyushu, Yoshitsune has taken refuge on Mt. Yoshino. From ancient times Yoshino has been a mountain fortress closely associated with the imperial court. It also is famous for its cherry blossoms, which gives the play its title. Yoshitsune's lover Shizuka Gozen has heard that Yoshitsune is on Mt. Yoshino and she travels there with Tadanobu. He keeps disappearing, but always reappears when she plays the Hatsune drum. This is a dance scene and begins as Shizuka looks for Tadanobu and plays the drum. They do a series of dances together to relieve the sadness of the road. Tadanosuke constantly seems to want to get close to the drum. Finally take their gifts from Yoshitsune; Tadanobu bringing out the armor and Shizuka bringing out the Hatsune drum and imagine that the armor is Yoshitsune's body and the drum, his head, and bow to it as if it were Yoshitsune. Tadanosuke says that he received it from Yoshitsune for rescuing Shizuka at the Fushimi Shrine, but ultimately, it is because his brother Tsuginobu sacrificed his life in Yoshitsune's place. In a vigorous dance, Tadanobu recalls that battle, first an encounter between two warriors that were so equally matched that when one tried to run away, the other grabbed the back flap of his helmet and the tugged back and forth until rather than either being defeated, the flap broke off. They laughed in praise of each other's strength. Then Tadanobu and Shizuka recall that his brother Tsuginobu became a human shield for Yoshitsune, but he died by an arrow from the powerful warrior Noritsune (another one of the false heads at the beginning of the play.)

Often there is a humorous fight scene with a warrior lusting after Shizuka and Tadanobu uses his fox magic to defend her.

This dance was featured in the full-length version of the dance special in the 2014 season.

Yodanme: "Kawatsure Hogen Yakata" / 四段目 川連法眼館
—The Fox Tadanobu: from Act IV: "The Fortress of Kawatsure Hogen"—

Since this scene is the last part of Act IV, it is often called "Shi no Kiri (End of Act IV)" which is the designation of this scene in the original puppet play. ("Kiri" is the concluding section of an act which is complex and very difficult and can only be performed by certain very experienced narrators.)

Yoshitsune has taken refuge on Mt. Yoshino in the fortress of Kawatsure Hogen, but he is under the constant threat of attack. His retainer Sato Tadanobu arrives to join him, and Yoshitsune asks about Shizuka, but Tadanobu says he knows nothing of what he is talking about. He has been at his home in the remote northeastern country and has only now returned to Yoshitsune. Yoshitsune is afraid that Tadanobu has betrayed him but then, the arrival of Shizuka and Tadanobu is announced. Shizuka examines the Tadanobu that is there closely and says that he looks a little different from the one that traveled with her. Yoshitsune suspects that this may be some kind of monster who has borrowed Tadanobu's form, so he gives her a sword and tells her to investigate "Tadanobu." Shizuka plays the drum and Tadanobu appears mysteriously, but as it turns out, he is actually a magical fox that is the child of the two ancient foxes whose skins were used to make the drum. He took Tadanobu's form to be close to the drum and serve it as he would his parents. He shows his fox nature with a unique costume and all kinds of stage tricks. Yoshitsune is moved that this animal has such deep feeling for his parents when he and his brother are now at war with each other. FinallyYoshitsune gives Tadanobu the drum and the fox leaves ecstatically

This act sometimes ends with the final fight with a band of warrior priests. Tadanobu uses his fox magic to help Yoshitsune. The leader of the gang is a warrior priest named Kakuhan, but this is actually Noritsune in disguise, the last of the false heads.