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.
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Kotobuki Iwau Kabuki no Irodori / 壽祝歌舞伎華彩
—A Celebration of Kabukiza—

This is a special dance created for the opening of the new building of the Kabukiza theater in 2013. Nakamura Kazutaro's grandfather Sakata Tojuro had a central role as the Spirit of the Crane since he is the oldest main actor in kabuki and the head of the Actors' Association. Kazutaro and other young actors appeared as well.

In the Edo period, in the city of Edo (now Tokyo) there were four (later three) kabuki theaters that the shogunate allowed to have performances. The three that lasted the longest were the Nakamura-za, Ichimura-za and the Morita-za. With the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the laws of the shogunate regulating theaters were relaxed and Kabukiza, first built in 1889, was one of the earliest and most important theaters that did not have a direct connection to one of the Edo period theaters.

The first building was in Western style, while the 1911 second building introduced many traditional Japanese motifs. The third building was completed in 1924 with the construction interrupted by the Great Kanto Earthquake after the massive outer walls were completed. The building burned in the firebombing of World War II, but was rebuilt in 1950, using the same outer walls. This building was a famous monument of hybrid Japanese/Western architecture. The new building was designed by Kengo Kuma and rebuilt the building totally but as much as possible retained the look of the old theater.

Although there are other theaters in Tokyo and Japan where kabuki can be performed, Kabukiza is the only theater exclusively devoted to kabuki and performs kabuki year round, with the programs changing every month.

In this program Haruka Christine gets to experience the theater building itself from the lobby to the backstage and walks on the hanamichi runway, experiences the suppon lift and rides the mawari butai revolving stage. You can see her visit on "A Visit to the Kabukiza." In this program she experiences some of the shops at Kabukiza, but you can also see more in the "Going to Kabuki" section of "Haruka Visits the Kabuki World."

Kiwametsuki Banzui Chobei / 極付幡随長兵衛
—The Gallant Commoner: Banzuiin Chobei—

This play was written by Kawatake Mokuami and first performed in 1881. It shows the rivalry between gangs of machi yakko or commoner laborers and of groups of middle and low ranking samurai. It focuses on the most famous boss of the machi yakko, Banzuiin Chobei and how he is maneuvered into having to accept an invitation to the mansion of one of the leaders of the samurai gang and was eventually assassinated in the bath.
At the beginning of the play, the rivalry between the two groups is shown when some samurai try to pick a fight at a performance of a kabuki play and Chobei mediates. The entire theater is supposed to be the Murayama-za theater (one of the original four Edo kabuki theaters that was later closed) and the actors come out of the audience. The scene recreates an early aragoto play and the kabuki stage of that time which was very close to the style of the Noh stage with pillars and a roof.

Ume Goyomi / 梅ごよみ
—Love in the Plum Blossoms—

This is a relatively modern play that first appeared at Kabukiza in 1927. It is a dramatization by Kimura Kinka of one of the most popular romances of the Edo period showing the handsome Tanjiro who is disowned by his family, but has both his fiancée Ocho and the geisha Yonekichi taking care of him.

In the program, this play is an example of using the hanamichi runway as a river. Tanjiro and Ocho set off in a boat and the entire stage and hanamichi becomes the Sumida river. There they encounter another boat with the woman that will become Ocho's rival, the geisha Yonekichi.

Imoseyama Onna Teikin – Yoshinogawa / 妹背山婦女庭訓~吉野川
—Husband and Wife Mountains – The Yoshino River—

For more on the play as a whole, see the program on Husband and Wife Mountains (Imoseyama Onna Teikin). In the act set at the Yoshino River, two hanamichi 's are used to make it look as though the river flows in the center of the stage and then on through the audience to emphasize the feeling of two feuding families separated by a mighty river.

In Edo period theaters, there were raised aisles between boxes of seats so actors just used that, but in modern theaters sometimes a second hanamichi is constructed on the audience's right. This is called the kari hanamichi or "temporary hanamichi" and two hanamichi are called "ryo hanamichi."

Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura – Kawatsura Hogen Yakata / 義経千本桜~川連法眼館
—Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees – The Mansion of Kawatsura Hogen—

For more on the play as a whole, see the program on Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura. The act at the mansion of Kawatsura Hogen is the final part of the fourth act of the original puppet play, so it is often called "Shi no Kiri (end of fourth)." It shows a magical fox with a variety of stage tricks and in one performance tradition, at the end the magical fox flies away with the technique called "chu nori (riding the sky)." This is a technique developed in the Edo period and was performed until the early twentieth century. But Edo theaters were much smaller than modern theaters so that when the technique was revived in the late 20th century and made popular by Ichikawa Ennosuke III (now En'o II), the heights are much greater and modern technology is necessary to make it possible.

Meiboku Sendai Hagi – Yukashita / 伽羅先代萩~床下
—The Troubles in the Date Clan – Below the Floor—

This play shows villains trying to take over control over the Date clan by eliminating the young boy who has been made lord because his father had been removed for dissipation. In one famous scene of the play, the boy's nurse saves the boy's life but at the sacrifice of her own son. Right after that scene, an aragoto hero named Arajishi Otokonosuke is keeping guard under the floor of the palace when a mysterious rat appears, disappears in the trap door and lift called the suppon and then, the villain Nikki Danjo appears rising on the suppon.

Suppon means "snapping turtle" and gets its name because the head of the actor appearing from the suppon looks like the head of a turtle emerging from its shell. The suppon is one of many lifts on the stage, but is very special because it is at the "shichi-san (seven-three)" position on the hanamichi, the place where it is easiest to see the actor. Usually the suppon is used for non-human characters like ghosts and monsters, but can also be used by magicians like Nikki Danjo, who are not ordinary human beings. Now motors are used to operate the suppon, but in the Edo period human muscle power was used.

Shinpan Utazaimon – Nozakimura / 新版歌祭文~野崎村
—A New Ballad of Osome and Hisamatsu – Nozaki Village—

This play has appeared in the program before and is the story of Hisamatsu, originally the son of a farmer in the village of Nozaki, on the outskirts of Osaka, who is apprenticed to the wealthy Aburaya pawnshop in Osaka. But he had an affair with Osome, the daughter of the pawnshop and is forced to return to his home in Nozaki where his fiancee Omitsu lives, taking care of Hisamatsu's sick mother. Hisamatsu's father wants to resolve the issue and reassure his sick wife by forcing through the marriage with Omitsu, but Osome comes to see Hisamatsu and Omitsu decides to sacrifice her happiness by becoming a Buddhist nun, because she knows that Osome and Hisamatsu intend to commit suicide if they cannot be together. As the play ends, Osome's mother comes to take her daughter and Hisamatsu back to Osaka, but since it would be improper for Osome and Hisamatsu to travel together Osome and her mother go by boat and Hisamatsu travels by palanquin.

The final moments of the play has a very effective use of the revolving stage. As Osome, her mother and Hisamatsu leave the house where all the action has been taking place, the stage revolves to show that there is a dike behind the house and when the stage revolves 180 degrees, in the river, we see the boat waiting to take Osome and her mother and on the dike, the palanquin waiting to take Hisamatsu. Omitsu, now a Buddhist nun and Hisamatsu's father stand on the dike saying farewell, and when they are gone, Omitsu dissolves into tears of despair.

The mawari butai (revolving stage) is said to have first been invented in Japan in kabuki. The Osaka playwright Namiki Shoza (1730 – 1773) introduced the revolving stage into kabuki getting the idea from a spinning top. He had the area under the stage excavated and put the center of the stage on a framework with rollers. This framework was then moved by human power. Of course, now motors turn the stage.

The revolving stage can be used for changing the scene without closing the curtain, or to show a different part of the same set. Sometimes this scene change is not shown to the audience and while one scene is being performed, the set for the next scene is put up on the back of the stage. Sometimes there can even be three sets.