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
  • program tab
Benten Musume Meo no Shiranami / 弁天娘女男白浪
—Benten, the Thief—

This program features the sets of kabuki and in this play, a special set piece using the device called "gando-gaeshi" is used for the spectacular death of Benten Kozo on the roof of a temple. Devices like the mawari butai revolving stage can be used for quick and efficient transitions between scenes with the curtain closed, but like the "gando-gaeshi" scene transitions and the set pieces used to create them can become part of the spectacle itself.

First performed in 1862, this is one of the most famous plays by Kawatake Mokuami (1816 – 1893) and is usually called either "Benten Kozo (Benten, the Thief)" or "Shiranami Gonin Otoko (The Five Thieves)" and features a gang of thieves including Benten, who disguises himself as a woman. The play also has a variety of full titles including "Benten Musume Meo no Shiranami" and "Aoto Zoshi Hana no Nishiki-e. The play culminates in a scene at the Inase river where all five thieves appear in resplendent kimonos with motifs associated with their names and make poetic speeches declaring their names.

Benten fights on the roof of a temple, but when it is clear it is hopeless, he commits ritual suicide while standing and the set piece showing the roof of a temple slowly flips back 90° to reveal a different background on the bottom of the set piece. Then a set piece showing the temple gate comes from below on the seri lift. On the gate is the head of the gang of thieves and his scene copies the routine in "Sanmon Gosan no Kiri" featuring Ishikawa Goemon.

Gando-gaeshi takes its name from a kind of Edo period flashlight called a "gando." A shade shaped like a megaphone holds a candle, which is held in a kind of swivel so that it always stays upright, no matter which way the shade is held. In the same way, the roof set piece is a kind of "v" shape, so that as it turns on its side, the actor can still stand.

Tsumoru Koi Yuki no Seki no To / 積恋雪関扉
—The Snowbound Barrier—

First performed in 1784, this is a dance play on a grand scale that shows a barrier with a cherry tree mysteriously blooming in the middle of the snow. The second half of the play shows an encounter between the barrier guard named Sekibei and a courtesan named Sumizome. But at the end, the barrier guard reveals that he is an imperial court aristocrat named Kuronushi seeking to take over the realm, while Sumizome is actually the spirit of the cherry tree and while in human form, she became the wife of a man that Kuronushi killed and she has come for revenge.

In this program, this play is presented first to show the shosa-ita (literally "dance boards"). Because of wear and tear and the fact that supports for stage elements are nailed directly into the stage floor, for dances, there is a separate stage which is made of perfectly smooth hinoki Japanese cypress and has a hollow space underneath which helps to make a good sound when the actors stamp rhythmically.

This play is also presented to show the difference between set and props. Originally sets and props were handled by the same technical staff, but gradually a very complicated set of rules for distinguishing what things would be handled by the set crew and what things would be handled by the prop crew. (In addition, there is a similar fine line between what is handled by the prop crew and what is handled by the costumers.) For example, in "Seki no To," the cherry tree, which is specially made so that Sumizome, the spirit of the cherry tree can appear mysteriously inside it, is a set piece. But there is a branch of cherry blossoms which Sumizome takes from the tree and uses in the fight, so that branch is considered a hand prop and is the responsibility of the prop crew.

Kanadehon Chushingura – Hachidanme: Michiyuki Tabiji no Yomeiri / 道行旅路の嫁入(仮名手本忠臣蔵~八段目)
—The Treasury of Loyal Retainers – Act VIII: The Bride's Journey—

Kanadehon Chushingura was first written as a puppet play by Takeda Izumo, Miyoshi Shoraku and Namiki Senryu and performed at the Takemoto-za theater in Osaka in 1748. It is one of the most popular plays in both the puppet theater where it originated and in kabuki It dramatizes the "Ako Incident," an actual historical incident in which forty-seven masterless samurai (ronin or "wave men") in 1701 – 1702 avenged the death of their lord by killing the man their lord tried to kill. For an introduction to the full-length play, see Program 6 in the 2014 Season.

In the eighth act, a woman named Tonase takes her daughter Konami from Kamakura (a thinly disguised Edo due to censorship by the shogunate) to Yamashina, just above Kyoto. Konami has long been betrothed to marry Rikiya, the son of Yuranosuke, the chief retainer who is leading the vendetta. But after the events that led to the end of Yuranosuke's clan and because of the fact that Tonase's husband Honzo played a key role, there has been no word. As a matter of pride, and especially because Tonase is Konami's stepmother, she is determined to stake her life on seeing that Konami is happily married to Rikiya. The eighth act is a dance travel scene showing the journey of Tonase and Konami and is a relatively light moment before the tragedy of the ninth act, one of the dramatic centers of the play.

To show the journey between Kamakura and Yamashina, there are a variety of effects in the stage set, including a forest that opens up to reveal the highway and a series of backgrounds that change in various ways to give the feeling of the journey.

Gion Sairei Shinkoki / 祇園祭礼信仰記〜金閣寺
—The Golden Pavilion—

This was originally a puppet play first performed in 1757 and is famous for its set portraying the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto. For more about the play, see Programs 8 and 10 in the 2014 season.

At one point, Princess Yuki is punished by being tied to a cherry tree. In kabuki, the set is usually entirely fixed and doesn't change with a new director or designer for a new production. What is on stage is based on what has been traditionally used for that play and sets are constructed while consulting the dogu-cho, which is a picture of the completed set and additionally, photographs of the set.

But even with sets that are almost exactly the same, there can be differences based on different acting traditions. In the case of "Kinkakuji," the key cherry tree can be located on the side of the stage to the audience's left or right. And when this key tree is located on the left, there is no cherry tree on the right.

Koi Bikyaku Yamato Orai – Fuin Giri / 恋飛脚大和往来~封印切
—The Courier from Hell – Breaking the Seals—

"Koibikyaku Yamato Orai" first appeared as a puppet play in 1757 in Osaka and is a rewritten version of Chikamatsu's famous "Meido no Hikyaku" written in 1711. It shows a money courier named Chubei whose pride and love for the courtesan Umegawa cause him to break the seals on the official money he is carrying. For more about the play, see Program 9 in the 2014 Season.

This is a favorite play for Kamigata actors and different actors have developed different ways of acting that have become traditions unique to a particular acting family. In turn, the sets can be subtly different for different acting traditions.

"Fuin Giri" shows an Osaka brothel and while Chubei is upstairs with Umegawa, Hachiemon, a man Chubei considered a friend comes and tells everyone in the brothel to be careful because Chubei is a liar and a swindler. Chubei rushes from upstairs and there is a contest of pride between Chubei and Hachiemon where Chubei tries to claim that he has the money to buy out Umegawa's contract. Eventually this leads to Chubei breaking the seals on the official money he is carrying, making him an embezzler.

The set shows an Osaka brothel of this period and has the colors and decor that evoke this time and place. But the crucial second floor parlor and the stairs leading from it are different for the two major Kamigata acting traditions. There is the Narikoma-ya tradition centering around Nakamura Ganjiro, the tradition to which Nakamura Kazutaro belongs, and the Matsushima-ya tradition belonging to the Kataoka Nizaemon family. (The names of the two acting traditions come from the yago of these families.) In the Narikoma-ya tradition, the staircase is very steeps and leads straight back. In the Matsushima-ya tradition, the staircase goes to a relatively low parlor to the audience's right. This creates a very different effect when Chubei rushes into the room to refute Hachiemon. The sets are made that way to fit the different traditions of acting in these two families and shape and frame the movement in the same way that a camera does in film.

Sanmon Gosan no Kiri / 楼門五三桐
—The Thief Ishikawa Goemon—

This is a play by Namiki Gohei first performed in Osaka in 1778 under the title "Kinmon Gosan no Kiri" and then performed in Edo in 1800 under the title "Sanmon Gosan no Kiri," the title by which it is known today. It is a long jidaimono epic showing the confrontation of the larger-than-life thief Ishikawa Goemon and the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (who is known in Edo period theater by the thinly disguised name of "Hisayoshi"). Often just the climactic scene at the temple gate is shown and in this program this is featured to show some of the range of things the set crew does during the course of a program. First a member of the set crew pulls open the striped joshiki maku. At first the set is hidden by a light blue asagi maku. The scene is described by the spectacular singing and shamisen music of the Ozatsuma style, then with a click of the ki wooden clappers the curtain drops to reveal the scene in an instant. The actor playing Goemon makes a handsome mie pose and this pose is emphasized by beats of the tsuke wooden clappers. (Incidentally, today, striking the tsuke is the responsibility of a member of the set crew, not an actor, not a musician.) The set crew is responsible for hanging the asagi curtain on the special rod that holds it and then for catching it when it drops, as well as carrying it away. Then when the set piece rises on the seri lift, The set crew changes the surrounding set pieces to fit the view of the temple gate showing the ground as well.

Kanadehon Chushingura – Sandanme / 仮名手本忠臣蔵~三段目
—The Treasury of Loyal Retainers – Act III—

In one scene of "Chushingura," which is described above, the stage revolves to show the "Pine Corridor" of the shogun's palace. A room of thich tatami mats is represented by rows of thin goza mats that look like the top surface of tatami. But the mats for the very front of the stage cannot be carried on the revolving stage. So after the stage revolves and the set is in place, a member of the set crew takes a huge rolled up straw mat and unrolls it. With consummate skill, the mat goes all the way to the other side and almost perfectly straight. This moment always gets a round of applause.

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

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, including the magical fox Tadanobu. For more about the full-length play, look at the program on "Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura."

The magical fox is shown with a number of stage tricks including "chu-nori (flying through the air)." But this program features two of these tricks, which require perfect coordination among the actor, his koken stage assistants and the technical staff, including the set crew. In one of these tricks as the audience's attention is attracted to the back of the theater, Tadanobu appears magically on the stairs. In another of these tricks, Tadanobu appears out of the transom above the stage. To know how these amazing tricks are done...you'll just have to watch the program!