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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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Shibaraku! /
—Wait a Minute!—
"Shibaraku!" is probably the oldest example of aragoto acting. It dates from Ichikawa Danjuro I (1660 – 1704) and is said to be a recreation of an incident when Danjuro I was waiting to make his entrance. The other actors refused to give him his cue, so he shouted "shibaraku (wait)" until they had no choice but to recognize him. Danjuro I did this as a play, probably from 1687. His son Danjuro II (1688 – 1758) consolidated the aragoto style of acting and made the "Shibaraku!" routine a central part of kabuki. In the time of Danjuro II, it became a tradition that at the important Kaomise ("face showing") production at the beginning of the season. If a member of the Ichikawa Danjuro line was appearing, a version of the Shibaraku routine was always inserted into the play. During the Edo period, although the general outlines of the play always stayed the same, the names of the characters and the lines they would say would change each time, sometimes with very outlandish variations. In 1832, Danjuro VII (1791 – 1859) made it a part of the Kabuki Juhachiban (Eighteen Favorite Plays of the Ichikawa Danjuro Family), a collection of plays largely featuring aragoto plays created by Danjuro I, but also containing plays created by subsequent holders of the Danjuro name, some of the plays not having any aragoto flavor in their present form. The version that is performed today is an independent play created by Danjuro IX in 1895.
The story is very simple. A villain about to take over the realm and kill all his opponents is confronted by a larger-than-life hero. After a series of verbal exchanges, usually comic, the hero vanquishes the villain.
The most distinctive thing about the hero is his appearance and movements. He is in a persimmon colored suo overrobe and long hakama divided skirt. The big, square sleeves has a pattern of three nested boxes for measuring rice (masu) and when he makes his first entrance, the sleeves are stretched out with wicker rods to make them into big squares. Inside the hakama, he is wearing clogs to make him taller. Under the red overrobe there is a green kimono, a white underrobe and pieces of armor, including a breastplate and arm pieces. The sleeves of the white underrobe are tied back for action with giant purple braided tasuki cords tied in a big bow. The hair is very exaggerated. The sidelocks stick out in eight rods made by hardening the hair with wax. Under an eboshi court cap he still has his youthful forelock of hair and there is a white line in the middle to suggest an ivory comb stuck into the hair. There are ornamental pieces of paper called chikara gami ("power paper") that symbolize his strength and suggest Shinto paper ornaments and his similarity to a Shinto god. His face has several lines of red kumadori make-up in the pattern called suji guma. Red lines symbolize strength and virtue.
In the final poses he uses a giant sword 2 meters long and there are many mie poses, the most distinctive the Genroku mie.
Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami – Kurumabiki / 菅原伝授手習鑑 車引
—Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy – The Fight Over the Carriage—
This play was first written for the puppet theater in 1746 and is based on the 9th century imperial court aristocrat Sugawara no Michizane who was exiled after being slandered. When he became a vengeful god, he was made into the god Tenjin. Along with Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees and Chushingura – The Treasury of 47 Loyal Retainers, this is one of the three great classics of the traditional theater and all three plays are performed frequently as both kabuki and Bunraku puppet theater.
Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy shows both the exile of Sugawara and triplet brothers, Matsuomaru, Umeomaru and Sakuramaru who serve different masters including Sugawara and end up on opposing sides. The dramatic climax of the play is "Terakoya" "The Village School" scene which shows Matsuomaru as a tragic hero and the acting is not strongly aragoto. But an earlier scene called "Kurumabiki" "The Fight Over the Carriage" takes a routine from the kabuki theater and adapted it to the puppets and it now is a classic of aragoto acting. In that scene, Matsuomaru and Umeomaru are played as aragoto characters while Sakuramaru is in the gentle wagoto style of acting.
Oshi Modoshi (Kyoganoko Musume Dojoji) / 押戻(京鹿子娘道成寺による)
—Pushing Back the Demon (from Musume Dojoji)—
"Oshi Modoshi" seems to have been performed by Danjuro II in 1727, but the actual first performance is not clear. It is included in the Kabuki Juhachiban and is a kind of routine that could be used in any play when a supernatural villain is confronted by an aragoto hero. The villain is about to go from the main stage to the hanamichi runway and then to do further evil when the aragoto hero appears and pushes the villain back to the main stage. It is sometimes performed as the second half of "Musume Dojoji" "The Girl at Dojoji Temple" where the main actor appears as the spirit of a serpent, but the routine also appears today in many other plays, for example, the dance "Futa Omote" "Two Faces" where the villain is an evil ghost. The hero always appears with a straw raincloak and bamboo hat and with a big bamboo pole. These are all considered to be things associated with Shinto gods and also have the power to ward off evil.
Zohiki / 象引
—The Tug-of-War Over the Elephant—
In many aragoto plays, the strength of the hero is shown with some kind of tug-of-war. There is a hint of this in "Kurumabiki" where the protagonists fight using the carriage. Sometimes there are more outlandish things as with the Kabuki Juhachiban play "Zohiki" where the characters use an elephant instead of a rope. This seems to have been a routine performed first by Danjuro I in 1701, but like most of the Kabuki Juhachiban, the actual script of Edo period performances has not survived and when it is performed today, it is a modern revival in the old style.
Sukeroku Yukari no Edo Zakura / 助六由縁江戸桜
—Sukeroku, the Hero of Edo—
This was first performed in 1713 by Danjuro II and is a part of the Kabuki Juhachiban and features the sleekly handsome hero Sukeroku. The entire play takes three hours and is a kind of pageant of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters and the top-ranking courtesans there, including Sukeroku's lover Agemaki. This was an adaptation of a Kansai love play, which showed Sukeroku with the gentle wagoto acting style. At first glance, this is not an aragoto play at all and totally different from the other plays in the Kabuki Juhachiban collection. But the true identity of Sukeroku is the aragoto hero Soga no Goro and there is very chic kumadori make-up with just a little red around the eyes. Also, the confrontations between the characters are largely with poses and witty verbal exchanges, like Agemaki's famous speech where she uses a series of poetic images to compare Sukeroku and her unwanted patron, the bearded Ikkyu.