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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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Kanadehon Chushingura / 仮名手本忠臣蔵
—Chushingura: The Treasury of Loyal Retainers—
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 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. The program introduces only a few acts, but this is one of the few plays that has nearly all of its acts performed today.
Act I: Daijo / 大序
—The Great Prologue—

In puppet theater, every jidaimono history play began with this kind of prologue. The only play where this prologue is still regularly performed in Bunraku puppet theater and kabuki is Chushingura. In kabuki, it begins with a puppet who imitates the manager of the theater introducing the play. He gets so enthusiastic that his head spins around.

The first scene is set in the Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine in Kamakura. Ashikaga Tadayoshi, the younger brother of the shogun Takauji, presides over ceremonies. His chief lieutenant is the arrogant lord Ko no Moronao (who wears black robes). Two samurai lords help in the ceremonies: Momonoi Wakasanosuke (in blue robes) and Enya Hangan (in yellow robes). Wakasanosuke angers Moronao by disagreeing with him and then, frustrating him when he tries to seduce Enya Hangan's wife Kaoyo Gozen. Moronao treats Wakasanosuke insultingly and he has to be restrained by the calm and patient Enya Hangan.

Act II: Matsu Kiri / 二段目 松切り
—Cutting the Pine—

(Not shown in the program.) This act is usually not performed in kabuki, but it is important, showing that the playwrights wanted to show the arbitrary nature of the event. In the first three acts, it is Wakasanosuke who wants to kill Moronao, the tragedy could have been that of his clan and instead, by chance, it becomes that of Enya Hangan. Also, it introduces Honzo, a character who becomes central in Act IX.

The scene is set in the mansion of Kakogawa Honzo, the chief retainer of Momonoi Wakasanosuke. Honzo's daughter Konami is betrothed to marry Oboshi Rikiya, the son of Oboshi Yuranosuke, the chief retainer of Enya Hangan. Wakasanosuke comes to Honzo to confess that he plans to kill Moronao at the ceremonies the following day. Honzo seems to agree with Wakasanosuke and shows his resolve to support his lord by cutting a pine branch. But instead Honzo rushes to get funds to bribe Moronao and defuse the situation. He hopes to keep Wakasanosuke from doing something that will destroy their clan.

Act III, Scene 1: Monzen / 三段目一場 門前
—Before the Gate of the Shogun's Palace—
(Not shown in the program.) Moronao and his chief retainer Sagisaka Bannai have heard that Wakasanosuke is going to attack him and prepare to defend themselves. Instead, Honzo comes with generous bribes in Wakasanosuke's name. They delightedly accept the gifts and Bannai insists that Honzo come into the palace to watch.
Act III: Matsu no Ma Ninjo no Ba / 三段目 松の間刃傷の場
—The Attack in the Pine Corridor—

(Not shown in the program.) Wakasanosuke comes intending to kill Moronao, but Moronao bows down and flatters him and finally loses the opportunity to kill Moronao and goes into the chambers for the ceremony.

(Featured in the program.) Moronao is angry at what he has had to do to keep from getting killed. He is even more angry when Enya Hangan arrives and gives him a letter from his wife Kaoyo, the woman that Moronao tried to seduce at the shrine. The letter rejects Moronao. Moronao starts insulting and tormenting Hangan. Hangan endures all these insults, but when finally he reaches for his sword, Moronao reminds him that drawing a sword in the shogun's palace for any reason will be punished by a sentence of ritual suicide and having one's clan disbanded. Finally, pushed beyond endurance, Hangan draws his sword and attacks Moronao. Honzo comes from where he has been watching and holds back Hangan and soon he is surrounded by the other lords.

Act IV, Scene 1: Enya Hangan Seppuku no Ba / 四段目 塩冶判官切腹の場
—Enya Hangan's Ritual Suicide—

(Featured in the program.) Enya Hangan is under house arrest and is ordered to commit ritual suicide and for his clan to be disbanded. Hangan delays as long as he can, hoping for a chance to see Oboshi Yuranosuke, his chief retainer in the home province. He asks Yuranosuke's son Rikiya repeatedly if his father has arrived yet. Finally, Hangan has no choice but to stab himself. At that moment Yuranosuke comes rushing. Hangan gives Yuranosuke the dagger, with the unspoken wish for him to avenge his death.

(Not shown in the program.) Chief retainer Yuranosuke and his counterpart chief retainer here Ono Kudayu discuss with the retainers what to do. Kudayu seems to favor immediately fighting over the mansion. But Yuranosuke suggests that for the time being, they must follow the orders of the shogunate. They will divide the property of the clan among the retainers. Kudayu immediately agrees and leaves, reminding them that he wants not only his share of the money, but the share for his son Sadakuro. After Kudayu is gone, Yuranosuke reveals that he does not trust him, but he still says they must hand over the mansion and obey the shogunate until they find a way to restore the clan or avenge their lord.

Act IV, Scene 2: Omote Mon Shiro Akewatashi / 四段目 表門城明渡しの場
—Handing Over the Clan Mansion—
(Featured in the program) The hot-headed retainers of the clan come rushing to defend the mansion, fighting to the death if they have to. Yuranosuke reminds them that they must hand over the mansion peacefully if they are to be able to carry out their lord's wishes. Finally he calms them and they leave. Alone, as the gate of the mansion recedes in the distance, Yuranosuke brings out the dagger that Hangan used to commit suicide and vows to avenge his lord's death.
Michiyuki Tabiji no Hanamuko – Ochiudo / 道行旅路の花聟 – 落人
—The Fugitives—

(Not shown in the program.) In the original puppet play this was a part of the third act after the incident in the Pine Corridor. In kabuki this has become an independent act, a dance featuring Kiyomoto-style narrative music. When there is a full-length performance of Chushingura, often this closes the matinee program with the first half of the play.

Enya Hangan's retainer Hayano Kanpei and Kaoyo Gozen's lady-in-waiting Okaru are illicit lovers. She has brought a letter for Moronao from Kaoyo and has Kanpei give it to Hangan to deliver to Moronao. They then take advantage of this meeting to have a romantic tryst. But because of this meeting, Kanpei is not on duty when Hangan attacks Moronao. He wants to commit ritual suicide for his failure, but Okaru persuades him to go together with her to the home of her family outside Kyoto to wait for an opportunity for Kanpei to redeem his good name. Moronao's chief retainer Sagisaka Bannai has always lusted after Okaru and the dance ends with a comic fight.

Please see Key Kabuki Words - Plays mentioned in the program page of "Charming Villains"

Act V: Yamazaki Kaido / 五段目
—The Road to Yamazaki—

(Not shown in the program) Kanpei is living with Okaru's parents and making a meager living as a hunter. He encounters a former retainer of Enya Hangan. He has heard that they are planning a vendetta and he begs to join. Now he desperately needs the money to recover his good name and join the vendetta. He goes on hunting.

Okaru's father Yoichibei appears. Okaru and her parents are just as desperate to have Kanpei reinstated as a samurai, but they have very little money. They have decided to raise the money by selling Okaru to a brothel and have done so, without telling Kanpei. Now Yoichibei is rushing home having completed the arrangements in Kyoto and carrying fifty gold coins, half of the money. But he is attacked and killed by a thief, Ono Sadakuro. He is also a former retainer of Enya Hangan, the son of the treacherous senior retainer Ono Kudayu. As Sadakuro is now performed in kabuki, he is a handsome and sexy, but menacing samurai in a black silk kimono and with a ragged paper umbrella. Sadakuro is about to go on his way when he hides to avoid a wild boar that comes rushing past. Sadakuro emerges, only to be shot. He is shot by Kanpei, who was aiming at the boar. In the dark, Kanpei searches for the dead boar. He is alarmed when he finds he has shot a man and gropes to find some medicine on the body. Instead, he finds the fifty gold coins and goes rushing off to present the money so that he can join the vendetta.

Act VI: Kanpei Seppuku / 六段目
—Kanpei's Suicide—

(Not shown in the program) This suicide forms a set with Enya Hangan's suicide and is messy and painful showing the reality of ritual suicide in contrast to Hangan's clean and ritualistic ritual suicide, which shows the ideal. Act V and VI are frequently performed and the two acts also appear often independently as one set. At Okaru's house, Okaru and her mother are worrying that her father Yoichibei has not returned from Kyoto. The people from the brothel come to pay the rest of the money and to take Okaru away, but Okaru's mother says they can't let Okaru go until Yoichibei returns. The people from the brothel force Okaru into a palanquin and are about to leave when Kanpei returns. They explain the situation to him and show him that Yoichibei was carrying the first half of the money in a striped purse exactly like the one the brothel keeper is carrying. Kanpei is shocked to see that this is identical to the purse he took off the body and thinks that he killed Yoichibei. He agrees to let Okaru go to the pleasure quarters.

Some hunters bring Yoichibei's body and Okaru's mother begins to suspect that Kanpei killed him. Just at this point, the members of the vendetta come and say that their leader Yuranosuke refused to accept money from a samurai not in good standing in the clan and return the money. Okaru's mother tells them that Kanpei killed Yoichibei for this money and without any way to defend himself, Kanpei finally stabs himself in the belly. He confesses his many failures and laments that he was distracted from his duty by sex. As he is on the verge of death, the samurai examine Yoichibei's body and find he was cut down by a sword, not shot with a hunter's rifle and recall that they found Sadakuro's body. They say that without realizing it, Kanpei avenged his father-in-law's death and add his name to the list of members of the vendetta, so that he can participate posthumously.

Act VII: Gion Ichiriki Chaya no Ba / 七段目 祇園一力茶屋の場
—The Gion Teahouse—

(Featured in the program.) This is probably the most famous act of the play and is frequently performed on its own.

Everyone is wondering if Enya Hangan's former retainers are planning an attack on Moronao to avenge their lord's death. But former chief retainer Yuranosuke seems to be spending all his time in a drunken stupor, playing with the geisha of Kyoto. The same is true this night, the eve of the anniversary of Enya Hangan's death, a time when one is supposed to refrain from drinking and eating fish or meat. Two parties come to find Yuranosuke's true intentions. One is a group of members of the vendetta who are disgusted with his behavior and want to kill him. They are restrained by their footman, a man named Teraoka Heiemon, and withdraw angrily. Heiemon wants to join the vendetta too, despite his low status and presents a letter as a petition to the sleeping Yuranosuke, but Yuranosuke throws it back, seemingly in his sleep. Yuranosuke's son Rikiya comes with a secret letter from Hangan's widow. Yuranosuke is immediately alert, and while pretending to be drunk, gets the letter and urges Rikiya to leave the pleasure quarters unobtrusively. Yuranosuke is also tested by his former colleague Ono Kudayu who has now gone over to the enemy and appears with Moronao's chief retainer Sagisaka Bannai. Kudayu and Yuranosuke drink together and Kudayu is shocked when Yuranosuke easily eats octopus on the eve of the anniversary of their lord's death. Alone with Bannai, Kudayu is almost convinced that Yuranosuke has no intention of avenging Hangan's death, but wants to know more about the letter and hides under the veranda.

Okaru is now a courtesan and goes to the balcony to sober up after drinking too much. Yuranosuke comes to read the letter. He is watched from above by Okaru and from below by Kudayu. When Okaru's hairpin falls, he realizes that the letter has been read. He playfully invites Okaru to come down and join him, and when he finds she has read the entire letter, suddenly says that he will buy out her contract and goes to make the arrangements. Okaru happily writes a letter hoping to be reunited with her beloved Kanpei. Heiemon appears. He is actually Okaru's brother and comes searching for her. At first she is ashamed to be seen as a courtesan, but he praises her for serving to support her family. She asks about her family and unable to tell the truth, Heiemon lies and says that her father and Kanpei are alive. She happily tells him that Yuranosuke is going to buy out her contract. At first he thinks this means that in fact Yuranosuke has given up all thought of carrying out a vendetta. But she says that Yuranosuke is still working on the vendetta and whispers the contents of the secret letter. Heiemon tries to figure it out and realizes that Yuranosuke intends to kill Okaru to keep the secret of the letter. He suddenly attacks her, hoping that if he kills Okaru himself, he will be able to join the vendetta. She is shocked and flees, but finally she comes back and he reveals that their father and Kanpei are dead. She faints with shock and Heiemon revives her and explains what Yuranosuke must be intending to do. She calmly agrees to sacrifice herself, when Yuranosuke says that he has seen the strength of their feelings. He agrees to allow Heiemon to join the vendetta and has Okaru help to stab Kudayu. She is acting in place of her late husband Kanpei. Yuranosuke berates Kudayu for betraying them and living in comfort while all the rest are suffering so to carry out the vendetta and the scene ends as Yuranosuke instructs Heiemon to throw Kudayu into the Kamo river.

Act VIII: Michiyuki Tabiji no Yomeiri / 八段目
—The Travel Scene of the Bridal Journey—
(Not shown in the program.) Konami, the daughter of Kakogawa Honzo, the chief retainer of Momonoi Wakasanosuke, has long been betrothed to Yuranosuke's son Rikiya, but since the disbanding of Enya Hangan's clan, the wedding seems to have been called off. Honzo's wife Tonase takes Konami on a desperate journey to Yamashina on the outskirts of Kyoto where Yuranosuke's retirement home is, hoping that the young couple can be married. The scene is a dance showing mother and daughter as they travel along the Tokaido highway towards Kyoto. Konami expresses her love for Rikiya.
Act IX: Yamashina Kankyo / 九段目
—Yuranosuke's Retirement Home in Yamashina—
(Not shown in the program.) This act is highly regarded and performed independently, but due to its length and difficulty is not performed as often as some of the other acts of the play. Tonase and Konami come asking that Konami be married to Rikiya. Yuranosuke's wife Oishi gives various excuses and finally says that this marriage is impossible because Honzo held back Enya Hangan when he attacked Moronao, preventing Hangan from killing him. Oishi says that the wedding is impossible and goes into the back. Left alone with her daughter, Tonase laments the failure of her mission and says that the two must die. She will kill her daughter and then commit suicide herself. Konami says that she will be happy dying in the house of her betrothed. As the two prepare for death, a komuso priest appears outside the door wearing a basket-like hat that hides his head and playing a shakuhachi flute. When Tonase prepares to behead Konami, a voice calls out to stop. At first it seems that it might be telling the flute player to stop, but then Oishi comes out and says the wedding might be possible with a proper gift and asks for the head of Honzo. The komuso priest comes in. It is Honzo himself. He insults Oishi until Rikiya, listening in the back can no longer stand it and comes out and stabs Honzo. He is about to kill him when Yuranosuke tells him to wait. He has realized that Honzo planned this as the only way to make the wedding possible. Honzo says that he has a gift and presents a map of Moronao's heavily defended mansion, the last thing they need to carry out the vendetta.
Act X: Amakawaya / 十段目 天川屋の段
—The Testing of Amakawaya Gihei—
(Not shown in the program.) This scene is almost never performed, but shows how fascinated commoners in the Edo period were by this samurai story. The merchant Amakawaya Gihei is providing armaments to the members of the vendetta, but he is suddenly confronted by arresting officers who accuse him of conspiring with the members of the vendetta. Gihei refuses to talk, even when the lives of his family are threatened and it turns out this is a way for Yuranosuke to test whether a mere commoner can have virtue and strength of character like a samurai. Having passed the test, Yuranosuke shows his respect by using the two halves of Gihei's name, "ama" and "kawa" as passwords so the members of the vendetta can identify one another.
Act XI: Koke Omote Mon Uchi-Iri no Ba / 十一段目 高家表門討入の場
—The Attack on Moronao's Mansion—
(Featured in the program.) In the Edo period, this scene was not performed very often because audiences of the time were more interested in the intense drama of the earlier sections. The original script of this scene emphasizes the members of the vendetta offering incense to the spirit of their lord with Moronao's head as an offering. The scene as performed today is a relatively modern script emphasizing action and spectacle as the members of the vendetta enter Moronao's mansion, search desperately for him and then finally carry out their vendetta and line up to give a shout of victory.