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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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Heike Nyogo no Shima — Shunkan — / 平家女護島(俊寛)
—The Heike and the Island of Women — Shunkan —

First performed in 1719 as puppet theater at the Takemoto-za theater in Osaka, this is a long jidaimono historical play about the final days of when the Heike clan dominated Japan. The central part of the play is an adaptation of a classical noh play about the priest Shunkan. Shunkan was implicated in the early rebellion against the Heike clan, the Shishigatani conspiracy, and his punishment was especially severe because Shunkan betrayed the Heike clan even though the Heike leader Kiyomori had personally given Shunkan wealth and high rank. As often happened with losers in political struggles, Shunkan and two of his co-conspirators were exiled to an island ("shima nagashi" "washed out to an island") in this case Kikaigashima ("Devil's Island") a small island off Kyushu that is also known as Iwo Jimo ("The Island of Sulpher"). The noh play shows Shunkan and his two companions. An emissary comes with a general pardon, but Shunkan is specifically left out. He looks at the letter of pardon again and again looking for his name, but it is not there and finally, he is left alone on the island.

Chikamatsu changed this story by adding romance, but leaving the final situation the same as the noh play and history. First, the island girl Chidori in this scene and a wife for Shunkan named Azumaya. He also doubled the emissaries. The first has a pardon without Shunkan's name. The second brings a pardon for Shunkan, but they cannot take Chidori with them. In the end, Shunkan kills the first emissary and for this crime is left on the island, but since the boat must have the proper number of passengers, Chidori goes on the boat in his place. The climax of the scene is Shunkan waving farewell to the boat desperately, climbing higher and higher to see it and finally posing in his final moment of resignation and preparation for death.

Sonezaki Shinju / 曽根崎心中
—The Love Suicides at Sonezaki—

First performed as puppet theater in 1703 at the Takemoto-za theater in Osaka, this is probably the most famous play that Chikamatsu ever wrote. It is the first sewamono domestic play, that is, a drama featuring ordinary commoners rather than the legendary figures, often of very high social rank who dominated jidaimono historical plays and the classical noh theater. This play also dramatized a true love suicide and was written extremely quickly.

The play shows a shop clerk named Tokubei who wants to buy out the contract of the courtesan Ohatsu. He has some money which he must return to his master, but in the meantime, his friend Kuheiji asks to borrow the money for a few days as a matter of life or death. But when Tokubei asks Kuheiji to return the money, he denies ever having borrowed it and accuses Tokubei of being a swindler. Humiliated, Tokubei decides on death and he and Ohatsu commit love suicide in the Sonezaki district of Osaka.

This play established the three-act format for a sewamono and also established the convention of the michiyuki or travel scene in the conclusion. As the couple travel to their place of death, this moment is made beautiful with all the resources available to poetry, giving dignity to what was actually a sad and dirty death and ending the play in a kind of fantastic space between this world and the next. The play is also notable for the staging in the Tenmaya scene where Tokubei is hiding under the veranda in Ohatsu's skirts while Kuheiji is in the room above. Ohatsu berates Kuheiji scornfully for betraying his friend and seemingly speaks to Kuheiji, but actually is trying to find out Tokubei's feelings. Tokubei must stay silent under the veranda, but in a stunning dramatic and erotic moment, draws her foot across his throat to indicate his willingness to commit love suicide. This is a very artificial moment, but shows the emotions and relationship of these three characters very clearly and expresses very real human emotions.

Chikamatsu is very famous for his love suicide plays, but they became so popular in the Edo period that they were banned. When love suicide plays could be performed again, Chikamatsu's original plays were not performed because stage technique had changed greatly from his time and the story of a play like "Sonezaki Shinju" was too simple for Edo period audiences that wanted complex intrigue. However, the simple story of and fresh eroticism "Sonezaki Shinju" was very attractive to modern audiences and in post-war Japan, first in kabuki, then in Bunraku puppet theater, the revived version of this play became extremely popular for its very modern feeling.

Onna Goroshi Abura no Jigoku / 女殺油地獄
—The Woman Killer and the Hell of Oil—

First performed as puppet theater in 1721 at the Takemoto-za theater, this play shows Yohei, the wastrel son of the Kawachiya oil shop. In the opening scene, Yohei is on a visit to the Nozaki temple with a bunch of his friends to try to ambush his favorite courtesan who is there with another patron. They start a big fight, but some mud hits a passing samurai procession. The lord says to leave things until the return journey. Yohei desperately asks for help from Okichi, the wife of the Teshimaya, an oil store near the Kawachiya. She rents a room in a teahouse and washes Yohei's kimono and when her husband returns from the shrine, their daughter innocently says that Okichi is together with a naked Yohei and her husband begins to suspect that Yohei and Okichi might really be lovers. When Yohei gets home, because of the incident at the temple and other wrongdoings he is finally disowned. In particular, he has fraudulently used his father's seal to borrow money and the money is coming due. He goes to Okichi to borrow money, but her husband is not home and, after the incident at the temple, she cannot lend money without telling her husband. Finally, the desperate Yohei pretends to want to borrow oil and then stabs Okichi. There is a grotesque killing scene. As the two struggle, they knock over the barrels of oil and slip and slide. Finally, Yohei kills Okichi, steals the money and flees.

This does not seem to have been much of a hit when first performed, but was revived in modern times and is now one of Chikamatsu's most popular plays, being produced not only in Bunraku puppet theater and kabuki but in a wide variety of other theatrical genres.