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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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Shinju Ten no Amijima — Kawasho / 心中天網島 ~ 河庄
—The Love Suicides at Amijima - The Kawasho Teahouse—

First performed as a puppet play at the Takemoto-za theater in Osaka in 1710, this is one of the last and perhaps complex and deep love suicide plays written by Chikamatsu Monzaemon. It is in three acts with the first act set at the Kawasho teahouse, the second act in Jihei's home and the third act the actual love suicide. The third act includes the michiyuki travel passage showing the couple searching for their place to die. These scenes, which were pioneered by Chikamatsu, use all the resources of classical poetry to dignify these last, sad moments of a couple's life with great beauty. As with many of Chikamatsu's plays, instead of Chikamatsu's original text, performances today in both kabuki and Bunraku use elements from rewritten versions that add more theatrical plot devices to the rather spare lines of the original play. In this way, although sometimes there are full length performances of "The Love Suicides at Amijima," in the main performance tradition in Kyoto and Osaka with Kansai actors, the first act of Chikamatsu's original play has become an independent play and goes by the title "Kawasho."

A paperseller named Jihei has long been in love with the courtesan Koharu and they have pledged each other to die in a love suicide since he has a wife and children and it seems impossible that they will ever be united. Night after night he goes to the pleasure quarters hoping this will be the night that they can commit love suicide. Passion has transformed him into an empty shell. In the first scene, Jihei has heard that Koharu is meeting a customer at the Kawasho teahouse and hopes he can sneak her away.

Jihei is one of the soft male protagonists played in the Kamigata wagoto style. While indecisive and hapless, he is consumed with love and he cannot hide his feelings at all.

But the owner of Koharu's contract is anxious to protect his property and does his best to make sure that Jihei cannot see Koharu. Moreover, Jihei's family is desperately worried about him. His wife Osan has written a letter to Koharu begging her to find some way of saving Jihei's life. Osan asks on the basis of the bond of common responsibility between two women that love the same man. At the same time, Jihei's older brother Magoemon, a flour merchant, has come disguised as a samurai patron to see what kind of woman Koharu is. Koharu is very gloomy, and when Magoemon asks what is wrong, she says that even though she didn't want to, she arranged to commit love suicide with a man named Jihei. She doesn't want to die and asks Magoemon to visit her regularly, preventing Jihei from seeing her and eventually he will see reason and they will not have to die. Jihei is listening from outside and furious at what he thinks is Koharu's faithlessness, he tries to stab her through the sliding paper screens. Magoemon recognizes the sword and ties Jihei to the lattice to punish him and he and Koharu go into the back. Jihei's rival for Koharu's affection Tahei comes and starts beating Jihei, saying that he must have committed some crime to be tied up that way. Magoemon comes and stops Tahei. Jihei is shocked when he sees his brother and Magoemon forces him inside to confront Koharu.

Magoemon tells Jihei to look at what a faithless prostitute Koharu is. Jihei is furious at her and wants to beat her. He is finally persuaded to return the written oaths that they wrote, promising to die together. Jihei throws Koharu's vows back at her and Magoemon takes Jihei's written vows from Koharu's amulet bag. But there is also a letter and Magoemon recognizes the handwriting of Jihei's wife Osan and understands why Koharu acted in that way. He realizes that in response to Osan's request, Koharu has sacrificed her love and perhaps her life in order to save Jihei's life. He is deeply moved and promises to burn this letter and keep everything secret. Jihei believes everything is over and Magoemon forces him to go home.

In the second act Jihei mopes at home and Osan is afraid that he is still in love with Koharu. But he says that he is still bitterly angry that he did not realize what a lying woman Koharu was. After all, she is being ransomed by Tahei. When Osan hears this, she knows that Koharu would sooner die than become Tahei's wife. Osan desperately says that now the bonds of obligation mean that she must do what she can to save Koharu's life. But before she can do anything, Osan's father comes and takes her away and finally Jihei and Koharu have no choice but to commit love suicide, which is shown in the third act.

Futatsu Chocho Kuruwa Nikki - Sumoba / 双蝶々曲輪日記 — 相撲場
—Two Butterflies in the Pleasure Quarters – The Sumo Bout—

First performed as a puppet play in 1749 at the Takemoto-za theater in Osaka, this is the last play by the team of playwrights that wrote "Chushingura" and other classics. It is a complex play following several pairs of lovers, but focuses on two sumo wrestlers, Nuregami Chogoro and Hanarekoma Chokichi. "Chocho" means "butterfly" and is a pun, since the names of both wrestlers begins with the syllable "cho."

In this program it appears because it shows the most extreme form of the Kamigata wagoto character, Yamazaki Yogoro. He is called a "tsukkorobashi" or "pushover" and this makes for many comic moments where the slightest interplay with his favorite sumo wrestler can knock him over.

Yogoro is actually a very exaggerated version of the character Yamazaki Yojibei in Chikamatsu Monzaemon's 1718 play, "Kotobuki no Kadomatsu (translated by Donald Keene as 'The Uprooted Pine')." This is the same character, with the same intense love for a courtesan, but he has few comic moments. This character was already so familiar to Osaka audiences that "Futatsu Chocho" has very little description of his situation. And in many years of portrayals of this character in the puppet theater and kabuki, Yogoro finally developed into the ultimate and most exaggerated form of the wagoto character.

Usually only selected scenes from this play are presented, and in the "Sumo Bout" scene, the champion wrestler Nuregami Chogoro reassures the worried Yogoro that he will see that Yogoro is united with the courtesan he loves.

Koibikyaku Yamato Orai - Fuin Giri / 恋飛脚大和往来 ~ 封印切
—The Money 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 is usually referred to as "Ume-Chu," short for "Umegawa Chubei" after the names of the main characters. Between the time of Chikamatsu in the early 18th century and the time of these plays in mid-century, several things happened. In Chikamatsu's time, puppets had only one operator, so the range of movement was quite limited. By mid-century, there were three puppeteers for some roles and all kinds of stage devices were used. Also, generations of performers enriched and enlivened the roles, creating performances that might not have been as realistic as Chikamatsu's originals or of as high a literary quality, but were vastly more entertaining to Edo period audiences. "Koibikyaku Yamato Orai" is one of those plays and in turn, different actors developed different ways to perform these key scenes and these moments of acting became traditions unique to a particular acting family.

Chubei is a money courier who comes from Ninokuchi village on the Nara plain. He was adopted to be the heir of a money courier business in Osaka, which carried money for merchants and samurai mansions and also arranged for transport of money between Osaka and Edo. To guarantee security, the gold coins were wrapped in paper, the amount written on it and then were signed and sealed. An unauthorized person breaking the seals would be punished with death.

Chubei happens to be carrying a delivery of money and makes the fateful decision to stop in at the pleasure quarters and see his favorite courtesan Umegawa. The brothel mistress arranges for him to meet secretly with Umegawa. But Chubei's rival in love Hachiemon appears with the money to buy out Umegawa's contract. Chubei tries to pretend that he has money as well, and by accident breaks the seals on the coins he is carrying. Now that his fate is sealed, Chubei decides to buy out Umegawa's contract and they will flee together, going for as long as they can, until the money runs out.

The other scene that is played is called "Ninokuchi Village" and shows Umegawa and Chubei as they go to his hometown. In Chikamatsu's original, Chubei cannot meet with his father Magoemon, because that would mean implicating him in his crime. But in the rewritten version, they have a tearful reunion before his father urges the couple to hurry on their desperate journey.

These are the only scenes performed in both kabuki and the Bunraku puppet theater. In Chikamatsu's original, soon after the scene at Ninokuchi village, Chubei and Umegawa are captured and separated, so that they cannot even die together. This scene is never performed today.

Also see the explanation of plays for the "Four Seasons of Kabuki.