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.
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Buyo / 舞踊

The word "buyo" for "dance" is actually a modern construction. There were many words for dance in pre-modern Japan, mostly the names of dance genres. The word "mai," which is the first character in the word "buyo" is used for dances like those found in Noh, which keep the hips very low and stay close to the floor, without jumping or high-stepping movements and emphasize circling movements. "Odori," the second character in the word "buyo" is used for high-stepping movements like those found in kabuki dance or folk dances. In the pre-modern period, considering all these movements, including movements like aragoto and tachimawari fight movements – which to our eyes all look like dance – as separate genres seemed perfectly natural, but in the modern period, there was a need for a generic term, like the Western word "dance," and so, the word "buyo" was coined and one standard translation for the word "nihon buyo" is "classical Japanese dance".

Tsuke / ツケ

At various points in a kabuki play, when a character is running or walking, or when the actor does a mie pose, or when there is a fight scene, the movement is emphasized by beats of wooden clappers called "tsuke" which means something like "attached sound." The performer of the tsuke, called the "tsuke-uchi", sits right next to the proscenium on the audience's right and hits a board called the "tsuke-ita" with wooden blocks called the "tsukegi." In modern times, for some reason, probably convenience, this is performed by a member of the set crew. With a mie pose, the beats of the tsuke frame the movement and professionals imitate the sound by saying, "battari."

Hikinuki / 引き抜き

On occasion, especially in a dance, a character will have the costume change instantly on stage. One, used especially for female characters, is called "hikinuki (pull-take off)." The costume is made in separate parts and a koken stage assistant pulls out some threads and the upper layer of the kimono is pulled off to reveal a different kimono below. This occurs several times in Musume Dojoji.

Koi no tenarai / 恋の手習い

The emotional center of the dance Musume Dojoji is the section with lyrics beginning "koi no tenarai (the learning of love)." In this section, the dancer uses a tenugui handcloth to express the feelings of a young girl. This is an example of a "kudoki" or "lament." The character (usually female), expresses feelings of love, usually to an imagined partner. In addition to being the dramatic high point of a dance, it is also usually the musical high point.

Tenugui / 手拭

"Tenugui" are small handcloths which even now are used at sinks and to wipe hands and are often given out as souvenirs by artists and businesses. Ordinary tenugui are cotton and about 90 x 35 cm. But the tenugui used for dance are usually somewhat longer and for performances on stage, a specially made tenugui of heavy crepe silk often with the crests of the actor is used. This is often used as a prop in very intimate sections of the dance. In Musume Dojoji, it suggests a mirror, hides the eyebrows to suggest the shaved eyebrows of a married woman and also suggests scattering cherry petals. Today, usually when there is a dance that uses a tenugui, cotton tenugui are tossed to the audience as a souvenir. Originally there was only one. At the end of a run, the actor tossed the very expensive silk tenugui to the audience as a very precious keepsake of viewing this kabuki performance.

Ohaguro / お歯黒

In the old days, married women blackened their teeth and shaved off their eyebrows as a sign of their married status. This tooth blackening was a very involved procedure using an extract of iron. In Musume Dojoji, the dancer mimes this as a sign of the character's wish to be married to the man she loves. She applies tooth blackening and rouge, wipes her mouth with the tenugui and then uses the tenugui to mime a mirror.

Kakko, Suzu-daiko / 鞨鼓、鈴太鼓

In Musume Dojoji, the dancer must also play musical instruments and these sections are considered to be very difficult because the rhythm of the percussion music is different from the rhythm of the dance movements. In one section there is a series of puns on the names of mountains suggesting love. The dancer wears an yellow under-kimono with a design of the enormous drums used in Gagaku court music. In this section, the dancer plays a stick drum called a kakko which is tied to the chest. Then in the following section, there are the tambourine like drums called suzu-daiko. They can be clapped together rhythmically, but also have bells inside. The sound also suggests the rattling of a serpent's scales.

Monogatari / 物語

The word "monogatari" means tale, but in the context of kabuki means a battle tale, which is usually told together with some kind of musical narration and illustrated with vigorous movements. In Yoshinoyama, the fox Tadanobu does a monogatari illustrating moments from the war between the Genji and Heike clans and the way that the brother of the real Tadanobu sacrificed his life for his lord Yoshitsune.

Kitsunete / 狐手

In Yoshinoyama, the Tadanobu is not the real, human warrior Tadanobu, it is a magical fox in disguise. From time to time, the performer suggests this animal nature by holding his hands in a special way suggesting paws.

Noh, Kyogen / 能、狂言

Drawing on very ancient roots, Noh and Kyogen are classical theatrical forms that were perfected in the Muromachi period (1336 – 1573). Noh is a very serious masked drama that focuses on some larger-than-life character, often from the remote past. The texts are chanted and composed of a dense mixture of quotes from a variety of classical sources. Kyogen are comic plays that are performed together with Noh plays and often reflect the human side of life in the Muromachi period and the experience of the commoner class. Both Noh and Kyogen became very important sources for kabuki.

Matsubame mono / 松羽目物

Originally the kabuki stage was an adaptation of the Noh stage with a roof and a runway to the stage. Gradually the kabuki stage developed scenery and eliminated the roof. At the same time, Noh became established as the official art form of the ruling samurai class so it was difficult for commoners to see actual performances of Noh and if kabuki imitated Noh too closely, it risked being punished by the shogunate. In the late Edo period, the control of the shogunate became weaker and, especially after the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate and the Meiji Restoration in 1868, it became possible to copy Noh directly without being punished. Plays that copy not only the content of Noh or Kyogen, but the stage as well are called "matsubame mono (pineboard plays)" because they copy the simple stage used for Noh which features a picture of a gnarled old pine on the back wall.

Osensu / お扇子

Fans are an important part of Japanese culture. In the tea ceremony and other formal occasions they serve as a sign of one's identity and are used in the exchange of formal greetings. For a Japanese dancer, the fan is the equivalent of the sword of a samurai and is treated with great respect. A dance fan is never used to just fan one's self and when it can no longer be used, often it is given to a temple to be disposed of properly. In a dance it is used in formal greetings, but can also suggest a wide variety of things, natural phenomena like wind, waves, rain and snow and objects like sake cups and pitchers.

Often the dance fan is very long and can be 33.3 cm. in length. As a rule, fans with ribs with unfinished bamboo are standard, although sometimes fans with ribs that are painted a shiny black or red are used.

Ichikawa En'o I / 初世市川猿翁

Ichikawa Ennosuke II (1888 – 1963) is better known by his retirement name of En'o I and was one of the most innovative actors of the 20th century. He was a member of a relatively minor branch of the Ichikawa Danjuro family and tried to compensate with experiments in modern theater, a tour to the Soviet Union and many new dances including Kurozuka and Ukiyo Buro (The Up-to-Date Bathhouse).

His innovative spirit was inherited by his grandson Ennosuke III (b. 1939) who has now taken the retirement name of En'o II.

Onoe Kikugoro VI / 六代目尾上菊五郎

Onoe Kikugoro VI (1885 – 1949) was the son of Onoe Kikugoro V (1844 – 1903) and also was taught by Ichikawa Danjuro IX (1838 – 1903). Kikugoro V and Danjuro IX were the two actors who in their different ways brought kabuki out of the Edo period and into the modern world. Kikugoro VI learned the naturalistic acting of his father, but also the classical technique of Danjuro IX. Kikugoro VI is famous for all sorts of innovations. For example, originally the character in Sagi Musume (The Heron Maiden) posed handsomely standing on a platform. But Kikugoro VI transformed this into a pose with the spirit of the heron dying in the snow; a pose inspired by Anna Pavlova's famous ballet performance The Dying Swan.

Tsugaru Jamisen / 津軽三味線

Tsugaru is the name of the old province in Aomori Prefecture, the northernmost part of Japan's main island of Honshu. From the late Edo period to the early 20th century, blind performers went from door to door performing ballads in exchange for money and goods. To appeal to these audiences, these performers developed very flashy instrumental introductions and today, while the ballads have long since been forgotten, the dynamic sound of Tsugaru Jamisen is one of the most popular forms of traditional music. Young people from all over Japan compete in musical contests and there are many musicians composing new music for Tsugaru Jamisen.

Roppo / 六方

"Roppo (six directions)" is a stylized walk that is the foundation of walking in the bombastic aragoto style of acting and has its roots in the swaggering walk of masterless samurai in the early Edo Period. It can be as simple as single steps embellished with florid hand gestures, but in its most spectacular form, the tobi roppo ("flying roppo") it becomes a jump-step as with the famous final exit of Benkei in Kanjincho (The Subscription List).

Nio dasuki / 仁王襷

"Tasuki" are cords used to tie back kimono sleeves for work. A larger-than-life aragoto hero might wear very exaggerated versions of these cords. For example, nio dasuki have very thick braided cords in dark and light purple. "Nio" are the guardian kings around Buddhist deities and these cords are supposed to evoke the power and majesty of those sacred warriors.