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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Terakoya / 寺子屋

In the Edo period, there was a very high level of literacy. Samurai were supposed to master both "bun (letters)" and "bu (martial arts)" but even commoners learned reading and writing, and they did that at these schools. "Terakoya" literally means "temple school," and indeed, some schools were in Buddhist temples and were taught by priests, but many more were privately run, often by masterless samurai. In "Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami," this is the setting for the tragedy in the act called "Terakoya."

Also see the notes to "Kabuki's Leading Male Roles" in the 2014 season and "Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy" in the Kazutaro season.

Hanamichi / 花道

This is the runway going through the audience. It is used for entrances and exits and can represent all kinds of spaces, from passageways and roads to waterways and even the sky. Because it is so close to the audience, it is also a very important performance space as well.

Also see the notes for "Unique Stage Structures" in the 2014 season.

Agemaku / 揚幕

This is the curtain at the end of the hanamichi runway. It is called "agemaku ('raised curtain')" because it resembles the raised curtain at the end of the hashigakari on a Noh stage, but the kabuki curtain hangs from a pole and is pulled open and shut. When an actor is about to appear on the hanamichi, you know by the clatter of the curtain rings.

Tora /

Tigers do not live in Japan, but are famous in tradition through such things as Chinese ink paintings, where it is a common symbol of great strength. Tigers appear in two kabuki plays, both based on puppet plays by Chikamatsu Monzaemon. In "Keisei Hangonko," a tiger is painted with such great realism that it comes to life and runs away. In "Kokusenya Kassen (The Battles of Coxinga)," a powerful warrior named Watonai ("neither Japanese, nor Chinese") born of a Chinese father and Japanese mother goes to China to try to restore the Ming dynasty. When he arrives in China, he shows his great strength by wrestling a tiger.

Gama / ガマ(蝦蟇)

In a number of plays, a giant toad appears, used by evil magicians. Usually animals are played by very low-ranking actors, but the play "Tenjiku Tokubei" is unusual in that a giant toad appears from a sluice gate and fights off some men, then the costume opens up to reveal that this is not some minor actor, but is actually the star playing Tokubei.

Yatai kuzushi / 屋台崩し

"Collapsing building."
This is a technique to show a building collapsing on stage. The pillars are made of flimsy material with strong supports. When the supports are removed, the pillars break with a nice cracking sound, other parts of the building fall and finally the roof comes down to the ground. Today, the seri lift is often used to help achieve this effect.

Nishiki-e / 錦絵

"Brocade print."
In the late 18th century, printing techniques improved so that woodblock prints could be made with many colors in very fine details like a woven brocade. This was especially suited for depicting the great celebrities of the day: kabuki actors and beautiful women.

Onoe Matsusuke I / 初代 尾上松助

Onoe Matsusuke I (1744 – 1815) also known by his later name of Onoe Shoroku I was famous for his villainous roles and stage tricks, including many fast changes from role to role. His skills were featured in many plays that he created together with the playwright Tsuruya Nanboku which through his son Onoe Kikugoro III became an important part of the Kikugoro tradition.