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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hime /

In ancient Japanese, the word "hime" just means woman (in the same way "hiko" means "man." But in kabuki, it always means a very high ranking young woman and the image was based on the daughters of samurai lords. The lives of samurai lords and their families were very far removed from the commoners who created kabuki and so, they are creatures of fantasy. In kabuki, these princesses are very sheltered and morally upright, but when they fall in love, their strong morality means that they will be true to the end to the man they love, no matter what sacrifices it might entail. There are three roles called "The Three Princesses." We have seen Princess Yuki in "Kinkakuji" and Princess Yaegaki in "Honcho Nijushiko" before, but we see Princess Toki in "Kamakura Sandaiki" for the first time. These are princess roles that are considered particularly difficult, for example for a particular technical moment, like Princess Yuki drawing a mouse in cherry petals with her foot. Princess Toki and Princess Yaegaki are more difficult for making the emotional situation of the character convincing and engaging, combining the violent passion of a princess with her natural delicacy and elegance.

machi musume / 町娘

"city girl"
In the Edo period, the cities of Kyoto, Osaka and Edo flourished and this created a new role type, the daughter of a merchant family. Often she is the daughter of the proprietor of a wealthy business and equally often the business is in financial trouble so that the drama comes from the conflict between the girl’s passion and the attempts of her family to marry her to someone wealthy and influential to save the family business. Oshichi is a machi musume, based on a real historical example. Whatever her original story, as it was dramatized in more and more complex plays, her story gained a lot of these standard plots around machi musume.

inaka musume / 田舎娘

"country girl"
All around these cities there was also countryside and these country villages play an especially important role in plays set in the Kansai since there are all sorts of little villages around Kyoto, Osaka and Nara with intimate interactions with the bigger cities. Omiwa is an inaka musume who takes her name from the ancient Miwa shrine in Nara and her story incorporates many of the ancient legends around the Miwa shrine.

kudoki / くどき

In modern Japanese to "kudoku" means for a man to try to persuade a woman to accept his romantic favors. But in kabuki, the kudoki is a musical section where a character (usually a woman) pours out her strongest and most private emotions. Often in this section the character expresses her resentment at the coldness of the man she loves. Usually she is expressing her feelings to a specific man and sometimes he is there listening silently and motionlessly, but more often, there is some object standing in for the man that she loves on which she focuses all her emotions. These sections are usually very musical and may be pure movement or alternate between speech and words from a singer or narrator. The actor must "ito ni noru (ride the shamisen strings)" in other words, the acting must be integrated dynamically with the singing and the shamisen music.

Osaka Natsu no Jin / 大坂夏の陣

"Summer Battle of Osaka Castle"
At the end of the 16th century, the Warring States period came to an end as three great warlords reunified Japan: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. Just before Hideyoshi died in 1598, he had the powerful warlords from around the country swear that they would cooperate to protect his young son Hideyori as Hideyoshi’s heir ruling the country. Ieyasu agreed, but the moment Hideyoshi died, he consolidated power, eventually sealing his control over Japan at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. However, the Toyotomi clan, secured in its castles in the Kansai, especially Osaka Castle, remained very wealthy and powerful, the first among lords with the disquieting (for Ieyasu at least) prospect that at any time Hideyori might rise up and take his place as ruler of Japan. The Tokugawa did what they could to contain the Toyotomi, ordering Hideyori to deplete his wealth in building fortifications for the Tokugawa, temples and shrines and by having him marry Senhime, the daughter of the second shogun Hidetada and thus Ieyasu’s granddaughter, in a political marriage. Finally things came to a head in the winter of 1614 when on a flimsy pretext Ieyasu accused the Toyotomi of trying to curse him and they attacked Osaka Castle. This battle ended with a truce, but among the peace provisions, the Toyotomi had to fill in the moat. Then, the climactic battle came in the summer of 1615. The Toyotomi were destroyed and Senhime was taken back by her family.
This was the last major fighting until the very end of the Edo Period and removed the last threat to the rule of the Tokugawa clan. But the rather sneaky way that this victory was gained made it an extremely sensitive subject for the Tokugawa shogunate until at least the late 18th century.

Yaoya Oshichi / 八百屋お七

"Oshichi, the greengrocer's daughter"
This is the true story of a young girl who was executed for arson in 1683. The fire was extremely destructive and she was executed by being burned alive. Her story was so striking that it was soon told in literature in Ihara Saikaku’s “Five Women who Loved Love” and a series of puppet plays. Eventually Oshichi became one of the iconic roles of kabuki, with all kinds of conventions for portraying her. For example, her distinctive underkimono with in crepe silk with white spots and stripes of red and blue seems to have been the invention of an onnagata actor. This caused a fashion craze and even today, this is the standard costume for Oshichi.

hi no mi yagura / 火の見櫓

"fire watchtower"
In Edo, a city made of vast numbers of wooden buildings, fires were one of the most terrifying threats to life and property and the history of Edo is one of a series of disastrous fires. To combat this, there were permanent teams of firefighters, teams of samurai and teams of commoners and they were each named after one of the forty-seven syllables of the Japanese kana alphabet. There were also fire watchtowers all over the city to detect signs of a fire as quickly as possible. Watchtowers maintained by commoners had a hansho fire bell, but watchtowers maintained by samurai had a signal drum.

ningyo buri / 人形振り

"imitating a puppet"
In the 2014 series we saw a version of the Sanbaso dance where the actor imitates a marionette. There are many plays in which a female character shows a transformation caused by strong emotion by starting to move as a puppet. But these puppets are not marionettes, they are the three operator puppets of the Bunraku theater. The main puppeteer operates the head and right hand, the second puppeteer operates the left hand and the third puppeteer operates the feet. The actor moves like a puppet and the two main operators stand on either side of the performer and pretend to manipulate her head and hands. They wear black with black hoods and to signify that it is a female character, they have a little red ribbon on their kimonos (red often signifies a woman). The third puppeteer stands on the side of the stage and often stamps in place of the actor. The role of puppeteer is very physically demanding because at times they have to hold the actor up in the air as though he were a real Bunraku puppet.

odamaki / 苧環

"ancient spool of thread"
In "Imoseyama Onna Teikin,"it is the day of the Tanabata festival which celebrates the one night that two constellations, the Heavenly Shepherd Boy and the Celestial Weaver Maid can meet, crossing a bridge made of birds across the River of Heaven. Omiwa has prayed to these two spools of thread to seal her love for Motome and these threads tie together Motome, Omiwa and Princess Tachibana.

Miwayama / 三輪山

"Mt. Miwa"
The Omiwa shrine in the southern part of the Nara plain is one of the most ancient Shinto shrines in Japan and its origins are lost in the mists of ancient antiquity. It is one of the few shrines that has never had a building to house the godhead, because the godhead is the mountain itself. There is a myth about the god of Mt. Miwa told in the chronicle "Kojiki." A woman was married to a man who visited her night after night, but always disappeared before dawn. She attached a thread to his clothing and followed it, only to find that her husband was the god of the Omiwa shrine and that his true form was a snake. The shrine is also connected to the making of sake and many sake shops (especially in Kansai) hang balls made of cedar leaves from the Omiwa shrine outside their doors. When the sake is freshly made, the balls are green. But when the sake matures, the golden leaves of the ball show that it is the proper time. These traditions around the Omiwa shrine are deftly woven together in the play and Omiwa herself is depicted as the daughter of a sake shop owner.

Soga no Iruka / 蘇我入鹿

Soga no Iruka was a real historical figure, the last of the Soga clan who dominated the imperial court in the 7th century. He was assassinated in 645 in the so-called Taika Reform by the imperial prince who became Emperor Tenji and Nakatomi no Kamatari. Kamatari was rewarded for his services by receiving the family name "Fujiwara" and this is one of the significant steps by which the Fujiwara clan came to dominate the imperial court for most of its history.

kanjo / 官女

"court women"
These are women serving in a court and have long hair in a ponytail and wear white kimono and long red hakama divided skirts. In kabuki, there are scenes where these women are comic or menacing and instead of being played by onnagata, are played by big, burly actors that usually play male roles.