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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Kamigata / 上方

The word "kamigata" means "upper side" and refers to Kyoto as the seat of the emperor. By extension it refers to the region around Kyoto and neighboring Osaka. As the ancient imperial capital, Kyoto was the center of fine arts and crafts and was also the place where kabuki began with dances by a woman named Okuni in the riverbed of Kyoto. This was also the starting point for the famous actor Sakata Tojuro I (1647 – 1709), and playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653 – 1724). But soon Kyoto was overtaken by Osaka, a city of merchants that also became prosperous for handling the rice of the domains of western Japan. At the end of the 17th century, Osaka became the center of puppet theater with the Takemoto-za theater and Toyotake-za theaters competing to produce great plays that almost overwhelmed the kabuki theaters. Kamigata was the center of Japanese culture until the mid-18th century when Edo started to compete as a distinctive cultural center. The theater of Kamigata is very distinctive and even when the repertory overlaps with that of Edo actors, the approach of Kamigata kabuki actors is quite different. Plays from the puppet theater are very important, but also, all kinds of comic routines are very important. The theater of Kamigata was so vital that in the modern period, the region supported all kinds of new forms of theater, comedy and the movie industry.

Also see "Wagoto: Ladies' Man as Hero" in the 2014 series and "Nakamura Kazutaro: The Rising Star of Kabuki" in the Kazutaro series.

saru mawashi / 猿回し

From ancient times there have been performers with trained monkeys and since in Asian tradition, monkeys are seen as the protective god of horses, performances with monkeys were particularly popular in times like the Edo period dominated by samurai. The word "saru (monkey)"also shows the ritual significance of monkeys. "Saru" can also mean "to leave" and can be interpreted as losing good fortune, so often the performing monkeys were referred to with an opposite term like "Ete-ko (Master of Receiving Good Fortune)" or paired with another animal like a bird, "tori" whose name can also mean "to receive good fortune." On the other hand, the word "saru" can also be interpreted as straightforwardly auspicious as meaning that bad fortune goes away.

The monkeys would perform acrobatics and short skits with the musical accompaniment of their trainers. Today there continue to be such performers that can be seen at temples and shrines and also are particularly popular at New Years.

However, as auspicious as these performers were, in the Edo period, they were often treated as second-class citizens close to the outcast class. When going out in public, they had to hide their faces with concealing straw hats and could not stay at ordinary inns while traveling. There is a subtle suggestion of the social rank of Oshun's family in the background of this play.

kashagata / 花車方

The word literally means "flower cart," but describes a category of supporting female kabuki roles especially important in Kamigata. The word is also used for the proprietresses of teahouses and means an older woman, often closely associated with the pleasure quarters, one who is gentle and sympathetic and from her own broad experience with romance is encouraging and helpful with young lovers.

Nakamura Utaemon III / 三代目中村歌右衛門

Today the acting name "Utaemon" is associated with the pinnacle of onnagata acting, but that is true only of Utaemon V and VI in the modern period. The first four Utaemon specialized in male roles and were closely associated with Kamigata. Nakamura Utaemon I (1714 – 1791) was the son of a doctor in Kanazawa who became an actor that dominated Osaka kabuki.

Nakamura Utaemon III (1778 – 1838) was the son of Utaemon I and despite being small and not having a good voice performed male and female roles in all genres, was a brilliant dancer and also dominated theater in both Kamigata and Edo. He was an innovative actor who originated many of ways of acting roles in plays from the puppet theater that remain standard today. Also, under the name Kanazawa Ryugyoku, he wrote plays for himself, mostly short, comical routines that could be inserted into any play. "Kari no Tayori" is the most famous of these plays.

Jiuta / 地唄

"Jiuta" means "songs of the region" and in this case, the region is the area around Kyoto and Osaka. In the Edo period, this meant the music performed in the banquet chambers of the pleasure quarters of Kyoto and Osaka. Although part of the repertory of Jiuta comes from the popular music of the time, the core of the repertory comes from the classical chamber music of earlier times, music for the koto, shamisen, bowed kokyu and shakuhachi flute. Much of this chamber music was created by blind musicians that were part of a special guild and often had quite distinguished titles. Also, many Jiuta pieces were inspired by the stories and poetry in the classical Noh theater. Sometimes dance accompanies the music. This is called "Jiuta Mai" and is usually quiet and restrained, contrasting with the often quite vigorous Edo styles of dance.