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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joshiki-maku / 定式幕

This is the distinctive kabuki pull-curtain in three colors: green, rust-color and black. Now these colors symbolize kabuki. Apparently this curtain was based on some scrap boat sail material that a kabuki theater got and sewed together and then it became standard. The curtain is very thin, so even when the curtain is closed, sounds can be heard between the stage and auditorium. Also, it is pulled open and closed, so that the stage is revealed bit by bit or hidden bit by bit, like a wipe in a video or film. Although the colors are standard, there are two versions with the three colors in a different order. This comes from different traditions for the three licensed kabuki theaters in Edo. Also, the different theaters have slightly different ways for the curtain to be pulled open, for example, whether the stagehand pulling the curtain open lets his body be seen or not.

kodogu / 小道具

"Hand props."
In kabuki, the division between sets, props and costumes is very difficult to understand and is set both by practicality and by custom. With the things appearing in this program, boats are considered stage sets, while the palanquin is a prop. Animals are all props, including animals manipulated on sashigane poles or in some other manner, but this includes all the animals that are worn in some way.

inoshishi /

"Wild boar."
In kabuki this is shown with an actor wearing a framework that looks like a boat and running while crouched over. This is classified as a prop. The boar only appears in the fifth act of "Chushingura."

kitsune /

"Foxes."
In Japanese tradition, foxes are considered to be magical creatures with great powers and appear in many kabuki plays. Foxes are also the messengers of the god of the Inari shrines. Foxes are shown in many ways, but one is as a stuffed doll of a fox that is manipulated by a puppeteer as in the Bunraku theater.

In "Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees," when the fox Tadanobu is revealed, he is depicted by the actor wearing a costume covered with white, shaggy fur. The power of the fox is shown with a variety of stage tricks sometimes including a chu-nori flight through the air.

In marshy areas, sometimes methane gas catches fire and these flames are traditionally considered to be the spirits of foxes and are called "kitsunebi (foxfires)." In kabuki these can be shown with green flames (called "shochubi") manipulated with sashigane poles, or sometimes, in very stylized plays, represented with candles hanging over the stage. Of course, modern fire laws means that these flames are shown with electric lights in the shape of candles.

uma /

"Horse."
Horses are usually shown with full-size props that rest on the backs of two actors who must move with perfect coordination and also have the strength to carry the framework and all its fittings and a rider as well.

Apparently once in the 18th century a real horse was used in a quest for novelty and realism. But the horse urinated on the stage and then went galloping along the hanamichi runway and out the theater, and that was the last time live horses were used in kabuki.

honihoro / ほにほろ

In the "Kumi Uchi" scene of "A Chronicle of the Battle of Ichinotani," the fight between Kumagai and Atsumori is shown as being far away in the middle of the waves by using child actors using a horse prop called "honihoro." The actor wears the prop like a skirt and it looks like he is riding a horse. The odd name is because this prop was used by street peddlers of candy and they called out, "honihoro!" to attract customers.

tomi / 遠見

"Distant view."
This is using a small prop in the background to give a feeling of distance and perspective. The most famous example using live actors is the "Kumi Uchi" scene of "A Chronicle of the Battle of Ichinotani," but other plays use props to show boats or a passing procession of a samurai lord.

fune /

"Boat."
There are all kinds of boats in kabuki, but the most common kind is a small, sculled or poled boat. This is classified as a stage set and has a person in the bottom propelling and steering it.

nami zaru / 波ざる

"Wave basket."
This is a basket filled with small beans that makes the sound of waves when it is rocked from side to side. Beans or gravel in a length of bamboo can also be used in the same way. This is a relatively realistic sound effect that would be used in newer plays. In more classical kabuki plays, the sound of waves is evoked by a particular pattern of the big drum played offstage.

kago / 駕籠

"Palanquin" or "litter" or perhaps, "sedan chair."
There are many translations in English, but none are very familiar. "Palanquin" and "sedan chair" refer to historical things that are no longer used and while "litter" can be used with the same meaning, it tends to evoke the image of the stretcher used to carry injured people.

In the Edo period, strict restrictions on the use of wheeled vehicles meant that people either walked or were carried in kago. These were a seat suspended from a pole, that were carried by bearers front and back. There were all levels of palanquin from simple ones for ordinary people with two bearers, to very luxurious ones for samurai lords that were carried by several bearers front and back. But no matter what kind of palanquin, they were extremely uncomfortable to ride in.