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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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Noh /

Noh is a classical masked drama with ancient roots, but was polished into a highly refined dramatic form under Kan'ami (1333 – 1384) and his son Zeami (1363 – 1443) under the patronage of the third Ashikaga shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358 – 1408) in the Muromachi period (1336 – 1573). Although there are plays that show an event unfolding in real time (like "Ataka") the most "Noh-like" plays feature the ghost of some larger-than-life character. From around Yoshimitsu's time, Noh became closely associated with the warrior class and in the Edo period (1603 – 1868), it became the official art form of warriors and many samurai lords patronized Noh actors and had stages in their mansions and most samurai learned Noh chanting or Noh instruments.

The relationship between kabuki and Noh is very complex. Originally kabuki was performed on the same kinds of stages as Noh, but the kabuki stages gradually got larger, added the hanamichi runway and got rid of the separate roof. Also, kabuki instrumental music is basically the hayashi flute and percussion ensemble of Noh + shamisen and percussion instruments for sound effects. In fact, many of the hayashi musicians in kabuki were originally members of the samurai class, second and third sons who could not succeed as heads of their samurai families. Many of the stories of kabuki derive from Noh as well, because even if commoners could not actually watch performances easily, in printed form, they were one of the central forms of literary culture of all classes. In the Edo period, many more people knew the stories of "The Tale of Genji" from their Noh versions rather than the original.

On the other hand, since Noh was considered the property of the samurai class, kabuki always had to be very careful not to copy Noh too closely because that could invite punishment by the samurai government.

For more information, see the dance special "Kabuki Dance Evolution" in the 2014 season.

Kyogen / 狂言

Even though Noh and Kyogen are very different styles of theater, because they are performed on the same stage and in the same program, they are often referred to with the combined term "noh kyogen." Kyogen are the comic plays that are performed together with Noh. In addition, Kyogen actors also appear in Noh plays where they usually play menials and other commoners. Kyogen reflect the human reality of Muromachi society. Many plays focus on stupid masters and clever servants. One distinction between Noh and Kyogen is that while Noh always focuses on some famous character with a name; Kyogen characters have no names and are known as "Master" or "Wife." Even the most famous Kyogen name, "Tarokaja," is not actually a personal name but means "Number One Servant." So when kabuki adapts a Kyogen play, one thing it does is to give names to all the characters. In the kabuki dance "Migawari Zazen," the master becomes "Ukyo" and his wife "Tamanoi."

For more information, see the dance special "Kabuki Dance Evolution" in the 2014 season.

Mai・Odori / 舞・踊り

The dance movements in Noh and kabuki are fundamentally different. The dance of Noh is called "mai" and the dance of kabuki is called "odori." In fact, the Japanese word "buyo" which is the generic word for "dance" was created in modern times by combining the Chinese characters for "mai" and "odori."

"Mai" emphasizes smooth, circling movements with the body's center of gravity low and sliding steps. Most of the movements are abstract and there is relatively little realistic miming. By contrast, "odori" features high stepping leg movements, rhythmical foot stamping and a lot of realistic mime.

For more information, see the dance special "Kabuki Dance Evolution" in the 2014 season.

Matsubame mono / 松羽目物

"pine board play."
The stage for Noh is very special. The main part is square with a roof and there is a bridgeway called the hashigakari. The dimensions of the stage are always exactly the same because the main performers are often masked and can see very little and every movement must be precisely calculated. In the Edo period, Noh stages also came to have standard decoration: an ancient pine on the back wall and fresh bamboo on the sides. When kabuki does a play adapted from Noh / Kyogen or in Noh / Kyogen style on the kabuki version of the Noh stage, since it features the picture of the pine on the back wall, the entire genre of kabuki plays that directly copies Noh / Kyogen is called "matsubame mono."

For more information, see the dance special "Kabuki Dance Evolution" in the 2014 season.

Uroko moyo / 鱗模様

"scale pattern"
From ancient times, the pattern of triangles that can be seen on the final costume of Hanako in "Musume Dojoji" has had ritual and purifying significance. In the Noh play "Dojoji" this signifies the scales of a serpent since the Kiyohime of legend was transformed into a serpent by jealous fury.

Ranbyoshi / 乱拍子

"disordered rhythm"
The most distinctive step in "Dojoji" has the performer tracing out a triangular pattern with his feet, lifting it and then stamping. What makes it "disordered" is that the duration of each part of the step is not in a set rhythm. It depends on the length of the calls of each of the drummers as they perform in turn. The dancer must move together with this, waiting for the stroke of the drum that will determine the timing of each step and each stamp. In "Dojoji,"this is a very tense section that goes on for a very long time, gradually getting faster and faster.

Hannya / 般若

The Hannya mask is a fearsome mask with horns that is often thought to be a male demon, but in Noh, it is always a female character and is used in the second half of "Dojoji." While it is menacing and frightening, the expression is actually one of intense sadness. The horns indicate jealousy and in tradition, this is considered to be a fundamental part of what it means to be a woman.

Goshiki no omaku / 五色の御幕

"five colored curtain"
On the Noh stage, the entrance to the hashigakari bridgeway has a five-colored curtain which is similar to curtains used in temples and shrines. It is made of stripes of green, yellow, red, white and violet. These colors are very significant because each of them symbolize one of the elements in the traditional alchemy: wood, earth, fire, metal and water. In the Noh curtain, violet is a substitute for black. In turn, these colors also represent directions. The four pillars of the Noh stage and the center correspond to these colors and directions and show the idea that this roofed stage creates a cosmos. The ring for sumo wrestling is similar with a roof, but in modern times, the pillars have been taken away so that spectators can get an unobstructed view. However, they have been replaced with tassels in these symbolic colors.

Yamabushi / 山伏

"mountain priests"
These are members of a religious order called shugendo who go through great austerities in the mountains that are supposed to give them great power. There are many unusual ideas in shugendo some of which are expressed in their unusual costume. The dialogue between Benkei and Togashi about fine details of yamabushi in the kabuki play "Kanjincho" is a kind of duel of elocution.

Tobi-roppo / 飛び六方

The aragoto style of acting developed a very exaggerated style of walking called "roppo (six directions)" because the arms and legs go in all directions. This flashy style of walking began with dandies in the pleasure districts in the early Edo period and became stylized as a way of expressing masculine power. "Kanjincho"uses the most extreme example where each step becomes a jump.

Kouta / 小歌

The Muromachi period was full of short songs expressing all aspects of daily life and many of these songs are known to us today because they have been preserved in Kyogen plays. Often a Kyogen play will simply say that there is a song and dance in a particular place and there can be great variety of the actual songs used. In "Hanago," the master expresses his happiness at his night with Hanago with a series of kouta songs.

Zazen / 座禅

"sitting Zen"
Zen Buddhism centers on meditation in a fixed position. In "Hanago," the master's desperate ploy to get away from his wife is to claim that he must purify himself with Zen meditation after horrifying dreams and he must get isolation by hiding himself with a robe.

Yama no Kami / 山の神

"mountain god"
In Japanese tradition, mountains and the gods that embody them are thought to have great and terrifying power. In the Kyogen play "Hanago," the wife does not have a name, but this is the term that is used for her. The kabuki version gives her a name, Tamanoi, but her husband refers to her as the "mountain god" all the same.