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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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Gidayu Sandai Meisaku / 義太夫狂言三大名作

"Three Great Gidayu Masterpieces."
These are three plays written by the same three playwrights in the dizzying span of three years. They were written for the puppet theater so they were accompanied by the chanting of the Gidayu narrator with a shamisen player. They were written by Takeda Izumo, Miyoshi Shoraku and Namiki Senryu and the plays are "Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy (1746)," "Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees (1747)" and "Chushingura: The Treasury of Loyal Retainers. (1748)" By this stage in the development of the puppet theater, the operation of puppets was complex and sophisticated enough that these plays were adapted to kabuki almost immediately and now they are the central parts of the repertory of both the Bunraku puppet theater and kabuki.

Genpei Gassen / 源平合戦

"War Between the Genji and Heike Clans" (1180 – 1185).
At the end of the 12th century, the imperial court was dominated by a military clan called Taira or the Heike. The overbearing leader of the clan, Kiyomori, had his daughter marry the emperor and when she gave birth to a son, had the emperor abdicate and made his grandson emperor, the child emperor Antoku. This was the way that aristocratic clans like the Fujiwara dominated the imperial court in the past. Eventually the power of the Heike attracted rivals and eventually the rival Minamoto or Genji clan won control of Japan. The Heike clan met its final defeat in a sea battle at Dan-no-Ura, the straits between the islands of Honshu and Kyushu. After the war, Minamoto no Yoritomo, the head of the Genji clan, took control as shogun in Kamakura.

The stories of the rise and fall of the Heike clan and of the battles of this war are told in "Heike Monogatari (The Tales of the Heike)" which can be found in English translation.

Minamoto no Yoshitsune / 源義経

Yoshitsune was the younger, half-brother of Yoritomo and his brilliant strategies were in large part responsible for victory in the wars. There are many legends about him, that he was taught fighting as a boy by a tengu goblin, that even as a seemingly delicate boy he managed to defeat the warrior-priest Benkei, who then became his devoted follower. But Yoshitsune and Yoritomo had a falling out and eventually Yoshitsune fled to Hiraizumi in the remote northeastern Japan, where he died tragically. Another legend is that Yoshitsune did not die in Hiraizumi but went to China, where he became Genghis Khan.

One of Yoshitsune's titles was "Hogan."Yoshitsune is a tremendously popular figure, perhaps because of his tragic end and the term "Hogan biiki (fan of tragic underdogs like Yoshitsune)" was coined to describe the supposed widespread Japanese sympathy for people like this.

Shizuka Gozen / 静御前

Shizuka Gozen was a shirabyoshi dancer who was Yoshitsune's lover. Although most of this story is probably fictional, she appears as a figure in many classical Noh plays about Yoshitsune based on romantic chronicles about him.

Taira no Tomomori / 平知盛

Taira no Tomomori was the third son of Kiyomori, the head of Heike clan. He was a very powerful warrior and legend has it that he died at the battle of Dan-no-Ura by grabbing one Genji warrior under each arm and plunging into the sea. He is the main character in the second half of the popular Noh play "Funa Benkei (Benkei in the Boat)" where the ghost of Tomomori attacks Yoshitsune at sea and is warded off by the prayers and spells of Benkei. This Noh play is one of the main sources for the image of Tomomori that appears in the play. In this play, Tomomori is supposed to have lived on after the battle of Dan-no-Ura and first appears disguised as the boatman Ginpei.

Antoku Tenno / 安徳天皇

The child emperor who was the grandson of Kiyomori. When the Heike clan was driven out of Kyoto, Antoku was taken with them along with the sword that was part of the Imperial Regalia. He finally died at Dan-no-Ura when his nurse embraced him and jumped into the sea. In this play, he is disguised as Ginpei's daughter Oyasu. The scene of Antoku's death is reenacted in the play when Suke no Tsubone sees that Tomomori has been defeated and tries to commit suicide along with the young emperor.

Suke no Tsubone / 典侍の局

The emperor's nurse, she first appears as Ginpei's wife Oryu, then in her true form as an imperial court lady of the highest rank with long, hanging hair and lavish multi-layered robe.

Hatsune no Tsuzumi / 初音の鼓

The "hatsune" is supposed to be the first birdsong of the year, the sound of joy when the uguisu bush warbler sees that winter is over when the fragrant plum blossoms appear. A tsuzumi drum is made with two skins that are held onto a wooden core with thick cords. In this play, the drum is supposed to be a great imperial treasure, which used the skins of magical foxes, giving the drum the power to bring rain. When rain ended a drought, the cry of joy was like that of the uguisu in spring. In this play, the idea is that the fox Tadanobu could not get close to the drum as long as it was in the imperial palace, protected with magical spells, but when it was given to Yoshitsune, it first became possible for the fox Tadanobu to get close to the drum, made from the skins of his fox parents.

Tadanobu / 忠信

Today, most people only know the fictional character of the fox Tadanobu, but in the past, Sato Tadanobu and his older brother Tsugunobu (called Tsuginobu in the play) were celebrated as models of warrior loyalty since they both sacrificed their lives for Yoshitsune, Tsugunobu at the battle of Yashima and Tadanobu at the battle of Yoshino when Yoshitsune descended the mountain to continue his journey of escape. They were both celebrated in battle chronicles and in classical Noh plays.