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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Wagoto / 和事

"Wa" means "gentle" or "harmonious" and refers to an acting style that is particularly associated with the Kansai region. In the early periods of kabuki, Edo audiences liked aragoto heroes; men that were super heroes, larger than life characters. Kansai audiences preferred more realistic plays, or at least, more romantic plays set in the real world. The wagoto characters of Chikamatsu plays are weak and child-like, but their very vulnerability makes them comic and also very sympathetic. There are standard routines associated with wagoto characters, but there is also an entire repertory of physical techniques to create the proper impression of the character.

Please see Key Kabuki Words - kabuki terms in the program page of "Kabuki's Leading Male Roles "

Kamigata / 上方

"The upper side." Until the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Kyoto was the seat of the emperor and one spoke of "going up" to the Kansai region. Now, "kamigata" is a slightly old fashioned term that is used for traditional arts from Kyoto and Osaka.

At the beginning of the Edo period, all the cities in Japan were, in a sense, new cities. Of course, Edo had just been built up as Tokugawa Ieyasu's headquarters in the late 1500's and was a brash new city overwhelmingly dominated by men, but since the city was ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate and full of samurai lords from all over the country, the shogunate exercised strict control over every aspect of life.

Kyoto was the ancient seat of the imperial court, but burned during the Onin disturbance from 1467 to 1477 that began the Warring States period and probably didn't begin to be rebuilt until Oda Nobunaga entered in 1568. Nonetheless, Kyoto had a long tradition of culture and fine crafts and these artists stayed close by and helped in the revival of Kyoto.

Osaka was largely a new city and after the defeat of the Toyotomi family in the battle of Osaka castle in 1614 – 1615, grew rapidly as a mercantile center. It was ruled by a representative of the Tokugawa, but since Osaka was far from the shogun himself and there usually were no samurai lords there and, especially, since the samurai there were mostly there to warehouse and sell tax rice, the merchant class and merchant culture were overwhelmingly powerful in Osaka. As the Edo period went on, people of talent increasingly moved from Kyoto to Osaka since this was where things happened. This energy created the culture that we can see in the plays of Chikamatsu Monzaemon, the Bunraku puppet theater in general and the comic fiction of Ihara Saikaku. The distinctive mood of the area is crystallized in the tradition of Kamigata kabuki.

Acting families from Kansai like the Sakata Tojuro (Nakamura Ganjiro) family and the Kataoka Nizaemon family bring the flavor of their native place to their acting. Some plays from the Kamigata repertory are now performed by Tokyo actors often Kansai actors will teach them these roles. This means that the old world of the Kamigata region is getting more and more distant from the actual people living in Kansai. But what a Tokyo actor does with a Kamigata role and what an actor from this world does is different, although equally legitimate.

Chonin / 町人

"Chonin" means "townsperson" and refers to the urban commoner class including both craftsmen and merchants. In the Edo period, samurai were theoretically at the top of society and commoners were below them, but economically, things were often reversed and the wealthiest merchants often made their wealth handling business matters for the samurai class. On the other hand, rank and file samurai often didn't have much ready cash. Merchants were dominant in Osaka and the plays and literature of the area often revolve around the complex relationships within the merchant class and between merchants and samurai.

Kuruwa, Yujo / 廓、遊女

"Kuruwa" means "castle precint" and "yujo" means "play woman" in other words, a courtesan. Often the pleasure quarters were walled off areas, tightly regulated by the shogunate and with their own, elaborate set of rules and customs. The Shumoku pleasure district in Fushimi to the south of Kyoto was one of the oldest of these licensed pleasure quarters and it seems that its customs became the model for other pleasure quarters like the Yoshiwara in Edo.

The cities of the Kansai had their official pleasure quarters like Shimabara in Kyoto and Shinmachi in Osaka, but in general, control of commoner life was much looser than in Edo and other entertainment districts like Gion in Kyoto and Sonezaki in Osaka became vibrant centers of commoner life with their restaurants and teahouses and brothels. The courtesans in these places had all kinds of names, but they don't seem to have had as strict a classification and hierarchy as in the official brothel districts.

Please see Key Kabuki Words - kabuki terms in the program page of "The Beauty of Onnagata"

Shoji / 障子

"Shoji" are sliding paper screens covered with thin rice paper that is translucent. In "The Love Suicides at Ten no Amijima, Jihei sees the silhouette of his lover Koharu inside the room and hears her talking. When he thinks he has been betrayed, he tries to stab her through the paper screens. He is caught and tied to the grille or lattice outside the window.

These grilles on the outside of windows were very common and in many pleasure quarters, the courtesans would sit in the front parlor behind these grilles so that prospective customers could see them. They looked for all the world as though they were sitting in show windows, or were birds in a cage or animals in a zoo.

Sakata Tojuro I / 初代・坂田藤十郎

Sakata Tojuro I (1647 – 1709) was the single most famous actor in Kamigata in early kabuki and he created the style of wagoto acting. For example, the role of Izaemon in "Kuruwa Bunsho" is the most archetypical. Izaemon comes from a fabulously wealthy family, but because he spent so much money on his courtesan lover in the pleasure quarters Yugiri, he was disowned by his family and sent away with only a kamiko paper kimono. The play was written in memory of a very famous real courtesan named Yugiri who had died at the height of her fame and beauty, but there is nothing gloomy about the play. Even in a poor paper kimono, Izaemon shows his cultured background. He is playful and petulant and hides his concern for Yugiri behind all kinds of silly games. The basis of the play we have today is a puppet play by Chikamatsu written after the death of Tojuro I, so presumably it contains a good bit of the actual acting of Tojuro I. The concealing straw hat and paper kimono of roles like Izaemon were so important to Tojuro I that when he retired, he presented them to his successor as a symbolic passing of the baton. But in the Edo period although there were two holders of the Sakata Tojuro name after Tojuro I, none left any great impression.

But in 2005, the actor Nakamura Ganjiro III (b. 1931) heir to one of the most important names in Kamigata kabuki culminated his efforts to revive neglected works by Chikamatsu and to go back to the roots of Kamigata kabuki. He revived the Sakata Tojuro name after 230 years, becoming Sakata Tojuro IV. There is no family relationship, but rather, he was showing his reverence for his artistic ancestor.

Chikamatsu Monzaemon / 近松門左衛門

(See "Key Kabuki Words" for the 7th episode.)
In addition to writing puppet plays, Chikamatsu also wrote kabuki plays for a short time and wrote several plays for Sakata Tojuro I. The scripts do not exist today, but we can get some idea of the plays from "e-iri kyogenbon," illustrated books with detailed plot summaries. Many of Chikamatsu's puppet plays seem to have brought things from the contemporary kabuki theater to the puppet stage and in turn, his plays inspired later puppet plays and kabuki performances.

Please see Key Kabuki Words - kabuki terms in the program page of "The Shakespeare of Japan : Chikamatsu Monzaemon"

Tsukkorobashi / つっころばし

"Pushover" is an extreme form of the wagoto character, a man who is handsome and personable, but so weak that he falls over at a touch. But he always accepts this with good humor.

Hikyaku / 飛脚

In the Edo period, couriers who would travel through cities like Edo and Osaka or even deliver long distance between the cities carried messages and money. But because the money was so important and the sums could be very large, there were very strict rules guaranteeing the money, enforced by the union of money carriers and in turn, the city magistrates.

Kobikicho Hiroba / 木挽町広場

In the Edo period, the street next to present day Kabuki-za was called Kobikicho (“Street of Woodcutters”) and was the site of one of the three licenced kabuki theaters of Edo, the Morita-za.

In the new building of Kabuki-za which opened in 2013, this history is recalled with a market space. Every month there is a new selection of stalls selling gifts and souvenirs, often items specially connected with the program that month. This has already become one of the most popular places around Kabuki-za and is always full of crowds.