INVITATION TO KABUKI Guide to Japanese Traditional Performing Arts KabukiINVITATION TO KABUKI Guide to Japanese Traditional Performing Arts Kabuki

Plays

Eminent Playwrights

Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724)

“Naniwa Miyage”
National Theatre collection

Chikamatsu Monzaemon was a popular playwright in both the Ningyo-joruri (Japanese puppet theatre) and Kabuki. He flourished during the Genroku Period in the Kamigata region (Kyoto and Osaka). Around that time and place was when the new culture and art of townspeople began attracting attention. Chikamatsu did not perform as an actor, becoming the first full-time playwright.

For Kabuki, Chikamatsu wrote works such as “Keisei Hotoke no Hara” (Courtesan and a family feud in Echizen Province) for the actor Sakata Tojuro I. Chikamatsu supported the Kamigata Kabuki performing technique known as yatsushi, setting for the characters formally of high status reduced to poverty for some reason.

In the Ningyo-joruri, he was popular for “Sonezaki Shinju” (The Love Suicides at Sonezaki) and other stories depicting deep affection about the townspeople of that era. Another popular Chikamatsu work was “Kokusenya Kassen” (The Battles of Coxinga), a heroic story set in China and Japan that was also adapted into a Kabuki play. In fact, the majority of Chikamatsu’s creations were eventually reworked as important Kabuki plays. He was thus a pioneer in bringing Ningyo-joruri plays to Kabuki.

“Naniwa Miyage”
National Theatre collection

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Tsuruya Namboku IV (1755-1829)

“Ichimuraza Sangai no Zu”
National Theatre collection (NA0072126000)

Namboku was a famous playwright in Edo during the Bunka and Bunsei periods (early first half of the 19th century). The Tokugawa shogunate control of the time had weakened, and a more pleasure-oriented society emerged. Namboku was popular for his skillful use of the sekai and shuko drama techniques, along with his unusual ideas and inventive plays.

Namboku was known for using bold and humorous staging from his early days. “Tenjiku Tokubei Ikokubanashi” (The Strange Tale of Tenjiku Tokubei) was a great hit primarily for its use of instant costume changes in a pool of real water, monsters like those seen in freakshows and other special effects. He continued to write kaidan-mono (ghost stories) using such thrilling keren (striking acting and dramatic techniques which emphasize visual appeal). Namboku also pioneered the style known as kizewa-mono—stories about lower-ranked members of the common people. “TokaidoYotsuya Kaidan” is one particularly good example of that style.

His skills extended to the naimaze method of combining different sekai. That approach was particularly successful in plays such as “Sakurahime Azuma Bunsho” (The Scarlet Princesss and her story in the East) and “Ukiyo-zuka Hiyoku no Inazuma” (The Troubles of the Sasaki Clan and Clash of Love and Pride in the Pleasure Quarters: Fuwa Banzaemon vs Nagoya Sanza and Shirai Gonpachi).

“Ichimuraza Sangai no Zu”
National Theatre collection (NA0072126000)

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Kawatake Mokuami (1816-1893)

“Haiyu Gakuya no Sugatami”
National Theatre collection (NA071280)

Mokuami was a successful playwright of Edo (Tokyo), from the Edo Period into the Meiji Period (middle to the end of the 19th century)—a time of major social change. He wrote for over five decades, producing a wide variety of works featured wide-ranging collections of Kabuki techniques, portraying Japan’s move to Western ways, classical subjects matching trends of the times and the request of actors.

Characters from Mokuami’s plays spoke their lines smoothly, the accompanying music was rich in emotion, and the stages were as elaborate as pictures. While the realistically described the lives of commoners, while also being stylish and elegant. His plays such as “Sannin Kichisa Kuruwa no Hatsugai” (The Thieves Named Kichisa) and “Aoto Zoshi Hana no Nishikie” (The Five Thieves) became popular for having thieves as the main characters (known as shiranami-mono). In almost all cases, however, his characters were originally common people who became rogues and outlaws and regretted their behavior the end.

There was a movement during the Meiji Priod to elevate Kabuki to a modern artistic level. This led to the writing of historical dramas as faithful as possible to historical facts, and dance dramas based on themes from Noh theatre. At the same time, however, audience members yearned for the lost mood of the Edo Period. For example, scenes and foods with a sense of the seasons, and the bound, piled-up hairstyles called mage. For such fans, Mokuami continued to write stories such as “Tsuyu Kosode Mukashi Hachijo” (Shinza, the Barber) and “Kumoni Magou Ueno no Hatsuhana” (Kochiyama and Naozamurai) about the lives of common people in Edo Period.

“Haiyu Gakuya no Sugatami”
National Theatre collection (NA071280)

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