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The best of Nihon Buyo: Six must-see pieces for new audience

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Many of popular Nihon Buyo pieces have their roots in Kabuki. Kabuki dance has dramatic gestures, dynamic movements, and colourful costumes. If you are going to see Nihon Buyo for the first time, it might be an idea to choose a Kabuki dance piece.

In this article, we will introduce six very well-known Kabuki based Nihon Buyo pieces. Each of them has an unique character, such as a beautiful young woman, a cool guy, and a clumsy funny fellow. Also, there is a piece in which a dancer performs two totally different personalities.


Beauty No. 1: “Fujimusume”

 “The Wisteria Maiden” 

Fujimusume, the Wisteria Maiden is a popular motif of genre paintings in the 19th century. It is a figure of a young girl in the latest fashion of the time, wearing a large black hat and a flamboyant kimono. She is carrying a large branch of wisteria.

On the stage, there are lots of large wisteria flowers hanging down from an enormous pine tree. This was an idea of a legendary Kabuki actor of the early 20th century called Kikugoro Onoe VI. Kikugoro VI was a big man with well built muscle. In order to become a dainty young girl on the stage, he made the pine and the wisteria flowers much larger than himself to get an optical illusion.

He also gave a new interpretation to this piece, and made Fujimusume a wisteria fairy.

At one of the highlight of the dance, Fujimusume gets drunk with a cup of sake. This is based on a old wives’ tale that if you give a bit of sake to a wisteria plant, its flowers would last longer.

The majority of performances of Fujimusume follows the interpretation of Kikugoro VI. But some dancers still choose more old-fashioned style, and it might be interesting to compare different performances.


Beauty No. 2: “Kyoganoko Musume Dojoji”

 “The Maiden of Dojoji Temple” 

This piece is the cream of the crop of Kabuki dance.

A young female dancer visits Dojoji Temple. She wears a splendid red kimono and a golden hat. It is spring, and cherry blossoms are in full bloom in the surrounding mountains. As she dances along, there are several quick changes of costumes like a magic of colours, and it is a fabulous spectacle.

The piece is based on a renowned Noh piece called “Dojoji”. Dojoji is the name of a temple which actually exists in Wakayama region. The Noh version of “Dojoji” is based on a legend related to this temple.

According to the legend, once upon a time, a love obsessed young girl turned herself into a monstrous serpent. She chased after a man she loved, who escaped into Dojoji and hid inside the temple bell. The girl furiously blew out a flame from the mouth and burnt the man alive with the bell.

The Noh piece of “Dojoji” was created with a time setting of log after this gruesome incident. The spirit of the girl comes back in a form of a beautiful dancer. The sadness and the fearfulness of the dangerous love obsession have to be expressed, and it is a very demanding role.

In the Kabuki dance version too, an excellent interpretational skill and a high technical competence are required to show the insight of the girl.

On the other hand, however, it is not all about the danger of love obsession. In fact, audience could enjoy the extravagant beauty of the stage. The costumes and props of cherry blossoms are glorious and even cheerful, in contrast to tense, sombre, and philosophical atmosphere of the Noh version. There are a number of extra characters of monks too, who provide some comical scenes. No doubt, it is one of the most lavishing piece of Nihon Buyo.


Beauty No. 3:  “Sagimusume”

  “The Heron Maiden” 

At a water front in a cold winter evening, a young girl appears in a white kimono. Her face is hidden by a white vale. The lighting is dark. It is a very sombre scene.

She is the spirit of a white heron. She fell in love with a human. But she lost her love, and wondering alone besides the lake where she was born. Is she real? Is she a ghost? There are several different interpretations.

Then suddenly, the lighting gets bright. The costume changes instantly into a colourful red kimono. The girl expresses the joy of love by dancing with more lively rhythm. Perhaps it is a reminiscence of the happy time?

But then, it gets back to dark again and the snow starts to fall. She shows her true nature of a bird. Her dance becomes fast and furious as if she is in agony.

Because she broke the law of the nature and fell in love with a human, she is being punished by the king of the underworld.

The ending has two different styles. In the old-fashioned style, the dancer stands on a platform and poses. In the newer version, the girl collapsed in the snow, which was inspired by Anna Pavlovna’s performance of “The Dying Swan”.   In any case, both are sublimely beautiful endings.


A cool dandy:  “Sukeroku”

 “Sukeroku” 

We just saw three greatest dances of beautiful female figures. They are Nihon Buyo equivalent of “The Swan Lake”, “The Sleeping Beauty” and “The Nut Cracker” in ballet.

The history of Kabuki dance started by showing charms and skills of actors who are specialised in female roles. Majority of Kabuki dance roles were young female characters like these three beauties.

Then, gradually dances of male characters were created too, and Sukeroku is the coolest and the dandiest of Kabuki dance.

Sukeroku is an ideal male figure in Edo, current Tokyo. He is a tough and handsome guy in a fashionable outfit.

The dance of Sukeroke is based on a very popular Kabuki drama, which is a part of a series of plays with a character called Sogano Goro. Sukeroku is a pseudonym of Sogano Goro.

If you see the dance of Sukeroku, perhaps you would also like to see the full Kabuki play of Sukeroku, and other pieces of Sagano Goro.


The beauty and the beast:  “Kagami Jishi”

 “A court lady and a lion” 

This dance is composed of two parts. The first half is an elegant dance of a young court lady. The second half is a heroic dance of a lion.

The audience can enjoy watching how the dancer switches between two completely different characters. In order to perform this piece, the dancer needs to have high levelled skill and physical toughness.

The scene is deep in the shogunate castle. In the new years festive season, a young lady in waiting called Yayoi is ordered to dance in front of a Shogun.

In this part, the dancer has to express the elegance and the grace of a court lady.

As she dances along, Yayoi took a small lion head ornament. Then Yayoi gets possessed by the spirit of the lion, a sacred animal. Two butterflies come into the room and call the lion. Yayoi is pulled by the spirit of the lion head and disappeared.

The scene changes. Two pretty butterflies spirits are dancing playfully. After a while, Yayoi reappeared as a lion spirit.  

In contrast to the feminine first part, she now wears a Kumadori, characteristic Kabuki style makeup to emphasise masculinity, and a long head dressing to express the mane of the lion.

The lion dances with butterflies. At the climax, the lion shakes the mane dynamically.

The origin of this dance is a piece of Noh called “Shakkyo”, inspired by a Buddhist legend.

Kagamijishi is a dignified and celebratory piece. But the story development is enigmatic.

It is perhaps best not to analyse the storyline too much, but to simply enjoy watching the dancer’s skill to perform two personalities, the celebratory atmosphere, the lively music and the visual extravaganza.


Comedy:  “Toba-e”

 “Toba Caricature” 

In the typical image of Nihon Buyo, a dancer wares a beautiful costume and makeup like a porcelain doll.   However, Nihon Buyo is not all about beautiful women and men.

In fact, there are many comical characters, and some of them are like mascots. The dancers move and pose in costumes of cat, mouse, dog or even fish

This dance piece is inspired by a piece of Toba-e. Toba-e is a type of caricature, which was first created by a Buddhist priest named Toba-Sojo.

In the middle of the night, in the kitchen of a merchant’s house, a servant is struggling to catch a mouse. The mouse is too clever, and it is teasing and ridiculing the servant.

The role of the mouse is sometimes played by a child dancer.

It is a comical, fun, and cute piece of dance. Just sit back and enjoy it.


And finally..

Dancers of Nihon Buyo vary in gender and age. This is actually an amazing aspect of Nihon Buyo. Men can dance female roles and Women can dance male roles. On the stage, elderly dancers can become young men and women. Kabuki actors and male dancers can transform themselves into beautiful women with their movements and postures. On the other hand, female dancers can become heroic men.

Also, even if you watch the same dance, there are subtle differences whether it is performed by a Kabuki actor or a Nihon Buyo specialist.

Nihon Buyo can be studied in depth. But to start with, why not simply enjoy authentic Japanese costume, music and stage art.

You might be amazed to see the magical technique of costume change called Hikinuki, which brings the wonder to the stage.

The accompanying music is very different from the western music. Although it may sounds strange at the beginning, once you get to know it, you could discover its charm.

Please go and see Nihon Buyo performances!


related articles >> What is Nihon Buyo? Characteristics and the histories of 5 major schools


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