"Nagauta" means "long song" and began as several short songs strung together. Because it developed the most within the Kabuki theater in Edo, it is often called "Edo Nagauta." In its purest form, Nagauta is a lyrical form with texts that are poetic and allusive. They describe a character's feelings indirectly, through poetic images and mood. Melody and rhythm are also very important. Pieces like Musume Dojoji (JTRAD 039) show the classical form of Nagauta. However, in the 19th century, the narrative Ozatsuma style became part of Nagauta as well, so that late Nagauta pieces alternate narrative sections set off by spectacular Ozatsuma shamisen patterns and purely lyrical sections. The selection from Kokaji (JTRAD 041) focuses on one of these Ozatsuma sections.
Although dances like Musume Dojoji that form independent scenes are very important in Nagauta, most of the popular Nagauta pieces that are used for Kabuki dance today come from series of short dances called Hengemono or "transformation dances" all featuring a single actor. Famous pieces from these series include Fuji Musume (The Wisteria Maiden), Sagi Musume (The Heron Maiden) and Echigo Jishi (The Echigo Lion Dancer). Nagauta is the most important form of music used for Kabuki dance, but also, Nagauta musicians provide all of the background music --that is, the songs that open scenes and the shamisen music that underscores spoken lines. When playing background music, the Nagauta musicians sit behind a black grille to the audience's left.
Nagauta is most closely associated with the Kabuki theater, but in the 19th century, gradually a repertory developed that could be played in banquet chambers as pure concert pieces. These pieces include Matsu no Midori (JTRAD 038) and Aki no Irokusa (JTRAD 042) that began as pure musical pieces without dance and independent of the Kabuki theater.


This is a very old and simple Nagauta piece that is often used as "meriyasu." The word "meriyasu" means "elastic" and describes a soulful song that can be used to accompany an emotional Kabuki scene. It is "elastic" since the song can be made as long and slow and drawn out or as short as needed. It is also often used as the first piece that students of Nagauta study, but even though children play it, they don't understand the lyrics, which are not really for children at all! The words describe a woman with her lover, perhaps a courtesan in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters, and her resentment of the bell in the morning that means that her lover will leave. Text: The night is for waiting, and then there is resentment at the coming of dawn. The cock's crow at morning sounds like the hateful gossip of all the people around me. Listen to their noisy call. I don't want to hear it and cover my ears with my hands. Is the bell at Ueno, or is it at Asakusa.

Minakawa Ken (Singer), Yoshimura Isoshichi (Shamisen)


Nagauta musician Kineya Rokusaburo composed this piece sometime after he took the retirement name of Rokuo. It is not clear when it was composed, but probably comes from the late 1850's and was written to commemorate the name taking of Rokuo's daughter. The piece is fairly simple and is often one of the first Nagauta pieces students learn. The highest rank of courtesan in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters was the "pine rank." Although it is a celebratory auspicious piece, using the classical image of the unchanging color of the pine as a symbol of longevity, all the images in the text come from the life of the pleasure quarters. Nevertheless, the piece is very elegant and the instrumental prelude is said to evoke the image of the wind in the pines.

Yoshimura Ijuro (Singer), Yamada Shotaro (Shamisen)


There is a famous legend associated with Dojoji temple in Wakayama Prefecture. A priest named Anchin always stopped at the house of a certain man on his annual pilgrimage. This man had a daughter named Kiyohime, and jokingly, he told her that one day Anchin would become her husband. She believed her father and one night tried to join Anchin in bed, wondering when they would be married. Anchin fled, crossing the nearby Hidaka River and took refuge at Dojoji temple, where he hid under the temple bell. Kiyohime was gradually filled with a jealous fury and followed Anchin, but the river stopped her. Her rage turned her into a serpent, which easily crossed the river and coiled around the temple bell in a cloud of flames, destroying the bell and Anchin.
The legend was transformed into a famous Noh play that takes place after the events of the original legend. A new bell is about to be dedicated at Dojoji temple and the abbot of the temple instructs his servants that no women are to be allowed in the temple precincts. A woman appears who is a Shirabyoshi dancer who wants to dance for the dedication of the bell. Her dance is the highlight of the Noh play, but it consists largely of the unusual step called "ranbyoshi." The dancer moves his feet one by one to the side and to the front and each movement is made in tense coordination with the percussion players. Finally the dancer rushes at the bell, which falls around her. She is, in fact, the ghost of Kiyohime come to destroy the bell again. In the second half of the Noh play, she is revealed as a jealous demon and the spirit is driven away by the prayers of the abbot of the temple.
The Noh play was transformed into Kyo Kanoko, a dance featuring a beautiful young girl of the Edo in 1753 starring Nakamura Tomijuro I (1719 - 1786). But the story of Anchin and Kiyohime has almost disappeared. Instead, a few moments imitating the Noh play become an excuse for a series of colorful dances, all expressing the feelings of a young girl in love. In later performances, a prologue to the original dance was added which is a michiyuki travel scene. This is clearly narrative and describes Kiyohime's journey to Dojoji temple and today, the music is Gidayu narrative singing. Sometimes a concluding section is added where Kiyohime appears as a demonic spirit that is vanquished by a powerful aragoto hero.

The original dance is in several sections:

  1. A shirabyoshi dance for the dedication of the bell with a few steps imitating the ranbyoshi of the original Noh play.
  2. A slow section that describes the many reasons to resent a temple bell, for example, the temple bell at morning means that lovers must part.
  3. Then the music becomes lively and the dancer takes off the costume of a shirabyoshi and becomes an ordinary girl. The text says that she keeps her love hidden tightly within her heart.
  4. The music becomes rhythmical and the dancer mimes bouncing a ball. The text is a counting song listing the various pleasure quarters of Japan, one way of showing the different faces of love.
  5. There is a popular song saying that cherry blossoms and plum blossoms are beautiful, but one cannot tell which is the older sister, which the younger. It is especially difficult to distinguish them when one is in love. At first the dancer does a short dance with strings of flat round red hats, then, as the performer changes costume for the next section, the priests at the temple dance with flower-covered parasols.
  6. Koi no tenarai, or "The Learning of Love." This is the section included in the recording and the most famous musical section of the piece. The kudoki or "lament" is usually the highlight of a dance for a female character as she pours out her feelings to her lover. The only prop the dancer uses in this section is a tenugui handcloth dyed with the crests of the actor.
  7. The performer uses a stick drum that she plays as she dances. On the sleeves of her costume are pictures of the enormous drums used for Gagaku. The text is a listing of famous mountains of Japan. At one point the text mentions magical foxes and the dancer poses as a fox, suggesting that she is actually the ghost of Kiyohime and not just an ordinary young woman.
  8. There is a short text about abiding ties of love and a dance with hand gestures.
  9. To a folk song describing beautiful women in the rice paddies planting rice the dancer used tambourine-like hand drums to emphasize rhythmical movements.
  10. Finally the dancer glares at the bell with hatred and poses on top of the bell, revealing that she is actually the ghost of Kiyohime.

The recording features Yoshimura Ijuro VII (1901 - 1973) whose beautiful voice and sensitive singing style created many fans for Nagauta in the twentieth century. There are also selections from Musume Dojoji in the instrumental section of this website (JTRAD 079), but this is a special modern arrangement combining the Nagauta shamisen ensemble and orchestra.
Text ("The Learning of Love"): I began learning about love from books, and ended up learning more than enough from experience. For whose sake did I redden my lips and blacken my teeth? It was all to show my devotion to you. Oh, the joy! How happy I was. You said we would be united, so I endured patiently. Are all the written vows we exchanged false? It was unbearable not knowing your feelings; I had to come and see you. Having vowed never to be jealous, I became accustomed to hiding my feelings. Now, after all that has happened, I think how cruel you are. Is a woman worthless? My husband, lord and master, I do not know what is in your heart. I do not know what is in your fickle, fickle heart. How hateful, how hateful! She sinks into tears. How heavy and soaked with dew are the fragile petals of the cherries. One brush and the blossoms scatter in this delicate, beautiful landscape.

Yoshimura Ijuro (Singer), Kineya Eijiro (Shamisen)


First performed in 1840 by Ichikawa Danjuro VII (1791 - 1859), this is not only one of the most popular plays in the Kabuki repertory, but the music of Nagauta is also extremely famous as well. See JTRAD 027 for spoken sections of the play. Like the Noh orchestra, which always appears on stage, the Nagauta ensemble also appears sitting along the back of the stage, which is an imitation of the stage of the classical Noh theater with its painting of a pine on the back wall.
The play is set after the wars between the Genji and Heike clans. Although Yoritomo, the head of the Genji clan, is now shogun in Kamakura, he suspects his brother Yoshitsune of treason, even though Yoshitsune is the general that made this military victory possible. Now Yoshitsune and his small band of followers, including the warrior-priest Benkei, are trying to escape to the northeastern country. Benkei has had the entire party disguised as mountain priests collecting funds to rebuild Todaiji temple, burned down in the battles between the Genji and Heike. Yoshitsune is disguised unobtrusively as their porter. However, to stop them, Yoritomo has set up new barriers on every highway, including one at Ataka, near the city of Kanazawa, with express orders to stop mountain priests.
Togashi is the keeper of the barrier at Ataka. When Yoshitsune and his party appear, he strictly refuses to let them through. Benkei tells the others to prepare for their final prayers and death. Togashi relents a bit, and says that if they are collecting funds for a temple, they must have a "kanjincho," or "subscription list," an imperial document in extremely difficult language. Benkei takes out a blank scroll and reads from it, making up the ornate text as he goes along. Togashi then questions Benkei on several points of Buddhist theology and he passes. Togashi allows them to go, but one of his followers notices that the porter looks like Yoshitsune. Benkei has no choice but to treat his lord Yoshitsune as a mere porter, beating him and offering to beat him to death if necessary. This is in an age when it was unthinkable for a retainer to resist his lord in any way. Although he knows that this is Yoshitsune, Togashi allows them to go, knowing that this also probably means that he will have to commit ritual suicide for his failure in duty.
When the party is alone, Benkei is heartbroken for having beaten his master, but Yoshitsune holds out his hand in forgiveness. For the first time in his life, Benkei weeps, then, in dance, recounts the many episodes of the difficulties he and Yoshitsune have faced together. At this point, Togashi appears again and offers wine to them. Benkei drinks an enormous amount and then dances. At the height of the dance, he quietly motions the others to leave and they continue on their road of escape. As the play ends, alone on the hanamichi runway, Benkei gives thanks to the heavens and the earth for protecting his master. Then he follows them with the special Kabuki step called a flying roppo.
The recording features the Nagauta music used at the moment Benkei and Yoshitsune are reconciled after the happenings at the barrier, then there is the livelier music that describes the many battles they have gone through together.

Yoshimura Ijuro (Singer), Kineya Eizo (Shamisen)


This piece was first performed in 1831 and was one section of a series of five dances. It is based on a Noh play that shows a master swordsmith who is aided by a magical fox. This recording features the first few moments of the piece which describes the scene and sets the mood in a very grand way. You can hear the use of the flute and percussion hayashi ensemble taken from the Noh theater. In Kabuki, the hayashi play two kinds of music. Sometimes they play exactly the same kind of music they would play in Noh. At other times, as in this recording, they play special Kabuki patterns that were developed to go together with the shamisen. Also the singing and shamisen music is in the Ozatsuma narrative style. Although this has become a part of Nagauta, musically it is quite different from the lyrical singing of pure Nagauta.

Yoshimura Ijuro (Singer), Kineya Eizo (Shamisen)


This piece was written in 1845 to celebrate the rebuilding of the mansion of the Nambu clan in the Azabu district of Edo. The lord himself wrote the text and the music composed by Kineya Rokuzaemon X (1800 - 1858). It is a famous example of a piece that was always intended to be performed as pure concert music with no relationship to the Kabuki theater. The section in the recording includes a description of the garden of the mansion in autumn and there is a lengthy instrumental interlude that is supposed to evoke the sounds of insects in the garden.

Yoshimura Ijuro (Singer), Yamada Shotaro (Shamisen)