What is nagauta and what is nagauta shamisen?

The Edo culture that has been inherited till today

Nagauta is kabuki theater music born in Edo (former Tokyo) in the late 17th century at the era of Tsunayoshi Tokugawa, the 5th Edo shogun whose term of office was 1680 – 1709.
Originally, nagauta played the role of background music to express various sound effects: expressing the feelings to go with spoken lines of kabuki actors by songs and shamisens, the sound of rain and wind by accompanied drums, haunted sound when a ghost is appearing, and so on.
Then around the end of the shogunate, “ozashiki (banquet chamber) nagauta” was composed and separately played by itself. In and after the Meiji era (1868~), nagauta went independent from kabuki and developed to the present style, absorbing various elements from kyogen, joruri, popular songs, folk songs, and western music, etc.

Nagauta has developed diversely in about 380 years of its history and is the grand sum of Japanese traditional music.

The forms of nagauta

Nagauta is divided in 2 forms according to the place for performance.

Shosa music: debayashi (onstage performance)

Shosa music or debayashi is played for kabuki dancing performances (shosa-goto) etc.; all the players of nagauta and ohayashi ensemble sit in tiers and play on the red carpet at the back of the center stage.

Geza music: kuromisu (black blinds)

Geza music or kuromisu is played as background music to kabuki; it is played in the chamber behind the kuromisu (black blinds on the grille) in the stage right.

debayashi and kuromisu

The constitution of nagauta

Nagauta is played in ensemble with 3 groups of performers: uta, shamisen, and ohayashi (Ohayashi is also called “narimono” which means sounding things, including shoulder drums, knee drums, stick drums, and flutes etc.)
The performances of the 3 groups are as follows:

Uta (Song)

A song part is called Uta. Several singers sing and most of the performers accompany them.
The form sung by 1 person is called doku-gin and the one by 2 persons is called ryo-gin.
Songs without any accompaniment is called su-utai.


The parts where only shamisens are played are called aikata; no songs are accompanied.
Some aikata pieces are composed for connecting each scene of ji-uta, nagauta, and ha-uta, and also some are composed for pure appreciation.


Some narimonos are played alone and some are with nagauta people.
It has variation; some pieces are played in steady rhythm, and some pieces called mihakarai are played in accordance with the stage and actors.

The number of music pieces is huge; new pieces are composed one after another even today. The length of one music piece is from 1 to 2 minutes for short ones to more than 50 minutes for long ones.

The composition of the music has the flow of “ki-sho-ten-ketsu” which is the same for story writing.

1. Oki
This is a prologue part of a drama, giving the image of the scene and situation.
Characters don’t appear yet; a song is heard on an empty stage. A prelude
2. De
This is an accompaniment when characters appear.
Roles of the characters and a situation are introduced, and then the drama goes into the main stream.
承(sho) Development 3. Kudoki: romance
Katari, Mono-gatari: combat
This is an important part in nagauta music and the best appealing part for uta-kata (singers). Uta-kata sings character’s inner thoughts here in a slow tempo.
転(ten) Turn 4. Odori-ji
In this part, actors dance te-odori with up-tempo and bustling narimono sounds, and so-odori by all the actors brilliantly; the music changes to bright tones.
結(ketsu) Conclusion 5. Chirashi
One dan (program) is finishing here, that is, an epilogue part for the drama. Mie and recession from the runway are staged. This part is played mostly in the same style regardless of schools.
(Mie is a pose: an actor poses for a moment to capture the audience.)

Nagauta shamisen

There are 3 main types of Shamisen instruments in terms of the thickness of the neck: hoso-zao (narrow-necked for nagauta and ogie), chu-zao (medium-necked for kiyomoto, tokiwazu, sin-nai, icchu, jiuta, kouta, and hauta), and futo-zao (thick-necked for gidayu and tsugaru).
For the folk songs and modern Japanese music, tan-zao whose neck is shortened is also used.

Nagauta shamisen is the type that the neck is hoso-zao (narrow-necked), the body is the smallest and lightest and is skinned with cat skin or dog one, and the strings are silk-made. Nagauta shamisen can make delicate and beautiful high notes; its bright and brilliant tone is distinctive.
Its tonal volume is smaller compared with futo-zao so as to give advantage to songs.

Nagauta has developed flexibly while following the tradition.
About the nagauta as it is, this 4th volume of the DVD collection is packed with the performance and interpretation by two nagauta shamisen performers of Den no Kai group, whose performance makes the audience listen to and laugh while taking in traditional techniques.
It will surely give enjoyment to the people beyond generation.

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