The Mirror Lion


Shunkyo Kagami Jishi

Kabuki Plus

by Abe Satomi

From courtesan to a castle maid

This was inspired by the dance The Pillow Lion (1742). The lyrics were almost entirely copied, but the setting was changed from a pleasure house to the main ladies chamber in a castle; the young girl, from a high-ranking courtesan to a female servant; and the lion, into a Noh-inspired presence. Danjuro IX, who created the show, sought to raise the status of Kabuki drama and dance and thus shifted the scene from the lowly pleasure quarters. This was in line with the revolution in theater that occurred during the Meiji Period. For example, modernizers wanted Kabuki to be more refined and purer in content to appeal to the upper classes in the new era.

Danjuro IX and beyond

The dance was not well received upon its debut. Kikugoro VI revised it in 1914 to great acclaim and polished it further in more than 20 subsequent productions. It was passed on to Baiko VII, who was trained directly by Kikugoro, and that process was repeated with Kanzaburo XVII, Kikugoro VII and Kanzaburo XVIII. It is now a representative dance piece. There is another line passed from Fukusuke V to Utaemon VI and Shikan VII, all female-role specialists. In contrast to the lilac-colored sleeves on Kikugoro’s kimono, the Fukusuke style wears black sleeves.

Various mane-shaking actions


The shaking of the mane is not found in the original Noh lion dance. The main actions are known as “hair wash”, “yin/yang” and “iris beating”. Hair wash means to hang the long mane in front of the body and shake it sideways, reminiscent of a woman washing her hair. Yin/yang is to move the mane in a circular manner to the right and left in a yin/yang pattern. Iris beating refers to waving the hair on the ground. The name comes from an old children’s game.

Mirror-pulling celebration

The mirror-pulling celebration took place in Edo Castle, where a rice cake was placed on a board and dragged around. In the old days, the evening of January 6 was regarded as the end of the calendar year, and in celebration of the so-called seven-grass ceremony, local rulers nationwide would send rice cakes dyed in red and white. The cakes would be pulled around the castle by the kitchen servants to festive music. Ordinarily, the ladies-in-waiting would not participate, but in this play, the servant leads the celebration with the lion’s head in her hand at the request of the shogun.

Is Yayoi possessed?


The connection between Yayoi and the lion is not clear. It is not even certain what happened to Yayoi after she was pulled out of sight by the lion’s mask. There were theories in the past that Yayoi was possessed by the lion, but recently Yayoi and the lion spirit are played separately. In Noh-based lion dances, a courtesan or young girl turns into a lion because of her strong love. Here, the love connection is deleted, and the lion is now a male. This dilutes the connection between Yayoi and the lion, and the highlight is how the actor dances two completely different roles. Artistic power in Kabuki often triumphs over pure logic.

One actor, two major roles

The Mirror Lion, one of the most famous dances in the repertoire, is often presented abroad as a representative Kabuki piece. Even those who don’t know Kabuki usually know of this dance. The built-in challenge is that one actor has to perform in succession a pretty girl and a virile lion, two completely opposite roles. This is an enjoyable opportunity for fans to see their favorite actors in two different genres.