The Heron Maiden


Sagi Musume

Kabuki Plus

by Abe Satomi

Young girl or heron spirit?

There are various interpretations of the heron maiden. The portrayal of the figure suggests to some a sad-looking girl, while others perceive a bird who has fallen in love with a human. The background story of this drama is not known. Some stories present this as a girl betrayed by a man who married someone else, or the ghost of a woman who did not attain love while she was alive. All cases present an emotional story on the theme of unfulfilled love.

Dance of the white heron

White herons were believed in olden days to be messengers of the gods. They have featured in Noh plays and popular folklore. The heron dance was originally featured in a puppet play, where a girl collecting shells performs a ritual dance, turns into a heron in a stage trick and flies away. The Kabuki adaptation added a human theme of obsessive love and a hellish punishment, depicting the sadness of a young girl’s love. After the initial performance, it was not revived for many years. It reemerged over a century later when Danjuro IX reworked it with eye-catching costume changes.

Odori-ji (pure dance)


Kabuki dances are basically divided into five sections: prelude, opening, kudoki (main story), pure dance and finale. The strangest of these is the pure dance, which tends to veer suddenly from the main story into an unrelated lyrical dance. There is no historic explanation for this structure, but perhaps it provides a contrast with the emotional kudoki in order to lift the audience’s spirits. It is best to forget the rationale and simply enjoy the rhythmic music and joyous dance of the actor.

Two endings


The show has two traditional endings. The more classic style is to pause on a raised section of the stage and finish on a melody implying that the figure is vanishing before our eyes. Jakuemon IV championed this version in recent years. The second version, in which the heron passes away in the snow, was inspired by the ballet piece The Dying Swan, performed in Japan by Anna Pavlova in the 1920s. In addition, Tamasaburo V created his own visionary world in what became a signature role.

The Dying Swan

The ballet “The Dying Swan” portrays the final moments of a wounded swan. It is a two-minute piece extracted from “The Dying Swan” section of Saint-Saens’ Le carnaval des animaux (The Carnival of the Animals). It was choreographed by Mikhail Fokine in 1907 for the legendary Anna Pavlova, who won immediate acclaim. The highlight is the gentle fluttering of the swan’s wings. This piece and The Heron Maiden share an ephemeral beauty and make an extremely interesting comparison.