Kabuki 歌舞伎 (Japanese classical theater)

“Kabuki” is a classical Japanese particular dance-drama and one of Traditional Japanese theatre includes Noh, Kyogen and Bunraku. “Kabuki” is well known for the stylization of it’s dance, song, colorful costumes, heavy makeup, and lively movements in a play to tell the stories.


“Kabuki” is a Japanese language word and consists of 3 characters “Sing (歌), “Dance (舞) and “Skill (伎)”. Therefore “Kabuki” is sometimes translated as "the art of singing and dancing". But these are “Ateji (phonetic equivalent)” characters which do not reflect actual etymology. The Kanji of “Skill” generally refers to a performer in “Kabuki” theatre. Because the word “Kabuki” is believed to derive from the verb “Kabuku”, meaning “to lean” or “to be out of the ordinary”. “Kabuki” can be interpreted as “Avant-garde” or “Bizzarre” theatre. The expression “Kabukimono” referred originally to those who were bizarrely dressed and swaggered on a street.


The basic purpose of “Kabuki” is to entertain the spectators and demonstrate the skills of the actors. One distinct feature of “Kabuki” is that it is not about realism like that of modern plays. The stylization of “Kabuki” is very unique, so not only Japanese but also the people from other countries have a fascination with “Kabuki”. The three main categories of kabuki play are “Jidai-mono (時代物, historical, or pre-Sengoku period stories)”, “Sewa-mono (世話物, domestic, or post-Sengoku stories)” and “Shosagoto (所作事, dance pieces)”. Historical plays are based on important events in Japanese history. Domestic plays are about family problems and love matters. The most famous include lover’s suicide plays. Nevertheless some plays are based on the notion “reward the righteous and punish the wicked”. Such plays frequently show conflicts relating religious ideas like the importance of duty, mortal nature of man, and common moral sentiments.


“Kabuki” was actually created to tell more lively and shocking stories to entertain the audiences. The first “Kabuki” play was performed in 1603 in Kyoto, the previous capital of Japan. Gradually, it grew into a stylized art form that still remains popular today.


Unlike western theater, “Kabuki” performers wear extremely colorful costumes and bright makeups to express the roles of their characters and use exaggerated poses and gestures. Interestingly, even women’s roles are played by men. But their performance is so skilled that it is hard to believe that the female characters are not played by real women. “Kabuki” actors also perform the vocal expressions so beautifully that you can easily understand much of the meaning without understanding a single word.


The creation of “Kabuki” is quite an interesting story. The art was created by a woman named “Okuni” about 400 years ago, but interestingly after a while, women were banned to perform on stage. So eventually all the roles were left to be performed by male actors only.


“Okuni” was born in 1572 to a blacksmith in Izumo, a Japanese city (in Shimane prefecture). She served at a shrine, Izumo Taisha (one of the most ancient and important Shinto shrines in Japan) performing ritual dances and religious songs. She was known for her dancing and acting skills, as well as her beauty. Around 1603, “Okuni” began performing on the dry riverbed in Kyoto in an entirely new style that was never seen before. She performed on stage by dressing up in men’s clothes and playing male roles. It was obviously against the general image of a woman and of course, the general norms of the society as well. The performances of “Okuni” created a sensation because of their eroticism and exotic costuming. Her new performing style and sensational dances attracted a growing audience in the town. The style of “Okuni” became so popular that she was even asked to perform before the Imperial Court.


To cope with the growing demand for this new style stage performances, “Okuni” formed her own group of female performers. She required her troupe members to play both male and female roles. This was the earliest stage of “Kabuki”, the performances were limited to just dancing and singing with no significant plot. Female performers played both men and women roles in short plays about daily life. This was the birth of “Kabuki” as a mixture of dance and drama performed by women only, and certainly very different from the modern “Kabuki”.


The style continued to be getting popular among the general public. Many Yujo (Japanese prostitute) performed “Kabuki” dance for the customers, took advantage of the situation and used the theater to attract customers by advertising their bodies and sexual services. Their erotic dances started attracting bad crowds. Repeatedly unpleasant incidences and fights would break out over to come closer the popular performers at the end of the show. The government was very much concerned and did not like such elements in the theater. Government officials inspected the stage performances on several occasions and found them harmful for public morals. Eventually in 1629, to avoid further embarrassment, the government banned women from dancing on stage to protect public order. At the same time, young boys performed the female roles. But, because these young boys were also eligible for prostitution, the government soon banned them as well. After that, that the mature males started giving ‘Kabuki’ performances for the first time. Male actors played both female and male characters. Eventually the actors started putting emphasis on skill and the quality of performance rather than just substandard dancing and singing.


Early “Kabuki” was much different from what is seen today and was comprised mostly of large ensemble dances performed by women. The modern all-male “Kabuki” was established during 1629–1673. During this period, not only the actor’s gender changed from female to male, but also came a change in the emphasis of the performance. Now more attention was given to drama rather than dance.


The period from 1673 to 1841 was a “Golden Age” for “Kabuki” because during this period the theater really came into its own. The dances began to have a proper structure in a real sense and “Kabuki” began to catch on. These plays lasted all day from sunrise to sunset.


A year of 1868 was important for the re-emergence of “Kabuki”. The samurai (warrior class) was eliminated in Japan and the country was opened to the West. All this helped to spark the revival of “Kabuki”. Now Japan was ready to adapt to the foreign ideas and influence. “Kabuki” actors also strove to increase the reputation of “Kabuki” among the upper classes and reform the theater according to modern tastes.


The “Kabuki” stage is very unique and a beautiful mixture of art and technology. Dramatic changes and sudden revelations is a key feature of “Kabuki”. “Kabuki” stage is large in size, so it can revolve and has scenic backdrops and trapdoors. Scenes can change without using the curtain and actors make surprise entrances from below using trapdoors. It also makes the progress of plays fast and easy.


Another unique system is a walkway, which crosses the audience at the same height as the stage. Important scenes are played in the stage. Actors can use this walkway to enter or leave the stage. During a play it can become many kinds of places. For example, it can be a river, a road, a corridor and so on.


“Kabuki” characters give surprise to the audience by appearing onto the stage without warning through a trapdoor, or by flying into the air on a harness. Characters may suddenly expose their true nature by pulling off their costume. They do this so smoothly and swiftly that it seems like a magical transformation. Since audience are seated close to the walkway it gives them a sense of association with the play.


Makeup is one of the most important parts of “Kabuki”. The makeup is very exotic and completely changes the faces of actors by looking like a mask, so it creates very dramatic expressions. “Kabuki” makeup is composed of graphic lines, shapes, and hues. Makeup colors are used in symbolic ways to indicate the age, gender, personality and emotion of each character. Actors apply specific colors to their faces to highlight the temperament of the character. Each color has a meaning. Red color represents anger and cruelty, brown indicates selfishness and sadness, blue signifies sadness or depression, black represents fear and pink portrays youth or cheerfulness. Each actor applies his own makeup, to get to know the character he plays. First, he applies oils and waxes on his face. Then a thick coat of white makeup is put on to cover the whole face. The white face creates a dramatic look on stage. On this white face, red and black lines are used to outline the eyes and mouth, which are also shaped differently for male and female characters. Dark lines are used to create a mask-like effect on the performer's face.


Many “Kabuki” stories feature supernatural creatures so an actor with a completely red face is often a demon. The most common make-up of the main characters of “Kabuki” is pure white. It is the color of purity and refinement. Samurai have white faces with black eye brows and red touches at the mouth. Many of the commoners, such as servants and peasants, have more brownish make-up, indicating the tan of people who work outdoors.


A full “Kabuki” play takes four-plus hours, comprising three or four acts. But for those who cannot be for the long time, tickets for a single act are also available.


There are extremely exciting moments in play, the actor makes a pose and freezes in place during acting when he becomes filled with emotions. The actor's eyes are opened as wide as possible. If the character is angry, the actor will cross his eyes. At this moment, audience shout out the House name of the actors and words of praise. It’s main purpose is to draw attention to an important part of the play. It shows a character’s emotions at their peak.


“Kabuki” faced the most difficult time during World War II and after the war, too. Almost all theaters were destroyed and many young actors lost their lives. Regardless of that, only one theater in Tokyo, which remained unburned, reopened after the war, but “Kabuki” was banned by the occupied forces because they thought its content to be anti-democratic (theme of loyalism or revenge). It found oneself in a very hard situation. But some committed people continued to struggle for the restoration of “Kabuki” under the extreme conditions. Their efforts were successful and “Kabuki” performances were gradually allowed.


In today’s Japan, “Kabuki” is the most popular of the traditional dramas. Its leading actors often appear in the credit titles of TV and film. “Kabuki” appears in works of Japanese popular culture such as anime. There are the major theaters in big cities such as “Kabuki-za” in Tokyo, “Minami-za” in Kyoto, and “Misono-za” in Nagoya. “Konpira Oshibai” (Konpira Grand Theatre), also known as “Kanamaru-za”, in Kotohira, Kagawa prefecture on the island of Shikoku is the oldest “Kabuki”theatre in Japan. It was originally constructed in 1835. In this theatre, “Kabuki”are performed for one month each year, usually in April.


“Kabuki” actors start their training at a very early age. “Kabuki” acting is mostly a family tradition and it is passed to generation after generation for centuries. Fathers train their sons, and they would often adopt a son into the family if they have no biological sons. The acting techniques stay within limited families. These families become the custodian of specific acting for the next generation. Recently, a training school for actors of “Kabuki” produces many remarkable actors who do not come from the “Kabuki”family.


Recognizing the cultural significance of “Kabuki”, UNESCO declared it as an Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2005. Japanese “Kabuki” is known worldwide today. It is still an excellent form of entertainment for people just as it was 400 years ago.