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Kanji, Kana & Pronunciation

Romaji Kabuki
Kanji 歌舞伎
Kana かぶき
Audio Coming Soon
(n) traditional Japanese theatre

Kabuki (歌舞伎) is classical Japanese dance-drama, known for the elaborate make-up worn by some of its all-male performers. Kabuki was inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists in 2005.

The individual kanji, from left to right, mean sing (歌), dance (舞), and skill (伎). Kabuki is therefore sometimes translated as "the art of singing and dancing." The characters, however, are used for their pronunciation rather than their meaning, and the word kabuki is believed to derive from the verb kabuku, meaning "to lean" or "to be out of the ordinary"; kabuki can therefore be interpreted as "avant-garde" or "bizarre" theatre,[1] just as the expression kabukimono (歌舞伎者) referred originally to those who dressed and behaved bizarrely.

History of kabuki

1603–1629: Female kabuki

The history of kabuki began in 1603 when a woman named Izumo no Okuni (Okuni of Izumo), possibly a shaman, began performing a new style of dance drama in the dry riverbeds of Kyoto, leading to the creation of the genre. Japan was under the control of the Tokugawa shogunate. Okuni led a group of female performers who played both male and female roles in comic sketches about everyday life. The style was immediately popular and rival troupes soon appeared. Known as onna-kabuki (women's kabuki), much of its appeal was due to the ribald, suggestive themes featured by many troupes, further augmented by the fact that the performers were often also available for paid sex.[1]

Kabuki became a common form of entertainment in the Yoshiwara, the registered red-light district in Edo. Kabuki theatres were a place to see and be seen as they featured the latest trends and current events. The stage provided entertainment with exciting new music, fashionable clothing, and famous actors.

The shogunate became increasingly concerned about the mischief surrounding kabuki, and particularly the mixing of social classes at kabuki performances. Women were therefore banned from the stage in 1629, and young boys took their place, performing in became known as youth kabuki (wakashu-kabuki). Since they too engaged in prostitution, the shogun government soon banned wakashu-kabuki as well, and required all actors to be adult males. Kabuki thus became known as yarō-kabuki. Many former wakashu-kabuki performers complied with the requirement to appear as adults by wearing adult hairstyles such as the chonmage (topknot), but simultaneously circumvented the law by covering their shaved pates with a purple cap known as a yarō cap. Male actors now played both female and male characters, and despite the shogunate's efforts, kabuki continued to be associated with prostitution. The form remained popular, remaining a focus of urban entertainment until modern times. In 2003, a statue of Okuni was erected near Kyoto's Pontochō district.

1629–1673: Transition to yarō kabuki

Once women were banned from performing, the art of the onnagata (女形) or oyama, male specialists in playing female roles, was born. Along with the change in the performer's gender came a change in the emphasis of the performance: increased stress was placed on drama rather than dance. Performances were equally ribald, and the male actors too were available for prostitution to both female and male customers. Audiences frequently became rowdy, and brawls occasionally broke out, sometimes over the favours of a particularly handsome actor, leading the shogunate to ban first onnagata and then wakashu roles.

1673–1841: The golden age

The structure of a kabuki play was formalized during this period, as were many elements of style and conventional character types. Kabuki theatre and ningyō jōruri, the elaborate form of puppet theatre that later came to be known as bunraku, became closely associated with each other, and each influenced each other's development. Chikamatsu Monzaemon, one of the first professional kabuki playwrights, produced several influential works, though the piece usually acknowledged as his most significant, Sonezaki Shinju (The Love Suicides at Sonezaki), was originally written for bunraku. Like many bunraku plays, it was adapted for kabuki, and it spawned many imitators—in fact, it and similar plays reportedly caused so many real-life "copycat" suicides that the government banned shinju mono (plays about lovers' double suicides) in 1723. Actor Ichikawa Danjūrō I also lived during this time; he is credited with the development of the mie, a dramatic pose struck by kabuki actors at significant moments in plays,[2] and mask-like kumadori make-up.[3]

1842–1868: The Saruwaka-chō kabuki

Many fires struck Edo in the 1840s, and kabuki theatres, traditionally made of wood, were frequently affected. When the area that housed the Nakamura-za was completely destroyed in 1841, the shogun refused to allow the theatre to rebuild. The shogunate also took advantage of a fire in 1842 to force the Nakamura-za, Ichimura-za, and Kawarazaki-za out of the city limits and into Asakusa, then a northern suburb of Edo. Actors, stagehands, and others associated with the theatres also migrated, but the inconvenience of the new location reduced attendance. These factors, along with strict regulations, pushed much of kabuki underground, with performances changing locations to avoid the authorities.

Kabuki after the Meiji period

Beginning in 1868 enormous cultural changes, such as the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, the elimination of the samurai class, and the opening of Japan to the West, helped to spark kabuki's re-emergence. As the culture struggled to adapt to the influx of foreign ideas and influence, actors strove to increase the reputation of kabuki among the upper classes and to adapt the traditional styles to modern tastes. They ultimately proved successful in this regard: on April 21, 1887, the Meiji Emperor sponsored a performance.[4]

After World War II, the occupying forces briefly banned kabuki. However, by 1947 the ban had been rescinded.

Kabuki today

The immediate post-World War II era was a difficult time for kabuki. Besides the war's physical devastation, many rejected the styles of the past, kabuki among them. Director Tetsuji Takechi's popular and innovative productions of kabuki classics at this time are credited with bringing about a rebirth of interest in kabuki in the Kansai region. Of the many popular young stars who performed with the Takechi Kabuki, Nakamura Ganjiro III (b. 1931) was the leading figure. He was first known as Nakamura Senjaku, and this period in Osaka kabuki became known as the "Age of Senjaku" in his honour.

Today, kabuki is the most popular of the traditional styles of Japanese drama, and its star actors often appear in television and film roles. For example, well-known onnagata Bandō Tamasaburō V has appeared in several non-kabuki plays and movies, often in female roles. Kabuki also appears in works of modern Japanese popular culture such as anime.

In addition to the handful of major theatres in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, there are many smaller theatres in Osaka and throughout the country. Some local kabuki troupes today use female actors, but professional kabuki remains an all-male art.

Interest in kabuki has spread in the West. Kabuki troupes regularly tour Europe and America, and there have been several kabuki-themed productions of canonical Western plays such as those of Shakespeare. The introduction of earphone guides in 1975, including an English version in 1982, helped broaden the art's appeal. As a result, in 1991 Tokyo's Kabuki-za began year-round performances and, in 2005, began marketing kabuki cinema films.[5]

Elements of kabuki

Stage design

The kabuki stage features a projection called a hanamichi (花道; literally, flower path), a walkway which extends into the audience and via which dramatic entrances and exits are made. The hanamichi is not only used as a walkway, but important scenes are also played on it. Kabuki stages and theatres have steadily become more technologically sophisticated, and innovations including revolving stages and trap doors were introduced during the 18th century. A driving force has been the desire to manifest one frequent theme of kabuki theatre, that of the sudden, dramatic revelation or transformation.

A kuroko changing props mid-scene.
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Scenery changes are sometimes made mid-scene, while the actors remain on stage and the curtain stays open. It is also common for stagehands to be fully visible onstage; these kuroko (黒子) are always dressed entirely in black and are traditionally considered invisible. Stagehands also assist in a variety of quick costume changes known as hayagawari (quick change technique), which is employed when a character's true nature is suddenly revealed. The technique involves layering one costume over another. Threads holding the layers in place are subtly removed as the actor moves about the stage, culminating in a sudden change of costume effected with the assistance of a kuroko.


The three main categories of kabuki play are jidai-mono (時代物, history|historical, or pre-Sengoku period stories), sewa-mono (世話物, domestic, or post-Sengoku stories) and shosagoto (所作事, dance pieces).

Jidaimono, or history plays, are set within the context of major events in Japanese history. Strict censorship laws during the Edo period prohibited the representation of contemporary events and particularly prohibited criticising the shogunate or casting it in a bad light. Many plays of the time were therefore set in the context of the Genpei War of the 1180s, the Nanboku-chō Wars of the 1330s, or other historical events, often using these historical settings as metaphors for contemporary events. Kanadehon Chūshingura, one of the most famous plays in the kabuki repertoire, serves as an excellent example; it is ostensibly set in the 1330s, though it actually depicts the contemporary (18th century) affair of the revenge of the 47 Ronin.

Unlike jidaimono which generally focused upon the samurai class, sewamono focused primarily upon commoners, namely chonin (townsmen) and peasants. Some of the most famous sewamono are the shinjū (love suicide) plays, adapted from works by the bunraku playwright Chikamatsu; these center on romantic couples who cannot be together in life due to various circumstances and who therefore decide to be together in death instead.

Important elements of kabuki include the mie (見得), in which the actor holds a picturesque pose to establish his character. At this point his house name (yagō, 屋号) is sometimes heard in loud shout (kakegoe, 掛け声) from an expert audience member, serving both to express and enhance the audience's appreciation of the actor's achievement and to encourage the actor.

Kabuki makeup (kumadori) is easily recognizable even by those unfamiliar with the art form. Rice powder is used to create the white oshiroi base, and kumadori enhances or exaggerates facial lines to produce dramatic animal or supernatural masks. The color of the kumadori is an expression of the character's nature: red lines are used to indicate passion, heroism, righteousness, and other positive traits; blue or black, villainy, jealousy, and other negative traits; green, the supernatural; and purple, nobility.[3]

Play structure

Kabuki, like other traditional forms of drama in Japan and other cultures, was (and sometimes still is) performed in full-day programs. The structure of the full-day program, like the structure of the plays themselves, was derived largely from the conventions of bunraku and Noh, conventions which also appear in other traditional Japanese arts. Chief among these is the concept of jo-ha-kyū (序破急), which states that dramatic pacing should start slow, speed up, and end quickly. The concept, elaborated on at length by master Noh playwright Zeami, governs not only the actions of the actors, but also the structure of the play as well as the structure of scenes and plays within a day-long program.

Nearly every full-length play occupies five acts. The first corresponds to jo, an auspicious and slow opening which introduces the audience to the characters and the plot. The next three acts correspond to ha, speeding events up, culminating in a great moment of drama or tragedy in the third act and possibly a battle in the second and/or fourth acts. The final act, corresponding to kyu, is almost always short, providing a quick and satisfying conclusion.[6]

Famous plays

  • Kanadehon Chūshingura (Treasury of Loyal Retainers) is the famous story of the Forty-seven Rōnin who track down their lord's killer, and exact revenge upon him before committing seppuku.[7]
  • Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura (Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees) follows Minamoto no Yoshitsune as he flees from agents of his brother Minamoto no Yoritomo. Three Taira clan generals supposed killed in the Genpei War figure prominently, as their deaths ensure a complete end to the war and the arrival of peace.[8]
  • Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami (Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy) is based on the life of famed scholar Sugawara no Michizane (845–903), who is exiled from Kyoto, and upon his death causes a number of calamities in the capital. He is then deified as Tenjin, divine spirit of scholarship.[7]

Major theatres in operation

  • Akita
    • Kosaka
  • Tokyo
    • Kabuki-za (Closed for rebuilding;– reopening in 2013[9])
    • Meiji-za
    • Shinbashi Enbujō
    • National Theatre (Tokyo)
  • Kyoto
    • Minami-za
  • Osaka
    • Shin-Kabuki-za
    • Osaka Shōchiku-za
  • Nagoya
    • Misono-za
  • Fukuoka
    • Hakata-za
  • Kotohira
    • Kanamaru-za

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Kabuki" in Frederic, Louis (2002). Japan Encyclopedia. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
  2. [1]. Kabuki Jiten. Accessed 9 February 2007.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Kincaid, Zoe (1925). Kabuki: The Popular Stage of Japan. London: MacMillan and Co. pp21–22.
  4. Shōriya, Asagoro. Kabuki Chronology of the 19th century at Kabuki21.com (Accessed 18 December 2006.)
  5. Martin, Alex, [2] Kabuki going strong, 400 years on", Japan Times, 28 December 2010, p. 3, retrieved on 29 December 2010.
  6. Quinn, Shelley Fenno. "How to write a Noh play—Zeami's Sandō. Monumenta Nipponica, vol 48, issue 1 (Spring 1993). pp53–88.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Miyake, Shutarō (1971). "Kabuki Drama". Tokyo: Japan Travel Bureau.
  8. Jones, Stanleigh H. Jr. (trans.)(1993). "Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees." New York: Columbia University Press.
  9. Unmissable Tokyo (2010). http://UnmissableTokyo.com/kabuki-za "Kabuki-za".

External links