Although I have never been to a kabuki play, would like to.., this type of art is part of Kyoto culture and as such has a place on my blog. I hope you enjoy reading the intricacies of this fascinating play. Content is taken from Wikipedia. Please enjoy the YouTube clips I found to give you an idea what it is like.
Kabuki, is the highly stylized classical Japanese dance-drama. Kabuki theater is known for the stylization of its drama and for the elaborate makeup worn by some of its performers. The individual kanji characters, from left to right, mean sing (歌), dance (舞), and skill (伎). Kabuki is therefore sometimes translated as “the art of singing and dancing.” These are, however, ateji characters which do not reflect actual etymology. The kanji of ‘skill’ generally refers to a performer in kabuki theatre. Since 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 “bizarre” theatre. The expression kabukimono (歌舞伎者) referred originally to those who were bizarrely dressed and swaggered on a street.
History of Kabuki:
The history of kabuki began in 1603 when Izumo no Okuni (出雲の阿国, born ca.1572), possibly a miko of Izumo Taisha, began performing a new style of dance drama in the dry riverbeds of Kyoto. Japan was under the control of the Tokugawa shogunate, enforced by Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川 家康 , January 31, 1543 – June 1, 1616), who ruled with shogun of the Tokugawa family. The name of the Edo period is derived from the Tokugawa regime having relocated the capital city from its former home in Kyoto to the city of Edo, present-day Tokyo. Female performers played both men and women in comic playlets about ordinary life. The style was popular instantly; Okuni was even asked to perform before the Imperial Court. In the wake of such success, rival troupes quickly formed, and kabuki was born as ensemble dance and drama performed by women—a form very different from its modern incarnation. Much of its appeal in this era was due to the ribald, suggestive performances put on by many troupes; this appeal was further augmented by the fact that the performers were often also available for prostitution. For this reason, kabuki was also written “歌舞妓” (singing and dancing prostitute) during the Edo Period.
Kabuki was a wild, new form of entertainment in the ukiyo, or Yoshiwara, the registered red-light district in Edo. Kabuki was an extravagant social setting. A diverse crowd gathered under one roof, something that happened nowhere else in the city. The variety of the social classes which mixed at the kabuki performances was what irked the shogunate. Kabuki theaters were a place to see and be seen. Kabuki featured the latest fashion trends and current events. The stage provided good entertainment with exciting new music, patterns, clothing, and famous actors. The theatre was an all-day event; the performance went from morning until sunset. The teahouses surrounding or connected to the theater provided meals, refreshments, and good company. The area around the theatres was lush with shops selling kabuki souvenirs. Kabuki started Japanese pop culture and maintained a devise for social inclination.
Not long after the original performance, word traveled fast, and kabuki became tremendously popular. The shogunate was never partial to kabuki theatre and all the mischief it brought. Kabuki went through tremendous leaps, trying to appease the harsh restrictions by the government. Women’s kabuki, called onna-kabuki, was banned from the stage in 1629 for being too erotic. Following onna-kabuki, young boys performed in wakashu-kabuki, but since they too were eligible for prostitution the shogun government soon banned wakashu-kabuki as well. Kabuki finally settled with adult male actors, called yaro-kabuki in the mid 1600’s. Male actors played both female and male characters. The theatre was as popular as ever, and remained the entity of the urban lifestyle even until modern times. Although kabuki was performed all over ukiyo and other portions for the country, three kabuki theatres set themselves apart from the rest and became the top theatres in ukiyo. The Nakamura-za, Ichimura-za and Kawarazaki-za theatres are where some of the most successful kabuki performances were and still are held.
1629–1673: Transition to yarō Kabuki
The modern all-male kabuki, known as yarō kabuki (young man kabuki), was established during this period. After women were banned from performing, cross-dressed male actors, known as onnagata (“female-role”) or oyama, took over. Young (adolescent) men were preferred for women’s roles due to their less masculine appearance and higher pitched voices compared to adult men. In addition, wakashu (adolescent male) roles, played by young men often selected for attractiveness, became common, and were often presented in an erotic context. 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. Their 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 favors of a particularly handsome young actor, leading the shogunate to ban first onnagata and then wakashu roles. Both bans were rescinded by 1652.
1673–1841: The golden age:
During the Genroku Era (元禄), kabuki thrived. The structure of a kabuki play was formalized during this period, as were many elements of stylization. Conventional character types were determined. Kabuki theater and ningyō jōruri, the elaborate form of puppet theater that later came to be known as bunraku, became closely associated with each other during this period, and each has since influenced the development of the other. The famous playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon, one of the first professional playwrights of kabuki, 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. Ichikawa Danjūrō (市川 團十郎) I also lived during this time; he is credited with the development of mie poses and mask-like kumadori make-up.
1842–1868: The Saruwaka-chō Kabuki:
Male actors played both female and male characters. The theatre was as popular as ever, and remained an entity of the urban lifestyle through modern times. Although kabuki was performed all over ukiyo and other portions of the country, three kabuki theatres set themselves apart from the rest and became the top theatres in ukiyo. The Nakamura-za, Ichimura-za and Kawarazaki-za theatres are where some of the most successful kabuki performances were and still are held.
In the 1840s, fires started terrorizing Edo due to dry spells. Kabuki theatres, traditionally made of wood, were constantly burning down, forcing their relocation within the ukiyo. When the area that housed the Nakamura-za was completely destroyed in 1841, the shogun refused to allow the theatre to rebuild, saying that it was against fire code. The shogunate did not welcome the mixing and trading that occurred between town merchants and actors, artists, and prostitutes. Thus, the shogunate took full advantage of the fire crisis in 1842 to force the Nakamura-za, Ichimura-za, and Kawarazaki-za out of the city limits and into Asakusa, a northern suburb of Edo. Along with the theatres themselves, all the actors, stagehands, and others associated with the performances were forced out as well. Those in areas and lifestyles centered around the theatres migrated as well, but due to the inconvenience of the new location, attendance was low. These factors, along with severe regulation imposed upon them by the government, contributed to the underground, mobile nature of the kabuki actors’ lifestyles in Edo.
The new location for the theatre was called Saruwaka-chō, or Saruwaka-machi. The last thirty years of the Tokugawa shogunate’s rule, when kabuki was located in the Saruwaka-machi and banned from Edo, is referred to as the Saruwaka-machi period. This period produced some of the gaudiest kabuki in Japanese history. The Saruwaka-machi became the new theatre district for the Nakamura-za, Ichimura-za and Kawarazaki-za theatre houses. The district was located on the main street of Asakusa, which ran through the middle of the small city. The street was renamed after Saruwaka Kanzaburo, who initiated Edo kabuki in the Nakamura Theatre in 1624. The kabuki theatre district was now located on the new Saruwaka street in the Saruwaka-machi.
It was around this time that European artists began noticing Japanese theatrical performances and artwork, and many artists (for example, Claude Monet) were greatly inspired by Japanese woodblock prints. This Western interest prompted Japanese artists to create prints of everyday life depicting theatres, brothels, main streets and so on. One artist in particular, Utagawa Hiroshige, did a series of prints based on Saruwaka from the Saruwaka-machi period in Asakusa. Saruwaka-machi had truly become the new theatre district, and was even getting recognized as so by artists outside the world of kabuki.
The mentality of kabuki had been almost destroyed by this relocation, diminishing the play’s most abundant inspiration for costuming, makeup, and story line, but kabuki still worked with what it had in the Saruwaka-machi. Ichikawa Kodanji IV was one of the most active and successful actors during the Saruwaka-machi period. Deemed unattractive, he mainly performed buyo, or dancing, in dramas written by Kawatake Mokuami (河竹黙阿弥) (birth name Yoshimura Yoshisaburō; 吉村芳三郎 – 1 March 1816 – 22 January 1893), who also wrote during the Meiji period to follow. Kawatake Mokuami commonly wrote plays that depicted the common lives of the people of Edo. He used new techniques for kabuki, integrating shichigo-cho (seven-and-five syllable meter) dialogue and music such as kiyomoto. His kabuki performances became quite popular once the Saruwaka-machi period ended and theatre returned to Edo; many of his works are still performed today.
In 1868, the Tokugawa shogunate fell apart. Emperor Meiji was restored to power and moved from Kyoto to the new capital of Edo, or Tokyo, beginning the Meiji period. Kabuki was reinstated to its birthplace in the ukiyo of Edo. Kabuki became more radical in the Meiji period, and modern styles got their start. New playwrights took kabuki under siege and created new genres and twists on traditional stories.
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 the re-emergence of kabuki. As the culture struggled to adapt to its new lack of isolation, 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 one occasion (21 April 1887), a performance was given for the Meiji Emperor.
After World War II, the occupying forces briefly banned kabuki performances, which had strongly supported Japan’s war since 1931; however, by 1947 the ban had been rescinded and performances began once more.
The immediate post-World War II era was a difficult time for kabuki. Besides the devastation caused to major Japanese cities as a result of the war, the popular trend was to reject the styles and thoughts of the past, kabuki among them. Director Tetsuji Takechi (武智 鉄二 , 10 December 1912 – 26 July 1988) popular and innovative productions of the 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 honor.
Today, kabuki remains relatively popular—it is the most popular of the traditional styles of Japanese drama—and its star actors often appear in television or film roles. For example, the well-known onnagata Bandō Tamasaburō V has appeared in several (non-kabuki) plays and movies, often in a female role. Kabuki is also referenced in works of Japanese popular culture such as anime.
Though there are only a handful of major theatres in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, there are many smaller theatres in Osaka and throughout the countryside. The Ōshika Kabuki troupe, based in Ōshika, Nagano Prefecture, is one example.
Some local kabuki troupes today use female actors in the onnagata roles. The Ichikawa Kabuki-za, an all-female troupe, was formed after World War II but was short-lived. In 2003, a statue of Okuni was erected near Kyoto’s Pontochō district.
Interest in kabuki has also 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. Western playwrights and novelists have also experimented with kabuki themes, an example of which is Gerald Vizenor’s Hiroshima Bugi (2004). Writer Yukio Mishima pioneered and popularized the use of kabuki in modern settings, and revived other traditional arts, such as Noh, adapting them to modern contexts.
The introduction of earphone guides in 1975, including an English version in 1982, helped broaden the art’s appeal. As a result, in 1991 the Kabuki-za began year-round performances and, in 2005, began marketing kabuki cinema films.
In Australia, the Za Kabuki troupe at the Australian National University has been performing a kabuki drama each year since 1976, the single longest regular kabuki performance outside of Japan.
Kabuki was inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists in 2005.
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. Okuni also performed on a hanamichi stage with her entourage. This type of stage is very important in kabuki theatre. The stage is used not only as a walkway or path to get to and from the main stage, but also important scenes are also played on the stage. Kabuki stages and theaters have steadily become more technologically sophisticated, and innovations including revolving stages and trap doors, introduced during the 18th century, added greatly to the staging of kabuki plays. A driving force has been the desire to make manifest one frequent theme of kabuki theater, that of the sudden, dramatic revelation or transformation. A number of stage tricks, including rapid appearances and disappearances of actors, have evolved using these innovations. The term keren (外連), often translated playing to the gallery, is sometimes used as a catch-all term for these tricks. Hanamichi and several innovations including revolving stage, seri and chunori have all contributed to sophisticating kabuki play, by which hanamichi creates the second dimensionality (depth) and both seri and chunori gains three dimensionality (height).
Mawari-butai (revolving stage) developed in the Kyōhō era (1716–1735). Originally accomplished by the on-stage pushing of a round, wheeled platform, this technique evolved into a circle being cut into the stage floor with wheels beneath it facilitating movement. When the stage lights are lowered during this transition it is known as kuraten (“darkened revolve”). More commonly the lights are left on for akaten (“lighted revolve”), sometimes with the transitioning scenes being performed simultaneously for dramatic effect. About 300 years ago, this stage was first built in Japan, and was designed for quick changes in the scenes. This stage is very useful because it helps the transition without any distractions.
Seri refers to the stage traps that have been commonly employed in kabuki since the middle of the 18th century. These traps raise and lower actors or sets to the stage. Seridashi or seriage refers to the traps moving upward and serisage or serioroshi when they are being lowered. This technique is often used for dramatic effect of having an entire scene rise up to appear onstage.
Chūnori: Kunitarō Sawamura II as Kitsune Tadanobu (left) flying over the stage, in the August 1825 production of Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura
Chūnori (riding in mid-air) is a technique, which appeared toward the middle of the 19th century, by which an actor’s costume is attached to wires and he is made to “fly” over the stage and/or certain parts of the auditorium. This is similar to the wire trick in the stage musical Peter Pan, in which Peter launches himself into the air. It is still one of the most popular keren (visual tricks) in kabuki today; major kabuki theaters, such as the National Theatre, Kabuki-za and Minami-za, are all equipped with the chūnori stage installations.
In kabuki, as in some other Japanese performing arts, scenery changes are sometimes made mid-scene, while the actors remain on stage and the curtain stays open. This is sometimes accomplished by using a Hiki Dōgu, or small wagon stage. This technique originated at the beginning of the 18th century, where scenery or actors are moved on or off stage by means of a wheeled platform. Also common are stage hands rushing onto the stage adding and removing props, backdrops and other scenery; these stage hands, known as kuroko (黒子), are always dressed entirely in black and are traditionally considered invisible. These stage hands also assist in a variety of quick costume changes known as hayagawari (quick change technique). In plays, when a character’s true nature is suddenly revealed, the devices of hikinuki or bukkaeri are often used. Hikinuki or bukkaeri is accomplished by having costumes layered one over another and having a stage assistant pull the outer one off in front of the audience.
There are three main categories of kabuki play: 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).
Jidaimono, or history plays, were often set within the context of major events in Japanese history. Strict censorship laws were in place almost throughout the entire Edo period, prohibiting the representation of contemporary events and particularly prohibiting criticism of the shogunate or casting the shogunate in a bad light. Strict as the word of the law may have been, the strictness of enforcement varied greatly over the years. Most jidaimono, set in the context of the Genpei War of the 1180s, the Nanboku-chō Wars of the 1330s, or other historical events, actually used these historical settings, and the events and historical figures within them, as thinly veiled 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 townspeople and peasants. Often referred to as “domestic plays” in English, sewamono generally related to themes of family drama and romances. Some of the most famous sewamono are likely the 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. Many if not most sewamono contain significant elements of this theme of societal pressures and limitations.
Important characteristics 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. An even greater compliment can be paid by shouting the name of the actor’s father. Keshō, kabuki makeup, provides an element of style 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 for the actors. 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.
Kabuki, like other traditional forms of drama in Japan as well as in other cultures around the world, was (and sometimes still is) performed in full-day programs. Rather than attending a single play for 2–5 hours, as one might do in a modern Western-style theater, one would “escape” from the day-to-day world, devoting a full day to entertainment in the theater district. Though some plays, particularly the historical jidaimono, might go on for an entire day, most plays were shorter and would be arranged, in full or in part, alongside other plays in order to produce a full-day program. This was because it was required in kabuki play to get the audience showing different preference, that is in either the history plays or domestic plays like a drama, to enjoy during the full-day program.
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 countless other traditional Japanese arts. Chief among these is the concept of jo-ha-kyū (序破急), which states that all things should be done at a certain pace, one which starts out slow, speeds up, and ends 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 would be performed in five acts, the first one corresponding to jo, an auspicious and slow opening which introduces the audience to the characters and the plot. The next three acts would correspond to ha, speeding events up, culminating almost always 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 very short, providing a quick and satisfying conclusion.
While many plays were written for kabuki, many others were taken from jōruri plays, Noh plays, folklore, or other performing traditions such as the oral tradition of the Tale of the Heike. While plays taken from jōruri tend to have serious, emotionally dramatic, and organized plots, those plays written specifically for kabuki generally have far looser, sillier plots. One of the crucial differences in the philosophy of the two forms is that jōruri focuses primarily on the story and on the chanter who recites it, while kabuki focuses more on the actors. Thus, it is not unknown in a jōruri play to sacrifice the details of sets, puppets, or onstage action in favor of directing attention to the chanter, while by contrast kabuki is known to sacrifice drama and even the plot itself in favor of showing off an actor’s talents. It was not uncommon in kabuki to insert or remove individual scenes from a day’s schedule in order to cater to the talents or desires of an individual actor—scenes he was famed for, or better at showing off in, would be inserted into a day’s program where it made no sense in terms of plot continuity.
Another crucial stylistic element of kabuki is the difference between traditions in Edo and in Kamigata (the Kyoto-Osaka region). Through most of the Edo period, kabuki in Edo was defined by extravagance and bombast, as exemplified by stark makeup patterns, flashy costumes, fancy keren (stage tricks), and bold mie (poses). Kamigata kabuki, meanwhile, was much calmer in tone and focused on naturalism and realism in acting. Only towards the end of the Edo period in the 19th century did the two regions begin to adopt one another’s styles to any significant degree. For a long time, actors from one region often failed to adjust to the styles of the other region and were unsuccessful in their performance tours of that region.
* Kanadehon Chūshingura (Treasury of Loyal Retainers) is the famous story of the Forty-seven Ronin who track down their lord’s killer, and exact revenge upon him before committing seppuku as required by their code of honor upon the death of their lord.
* Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura (Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees) follows Minamoto no Yoshitsune as he flees from agents of his brother 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, as does a kitsune named Genkurō.
* 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, kami (divine spirit) of scholarship, and worshipped in order to propitiate his angry spirit.