When one thinks of Japanese high art, alongside haiku, ukiyo-e, and the movies of Yasujiro Ozu, kabuki is most probably one of the first mediums to come to mind. However, much like the plays of Shakespeare, that some 9,000km away were beginning to gain popularity at around the same time, Kabuki, the classical Japanese dance-theatre known for the stylization of its drama and for the elaborate make-up worn by some of its performers, is an art form that was created to entertain the masses.
In fact, to the die hard fans who continue to enjoy it today, it still is, very much, just that.
The history of kabuki
Kabuki dates back to 1603 when Izumo no Okuni, a Shinto priestess, began performing a new style of dance drama in the dry riverbeds of Kyoto. From there the art form grew into short comic plays depicting daily life. Female actors performed both male and female parts with ribald and suggestive themes that grew to be instantly popular, a popularity that was in part thanks to the ‘red light district’ locations of the theatres and the fact that many of the performers were available for prostitution.
One place in which kabuki did not enjoy popularity was with the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate, who prudishly disapproved of the playlets’ indecent nature and the mixing of the social classes in its theatres, and thus onna-kabuki, women’s kabuki, was banned.
However, in the place of onna-kabuki sprung up wakashū-kabuki with the roles played by young boys, but as the performers were still prostitutes, this too was soon outlawed, and replaced in the mid-1600s with the modern style of yaro-kabuki, with adult male actors playing the roles.
In this time, with the shift of performers’ gender, and feminine-looking male actors called onnagata playing the women’s roles, the emphasis of the performances moved from dance towards drama. Despite the fact that the ‘onnagata’ were too part of the sex industry (with many shows breaking into chaos when audience members fought over the affections of particularly attractive onnagata), kabuki continued to thrive and became formalised during its ‘golden era’ between 1673 and 1841 to resemble the art form we recognise today.
Traditional tropes of kabuki
The kabuki stage is perhaps like nothing you have seen before. Particularly unusual is the ‘hanamichi’ (flower path), a pathway that, as you can see from the above picture, leads from the back of the theatre, through the audience. It is from here that characters often emerge and depart, and it is regularly a place from which a soliloquy will be held. The stage often includes various mechanicalfeatures such as ‘sari’ trapdoors, ‘mawari-butai’ revolving sections, and ‘chūnori’ installations, from where an actor will be assisted in flying out across the audience on wires, often during battle scenes.
Keshō, kabuki makeup, is the most recognisable characteristic of kabuki. On a white foundation, facial lines are exaggerated to produce almost animalistic features. The color of the make up is traditionally denotes the character’s nature with red used to indicate passion, heroism and other positive traits; green, the supernatural; purple, nobility and the colours blue or black pointing out the bad guy.
The mie pose is another important trope of kabuki, in which the actor holds a strong, dynamic stance to establish his character. At this point his house name is often called out by regular audience members, much in the same way sports fans will sing a star player’s name.
In fact the audience is perhaps more boisterous than you would expect. For a start, many of the audience members will be seen eating ‘bento’ lunch boxes, drinking or eating snacks. Also, much like in the traditional forms of Shakespeare theatre, the audience will often call out to the stage and, in some of the more relaxed forms, the actors will interact with their fans, in some instances helping themselves to audience members’ food from the hanamichi.
Where to see kabuki in Tokyo
Kabuki continues to be popular in Japan, and while it can be expensive (some tickets are upwards of 20,000 JPY, a far cry from its humble beginnings as an entertainment for the masses) there are three main theaters at which we can catch a show in Tokyo.
Kabuki-za in Ginza is the main kabuki theatre in Tokyo. Opened in 1889 by Meiji era journalist, Fukuchi Gen’ichirō, it has been run by the Shochiku Corporation since 1914. Performances are staged most days, and tickets are sold for individual acts as well as for each play in its entirety.
Located between Tsukiji Market and Ginza, Shinbashi Enbujo is something of a younger sister to the more famous Kabuki-za. Originally built in 1925 to house performances of local ‘geisha’, today it sees performances of a variety of acts, including, of course, kabuki.
- Where: 6-18-2 Ginza, Chuo-ku (map)
- Tel: 03-3541-2600
- Website: www.shinbashi-enbujo.co.jp (Japanese) www.kabuki-bito.jp (English)
Kokuritsu Gekijo is Japan’s national theatre, and as well as kabuki shows various traditional Japanese theatrical performances within its three halls. Kabuki is mainly shown in its largest halls, with the likes of Noh and bunyu on its smaller stages.
Meiji-za in Hisamatsu-chô dates back to 1873, and has undergone a variety of misfortunes ever since – burning down in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, bombed out during WW2, rebuilt in 1950, and again burned down again seven years later. In spite of these mishaps, it continues to put on shows periodically throughout the year.
For details of where and when shows are being performed, check out the Tokyo Kabuki Guide at www.tokyokabukiguide.com
Photo: wikipedia.com “Oniji Ōtani III (Nakazō Nakamura II) as Edobee in the May 1794 production of Koi Nyōbo Somewake Tazuna” (Public Domain) -Modified
Photo: wikipedia.com “The July 1858 production of Shibaraku at the Ichimura-za theater in Edo.” by Utagawa Toyokuni III. (Public Domain) -Modified