Origins of Kabuki Theatre
Kabuki is a stylized traditional form of Japanese Dance-Drama developed during the early 17th century. The name kabuki derives from kabuki which means “bizarre” or “out of the ordinary”. The kanji script for kabuki (歌舞伎) comprise the three symbols for “sing”, “dance” and “skill”.
The story goes that kabuki was invented as a new form in Kyoto, Japan in 1603 when Izumo no Okuni started performing a new form of dance drama on the dry riverbeds of Kyoto. The original stories were comic involving female and male performers in short plays or playlets about everyday life. Some people draw comparisons between Kabuki and the commedia dell arte because of these elements. Originally many ensemble sequences were often performed by females and some people claim that the dubious origins of some of the dancers often led to kabuki being associated with prostitution. Originally performances would go from morning until sunset and the theatres in the original district in Kyoto where kabuki was performed were often linked with teahouses. Eventually in 1629, female kabuki (or onna-kabuki) were banned for being too erotic and male actors (yaro-kabuki) started to take on both female and male roles.
The exclusion of women from performing sparked a new age in kabuki as a performance art. More emphasis started to be put on the drama and the stories rather than the dance form. Just like in Elizabethan theatre in England, young males played the female roles. The erotic elements of the form still continued however and links to prostitution and immorality still continued.
Chikamatsu Monzaemon and the Genroku Period
The Genroku period, from the 1680’s through to the early 1700’s, saw the legitimization of Kabuki and heralded what many call the golden age of kabuki. Like commedia dell arte this partly came through the development of archetypal characters. Also this period saw the adding of more theatrical conventions as kabuki specific venues and theatres were built. The integration of puppet sequences which later became the form of bunraku puppetry, added to the appeal of the form.
During this time arguably Japan’s greatest playwright (who worked in both the kabuki and the bunraku forms) Chikamatsu Monzaemon wrote some 130 plays (Shakespeare probably wrote and collaborated on 39 plays). Chikamatsu Monzaemon was from a samurai class family. Probably almost 100 of his plays were written for bunraku puppet theatre performance but at least 20 were written for kabuki theatre or were seen in a kabuki theatre after adaptation from the bunraku form. Many of Chikamatsu's plays are domestic tragedies are based an actual events. His Sonezaki shinju or The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, for example, was based on reports of an actual double suicide. In this play, an apprentice clerk and his lover, a prostitute in the pleasure quarters, finding no other way to be together, decide to commit a double suicide so that they can at least be united in death. His most famous play, Kikusenya Kassen or Battles of the Kikusenya, chronicles the story of a Tarter king's invasion of China after his demand for the Ming emperor's favorite concubine as the price of friendship is denied.
Another famous Japanese actor and playwright who was prominent just a little later was Ichikawa Danjuro who wrote about 6 plays and performed in over 50 plays. He is credited with developing the aragoto style of acting which is typifies the gestural and pose elements of kabuki. He also probably invented the kumadori mask-like makeup.
The rise and decline of kabuki
By the late 1800’s, kabuki started to receive more acceptance by the upper classes and even started to attract royal sponsoring of some plays. After World War II, kabuki went into decline because of a ban by the occupying forces. By 1947, the ban was lifted. The influential Japanese director Tetsuji Takechi revived the form during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s before he went on to work in Noh Drama and later in the film business. Japanese writer and actor Yukio Mishima also re-popularised and re-contextualised kabuki in modern settings. Kabuki started to become popular outside of Japan and the Australian kabuki troupe Za Kabuki has performed a kabuki play on the grounds of the Australian National University every year since 1976. In 2002, for the 200th anniversary of kabuki, a statue was erected in honour of kabuki’s founder Izumo no Okuni in Kyoto.
Conventions of Kabuki theatre
The kabuki theatre a stage area and an extra stage or walkway called a Hannamichi which extends into the audience. Some kabuki stages have trap doors, or revolving stages and other staging effects. Sometimes actors enter “riding on mid-air” using Chūnori or wiring attached to the actor’s costume. Sometimes a small wagon stage or Hiki Dōgu is used to change sets.
There are three main genres or types of kabuki plays jidai-mono (historical plays), sewa-mono (domestic plays or dramas) and shosagoto (dance dramas). Many plays use were taken from jōruri plays which often involve stories from folklore however kabuki with its predisposition towards comic forms often reconfigures these stories into looser forms and often even uses slapstick style comedy.
Important aspects of kabuki include mie where an actor holds a still image or picturesque pose to initially establish the character. Slow gestural acting known as the aragoto style of acting. The Kesho kabuki style of makeup which uses rice powder to create a white oshiroi base and then kumadori colourful features done in red, blue, black green or purple are added (often in animal or supernatural forms). Red as a colour is used to indicate positive or passionate elements while black and blue indicate negative elements. Green is used for supernatural elements while purple is used for royal elements or nobility. The slow movements used in kabuki fit with the principle of jo-ha-kyu which states that the pace of acting and a performance should start slow, speed up and end quickly.
· Students remove shoes and sit on the floor
· An overview is given of the kabuki theatre style (a video can even be shown). Show a video of Kabuki style theatre. Discuss the attributes of this form of theatre. Compare and contrast the form to Noh Drama and other Japanese theatre styles.
· Fans are passed to each member of the group
· Each students is asked to stand up and reveal the expression of different states or emotions e.g. crying, laughter, terror, rage, life and death
· Students try on a traditional Japanese costume or even a kimono and the symbolism of colours in kabuki theatre is talked about
· Students experiment with trying to show different types of characters e.g. samurai (extreme males), onnagata (extreme females), the priest, koken (stage hands normally busy and in black)
· Students perform a simple Japanese folktale in kabuki style
Resources and References
Bowers, F. (1974). Japanese Theatre. Charles E. Tuttle. Rutland, Vermont.
Brandon, J. & Leiter, S.L. eds. (2002). Kabuki Plays on Stage. University of Hawai’I Press. Honolulu.
Cavaye, R. (1993). Kabuki: A Pocket Guide. Charles E. Tuttle. New York.
Ernst, E. (1956). The Kabuki Theatre. Oxfors University Press. New York.
Scott, A.C. (1955). The Kabuki Theatre of Japan. Allen & Unwin. London.
Senelick, L. (2000). The Changing Room: Sex, Drag, and Theatre. Routledge. London.
Shoko, K. (2000).The Complete Guide to Traditional Japanese Performing Arts. Kodansha. Tokyo.
Japanese Theatre Form Lessons
Primary Lesson for Kabuki Theatre
Kabuki Plays and Japanese Folk Stories to use for Kabuki
A Guide to Japanese Theatre References
Videos of Kabuki Theatre