In Kabuki's nascent period, women were the only performers in the plays. Soon women began attracting the wrong types of audiences and gaining too much attention from men. This type of attention raised some eyebrows and officials felt as if women were degrading the art of Kabuki. In 1629, women were banned from appearing in kabuki performances.
Since kabuki was already so popular, young male actors, known as wakashu (or sometimes oyama), took over after women were banned from performing. These young men could take the role of women due to their less masculine appearance and higher pitched voices in comparison to adult men. Along with the change in the performers' gender came a change in the emphasis of the performance: increased stress was placed on drama rather than dance. Their performances were equally ribald, however, and they too were available for prostitution (also to 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 young male actors in 1652.
The tremendous cultural changes begun in 1868 by 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.
Many kabuki houses were destroyed by bombing during World War II, and the occupying forces briefly banned kabuki performances after the war. However, by 1947 the ban had been rescinded, and performances began once more.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's popular and innovative productions of the kabuki classics at this time are credited with bringing about a rebirth of interest in the 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"大鹿", Nagano Prefecture"長野県", 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.
Kabuki was enlisted on the UNESCO's Third Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity on 24 November, 2005.
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 eighteenth 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 (riding in mid-air) is a technique, which appeared toward the middle of the nineteenth 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, Kabukiz-a 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.
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, however, 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 theater 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 complement 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.
Ronald Cavaye (1993) Kabuki - A Pocket Guide. USA and Japan: Charles E. Tuttle,
Ronald Cavaye, Paul Griffith and Akihiko Senda (2004). A Guide to the Japanese Stage. Japan: Kodansha International.
Scott, A. C. (1955). The Kabuki Theatre of Japan. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.
Ernst, E. (1956). The Kabuki Theatre. New York: Oxford University Press.
Senelick, L. (2000). The Changing Room: Sex, Drag, and Theatre. London: Routledge.
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Kabuki. 25 November 2007