Interesting things to know about the Kabuki culture in Japan
Japan is also widely-known for its vibrant theatre scene, which is a mixture of productions inspired by western traditions and original Japanese classical plays. Aside from Noh, Kyougen, and Bunrako, another famous traditional stage art you should experience while living in Tokyo is the Kabuki.
Kabuki involves ornately designed costumes, heavy embellished make-up and wigs, and exaggerated dances and actions by performers. It was named one of the masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2005; and an Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009.
Back in the seventeenth century, a kabuki show was first performed by women in Kyoto to raise money for a shrine. A Shinto priestess named Izumo no Okuni and her female troupe were the first recorded performers of kabuki, which only became a refined form of theatre during the 18th and 19th century.
Kabuki, which means singing (ka), dancing (bu) and acting (ki) or songs and dance technique, is believed to be derived from the word “kabuko” which means tilted, out of the ordinary, bizarre or offbeat. During the Edo period, the first kabuki performers were wearing eccentric kimono and invented a dance they called kabuki odori, with flashy and loud erotic movements when performed.
Which means avant-garde dance, was the earliest form of the kabuki play known for its erotic dances performed by female sex workers (youjyu) and young boys with some musical instruments like the shamisen. However, on grounds that it would harm public morals, the Tokugawa Shogunate eventually prohibited women from performing kabuki.
Nowadays, women, children, princesses, and other female roles are only played by men actors. These kabuki actors are dynamic that they are able to distinguish men from women; some of them are specialists in playing female roles and are called onnagata.
The plots of the kabuki play are also based on historical events, moral conflicts, love stories, tragedy and drama, among others. When you watch a kabuki play soon, remember some of these terms, too.
- is the revolving stage used to shift the scenes during the play and seri is what you call the platform that can be raised and lowered from below the stage to make kabuki actors appear and disappear.
– is the aisle running from the stage to the rear of the theatre through the audience.
- are those ninja-like stagehands wearing black who sometimes appear on the stage to help actors but they have no direct connection with the story at all. The kuroko are considered invisible to the audience.
- is the make-up applied with grease paint, following the muscles of the face of the actors. Red make-up is for heroes and black is for villains.
- is what you call that broadsword more than two meters long that most actors bring during the play.
- is the style of acting for expressing anger during the play; Tachimawari is the fight scene played in a very stylized fashion similar to dancing; and Mie is the pause the actor does to appear more impressive. Before the pause, the actor exaggerates his gestures and then holds a pose at the critical point. There are some people from the audience that shout at the actor during the Mie, but don’t worry, as it’s only a form of praise to the actor.
Take note that most of the kabuki actors have stage names other than their birth names. They call it myouseki. The Kabuki culture also has a culture of inheriting a stage name and they call this act as shuumei. The more experienced the actor is, the more chances of inheriting a more famous kabuki name.
In Tokyo, Kabuki is performed every month at the Kabukiza Theatre in Ginza. You can check the schedule and ticket information on Kabuki’s website. If you aren’t confident with your Nihonggo yet, worry not because some theaters gave foreign guests with English summary before the play starts.