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 Kabuki.
Interesting Things to Know About the Kabuki Culture in Japan
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.
The Start of Kabuki – Kabuki Odori
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 centuries. 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 wore eccentric kimonos and invented a dance they called kabuki odori, with flashy and loud erotic movements when performed.
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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. It became so popular fights broke out in the audience during the performance. However, on the 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 in that they can distinguish acting male from female roles; some 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.
Kabuki Terms to Remember
When you next go to watch a kabuki play, look out for these staging and acting characteristics that are special to kabuki.
The Mawari-Butai 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.
The hanamichi is the aisle running from the stage to the rear of the theatre through the audience.
Kuroko are those ninja-like stagehands wearing black who sometimes appear on the stage to help actors but have no direct connection with the story. As a result, the kuroko are considered invisible to the audience.
Kumadori is the make-up applied with grease paint, following the muscles of the face of the actors. Red makeup is for heroes, and black is for villains.
The odachi is what you call that broadsword more than two meters long that most actors bring during the play.
Aragto 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 break, the actor exaggerates his gestures and then holds a pose at the critical point. Some people from the audience shout at the actor during the Mie but don’t worry, as it’s only a form of praise for the actor.
Myouseki and Shuumei
Most kabuki actors have stage names (myouseki) they are known by. Part of this culture is stage name inheritance. The act of inheriting a stage name is called shuumei. The more experienced the actor is, the more chances he has of inheriting an increasingly famous kabuki name.
Where to Experience Kabuki While Visiting Japan
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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 Japanese yet, don’t worry as there are theatres that provide an English summary before the play starts for some plays (make sure you check this in advance).