Kabuki Theater

Kabuki is classical and traditional form of Japanese dance and drama theater that has its origins in the Edo Period. It is known for the elaborate costumes and makeup worn by its actors. Kabuki is more popular among the lower class and common folks than the Noh theater, which is popular among the upper classes of society.

The word "Kabuki" is composed of three Japanese characters: "ka" representing "songs," "bu" representing "dance" and "ki" representing "skill." This type of theater is reminiscent of a performance of a Shakespearean play in a Japanese opera house. Kabuki is performed on a rotating stage with small trapdoors through which the actors can slide away, disappearing and reappearing as warranted. The stage extends into the audience like a footbridge, so the audience is close up to the actors.

Kabuki theater was started in the early 17th century by Okuni, a shrine dancer in Kyoto. It featured a blend of religious dance and folk dances performed by an all women's dance group. Eventually women were banned from performing in Kabuki theater because the men were constantly staring at the women, who were being lured into prostitution. As a result, only men were permitted to act, even taking on the female roles.

Kabuki performances are made up of differing elements and many colors that give it its unique glamor. These elements include dramatic content, musical elements, stories, costume, makeup and theater design. The themes of Kabuki plays can revolve around moral conflicts, history and romantic relationships.

The music in a Kabuki play contains special audio effects. Chanting is accompanied by flutes, drums and a shamisen, which is a type of stringed instrument. The most outstanding and interesting sound is the banging of two wooden clappers, which signals the start and the end of every play.

Costumes help the performers portray the hidden and complex deep meanings of the roles they play. Makeup and colorful face paintings are also a very important component of Kabuki theater. Another aspect of Kabuki theater is what the Japanese refer to as actor-audience relationship, whereby the players come out on stage and speak directly to the audience. The art of performing in Kabuki theater is passed down from generation to generation, although the national Theater of Tokyo trains young children to become Kabuki performers.

The actual physical setup of a Kabuki theater has not changed since its inception. There is a long walkway from the rear of the theater until the stage, where many of the actors actually perform. This walkway is called the hanamichi, which means the flower way.

Dance is the foundation of all Kabuki plays and the actors are required to undergo years of training before they can begin performing in Kabuki plays. The dances are based on circling movements, where the heels must be kept very close to the floor, along with many turns and the use of mimes and props.

Kabuki acting is comprised of two different styles: aragoto is rough acting and wagoto is soft acting. Aragoto actors are usually portrayed as being superhuman or super-heroic people. They can always be recognized by the special design of their makeup, which is painted in red, black and blue stripes on their face, arms and legs.

Everything about aragato actors is exaggerated. They possess very loud and powerful voices and they find themselves always braying, screaming and bellowing their lines. Their costumes and wigs are also on a very large scale.

Kabuki theater is still performed today in Japan as it was performed nearly 400 years ago, and has undergone very little change. It is a genuine and authentic unbroken tradition of theatrical performance.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Kabuki Theatre
Earle Ernst.
Oxford University Press, 1956
The Kabuki Theatre of Japan
A. C. Scott.
George Allen & Unwin, 1955
1954: Selling Kabuki to the West
Wetmore, Kevin J., Jr.
Asian Theatre Journal, Vol. 26, No. 1, Spring 2009
Japanese Theatre and the International Stage
Stanca Scholz-Cionca; Samuel L. Leiter.
Brill, 2001
Librarian’s tip: "Performance and Text in Kabuki" begins on p. 177
The Traditional Theater of Japan
Yoshinobu Inoura; Toshio Kawatake.
Weatherhill, 1981
Crosscurrents in the Drama: East and West
Stanley Vincent Longman.
University of Alabama Press, vol.6, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Part I "Keynote Papers: Kabuki and the West"
Japanese Aesthetics and Culture: A Reader
Nancy G. Hume.
State University of New York Press, 1995
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 9 "The Social Environment of Tokugawa Kabuki"
18th Century Japan: Culture and Society
C. Andrew Gerstle.
Curzon Press, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "Flowers of Edo: Kabuki and Its Patrons"
Kabuki Goes Hollywood
Hornby, Richard.
The Hudson Review, Vol. 61, No. 3, Autumn 2008
America's Kabuki-Japan, 1952-1960: Image Building, Myth Making, and Cultural Exchange
Thornbury, Barbara E.
Asian Theatre Journal, Vol. 25, No. 2, Fall 2008
Restoring an Imagined Past: The National Theatre and the Question of Authenticity in Kabuki. (Articles)
Thornbury, Barbara E.
Asian Theatre Journal, Vol. 19, No. 1, Spring 2002
Artistic Direction in Takechi Kabuki
Tetsuji, Takechi.
Asian Theatre Journal, Vol. 20, No. 1, Spring 2003
Kabuki: Five Classic Plays
James R. Brandon.
University of Hawaii Press, 1992
Six Kabuki Plays
Donald Richie; Miyoko Watanabe.
Hokuseido Press, 1963
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