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An Introduction to: Kabuki

Kabuki, Noh, Bunraku, Rakugo, Ukiyo-e and the Tale of Genji - maybe you've heard of these but have no clue what they are? Our new "Introduction to" series breaks down the best of Japan's traditional arts and culture, and shows how you can experience it for yourself.

By 5 min read 1

Kabuki is to the Japanese what Shakespeare is to the English: a timeless classic allowing us to inhibit, for an afternoon (or longer), another time and place. But while Shakespeare may be all about clever wordplay, Kabuki is all about clever staging. Whether it’s the astoundingly detailed costumes, intricately-designed sets, or the accomplished control of the actors and musicians: Kabuki is a nothing short of a spectacle.

When did it all begin?

Kabuki is a traditional form of Japanese theatre which originated during the Edo Period, stretching from 1603 until 1868. Don’t get bogged down with these old dates though, Kabuki can also be a very modern affair.

Take the recent One Piece Kabuki performed at Tokyo’s Shinbashi Enbujo theatre, for example. A UNESCO certified cultural artifact combined with a popular manga involving straw-hat wearing pirates: it was a smash hit.

Kabuki isn’t just performed in dedicated theatres either; many Japanese festivals feature Kabuki as a form of street entertainment.

The Kabukiza Theatre in Ginza, Tokyo.

I’m interested, tell me more!

Kabuki has become synonymous with all-male theatre troupes, but did you know that it all began with a woman named Izumo no Okuni?

Okuni developed a unique style of dance-drama that told comic tales of ordinary life, performed by her all-female theatre troupe who played both male and female roles. It became so popular that she was asked to perform in front of the Imperial Court. Rival theatre companies set up in the wake of her success and Kabuki spread rapidly throughout Japan.

The famous Yoshiwara district of Edo (basically an older and even wilder version of today’s Kabukicho) had many theatres dedicated to Kabuki where people of all backgrounds met under one roof. In the wake of allegations of prostitution, paired with the scandalous mingling of the higher and lower classes, the shogunate banned female performances of Kabuki in 1629 (since history dictates that when women find something entertaining, it’s doomed to be banned and/or criminalised).

So the all-male troupes we come to associate with modern Kabuki took over in their stead.

Back in the day, beautiful adolescents were often picked to play women. These actors generally went on to become incredibly popular, attracting rich and powerful patrons. Sometimes their fans got a little carried away in their adoration and mass brawls broke out. This naturally left the shogunate to do what they do best; they banned both female roles and young men from the stage until 1652.

But there was no stopping the Kabuki train.

During the Golden Age (from 1673 until 1841) Kabuki was the most popular form of entertainment with many of today’s most famous plays, customs and styles formalised during this time. After a post-war decline, Kabuki saw a comeback and is still the most popular form of traditional Japanese theatre today.

Okay, thanks for the history lesson but what do I actually need to know before I see a Kabuki play?

Honestly, you can easily go into Kabuki without any prior research. Most major theatres nowadays have English audio guides and captions. At the very least, you’ll be provided with a program which outlines the basic plot in English.

But here are three things to look out for:

1. Performance time

Pretty much every full-length play consists of five acts, which means a Kabuki performance can take a whole day. So if you’re on a tight schedule, book tickets for one or two acts only. The first act is usually very slow, the second and fourth will probably feature battle scenes, the third is full of drama and tragedy, the fifth provides a short and satisfying conclusion.

2. The stage

Ever since Okuni started performing kabuki, a walkway or “hanamichi” (flower path) has been used for actors to enter and exit, as well as perform important scenes. If you want to get up-close and personal, book a seat near this to see the full impact of the costuming and makeup. Also watch out for revolving stages, trap doors and “chunori”, when actors fly through the air attached to wires!

3. Poses and colours

If you’ve seen any pictures of a Kabuki performance, you’ll probably have noticed the dramatic poses that actors hold for a long period of time. The poses, named “mie” in Japanese, are there to establish a character to the audience.

Holding a strong and powerful pose? Probably a warrior or hero. Holding a beautiful and delicate pose? Probably a princess or the hero’s love interest.

Similarly, bright or strong colours usually express positive emotions or foolishness. Dark or pale colours often represent determination and seriousness. This is often represented through the costume or the “kumadori”, the lines drawn onto an actor’s face to give them a mask-like quality.

Alright, I think I’m ready! Where can I experience it?

If you’re in the capital, Tokyo’s Kabukiza, Shimbashi Enbujo Theatre and the National Theatre are highly recommended. Down in Kansai, Kyoto’s Minamiza Theatre offers an unforgettable experience in Kabuki’s homeland and Osaka’s Shochiku-za Theatre knows how to put on a show.

Festivals more your thing? Ishikawa prefecture hosts the Otabi Festival in the town of Komatsu in May, famous for its Kabuki performances by children. As is the Nagahama Hikiyama Festival, one of the three Great Float Festivals of Japan, held from early to mid April in Shiga prefecture.

Alternatively, Kochi’s Ekin Museum (dedicated to the talented 19th century artist frequently commissioned to paint backdrops for Kabuki) and associated festival brings Kabuki magic to Kyushu during the third week of July every year.

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