Traditional Japanese theater style.
Kabuki is the most well-known of Japan's many theatrical styles. Known for the colorful makeup, costumes, and stage decor; the melodrama; the rhythmic grace of the actors' motions; and the complex use of music and sound effects, Kabuki has become popular with audiences worldwide. Kabuki is often thought of as “the actor's theater” because of its stress on the immediacy of performance and visual stagecraft rather than on dialogue. However, there have been several notable Kabuki playwrights, including Chikamatsu Monzaemon, sometimes referred to as the “Shakespeare of Japan.” Since its origin as a dance drama performed exclusively by women, Kabuki has undergone many changes—banning women from the stage and establishing the specialist performance by men of female roles (onnagata); borrowing features and ideas from Nōh theater and the puppet drama (Jōruri); and increasingly emphasizing stylized, gaudy, and overstated elements—while maintaining its popular appeal. Kabuki theater continues to enjoy enormous popularity in Japan today, and is regarded as an important means of preserving seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Japanese cultural values in an historical context.
Kabuki has its origins in the late sixteenth century or early seventeenth century in the Kabuki dance (Kabuki odori) performed on the Kamo riverbed by Okuni (also O-Kuni), a shrine maiden at the Grand Shrine of Izumo in Kyoto. Okuni's dance-dramas were a popular success, and soon their scale increased and a number of rival companies arose. The early performers of Kabuki were mostly female—many of whom also worked as prostitutes—but in 1629 the government banned women from the stage in an effort to protect public morality. This law marked the end of the “women's Kabuki” period, and young men began to take the stage, some of whom were originally actors from the Nōh theater. But in 1652 “young men's Kabuki” was also prohibited by the government because it was said to encourage homosexuality and promote male prostitution. Though many avoided the prohibition by shaving the front hair of the young men—which made them officially adults—a new form, “adult male Kabuki,” was established. During this period, the specialist performance by men of women's roles was established as a separate category of acting, and theaters were built in the cultural centers of Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo (present-day Tokyo). Government regulations continued to be strict, but several developments were made in the theatrical form, as simple dances were transformed into complex, formalized dance pieces (called shosagato) and elements of comedy and realism were introduced from Nōh theater.
During the Genroku period (1688 to 1720), the Japanese townspeople experienced a cultural renaissance. As the main form of theatrical entertainment for commoners, Kabuki enjoyed immense popularity and blossomed as an art form. Stylizations that would form the basis for later Kabuki—including play structure, character types, and the art of the onnagata—took form. It is said that the degree of excellence reached by Kabuki actors in the Genroku period was unparalleled, as actors such as Ichikawa Danjuro I, Sakata Tōjūrō, and Yoshizawa Ayame perfected their craft and established distinctive role types: Tōjūrō was celebrated for his sensitive lover (wagoto) roles, and Danjuro was known for his violent superhero (aragoto) portrayals, while Ayame is considered the greatest onnagata of all time.
Another important development during the Genroku period was the emergence of the first professional dramatists—rather than actors, often working in collaboration—writing for the Kabuki theater. The most well known of these was Chikamatsu Monzaemon, a playwright of both Kabuki and Jōruri puppet theater. Chikamatsu's puppet dramas were often adapted for the Kabuki theater, and the scripts of his Jōruri plays commonly featured stylizations from Kabuki. Most Kabuki plays until Chikamatsu's time had been based on disputes within high-ranking families, but he introduced the sewamono genre—plays concerning commoners in Japanese society—and brought literary and philosophical aspects to the form. Especially popular were Chikamatsu's love suicide plays, in which young couples decide to take their own lives when social pressures keep them from being together.
Kabuki's popularity declined during the early part of the eighteenth century, in part because of government censorship; Kabuki had long relied on its sensationalism and scandalous content to attract audiences. Puppet theater was attracting more popular attention, and Kabuki actors had no choice but to imitate the style of performance of Jōruri and to borrow the scripts of puppet plays. Actors acquired tremendous control over their bodies and began to reproduce the motions of puppets, and stage techniques became more elaborate to compete with the magical world of Jōruri, including invention of the revolving stage to facilitate the otherwise time-consuming task of moving stage scenery. Because of these improvements, Kabuki enjoyed a revitalization and soon overshadowed its rivals in the puppet theater. The period of Kabuki known as Edo Kabuki (1751 to 1788), in which the development of Kabuki took place in Edo rather than in Kyoto or Osaka, saw significant developments in music. Music in Edo was encouraged by a group of eighteen cultured men, and their patronage was responsible for what was to become the golden age of the Kabuki as music-drama.
Although Kabuki continued to develop after 1800, the Kabuki that is performed today is in many ways the same form as was seen on the stage during the end of the eighteenth century. In the early nineteenth century there was a trend toward portraying all types of evil—such as torture, incest, and sadism—on stage, and after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 a movement was started to adapt Kabuki to the spirit of the modern world. However, even as Kabuki has developed in style and content, it retains many of the elements it acquired during the 1700s, from the physical virtuosity of its actors to the use of colorful costumes and depiction of outlandish events. Because of the emphasis in Kabuki on performance, there is little interest among scholars in offering critical analyses of its most important plays; many feel, in fact, that to read a Kabuki play in print gives the reader no indication of its artistic power. Critics writing in English about seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Kabuki have thus tended to concentrate on the social and historical context surrounding the development of the form or on artistic elements such as acting, stage techniques, and music. The Kabuki play that has garnered the most critical attention is Chūsingura (1748; The Treasury of the Loyal Retainers). This play, about retainers' loyalty to a feudal lord even beyond his death, contains all the elements that make for great, melodramatic Kabuki theater, with a plot revolving around a high-ranking family as well as characters in brothels, scenes taking place in various backgrounds, and sharply defined characters who represent good and evil. Critics point out that while the written Chūsingura offers exciting twists and turns, the dialogue of the play does little justice to the magnificence of the work as it is performed on stage—evidence that Kabuki should not be considered so much a literary art form as a visual theatrical experience.
Sambaso [The Dance of Sambaso; adaptation of Nōh drama] 1650
Narukami [The Fall of Recluse Saint Narukami] 1684
Chikagoro Kawara-no Tatehiki [Kabuki adaptation of sewajoruri] 1782
Bunkodo and Hasegawa Senshi
Kajiwara Hiso Homare-no Ishikiri [The Stone-Cutting Feat of Kajiwara Kagetoki; adapted as a Kabuki play 1795] 1730
Ya no Ne 1729
Sammon Gosan-no Kiri [The Story of Goemon; adaptation of jida drama] 1778
Chikamatsu Hanji, Takemoto Saburobei, and Miyoshi Shoraku
Ohmi-Genji Senyin Yakata [Moritsuna's Battle Camp; Kabuki adaptation of Ningyo-joruri] 1770
Chikamatsu Hanji, Matsuda Baku, and Miyoshi Shoraku
Imose-yama Onna Teikin [The Precept of Noble Womanhood] c. 1771
Chikamatsu Hanji and Chikamatsu Kasuku
Iga-goye Dochu Sugoroku [Revenge Sought Across the Path of Iga] 1791
Tsuda Hanjuro, Yasuda Abumi, and Nakada Mansaku
The Fall of Recluse Saint Narukami 1742
Takeda Izumo, Miyoshi Shoraku, and Namiki Senryu
Yoshitsune Sembonzakura [Yoshitsume and One Thousand Cherry Trees; adapted for Kabuki theater in 1746] 1745
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SOURCE: Arnott, Peter. “The Theatre Suspected.” In The Theatres of Japan, pp. 152-74. London: Macmillan, 1969.
[In the following excerpt, Arnott argues that the structure of Kabuki is distinctly different from that of modern Western drama, as it presents a succession of individual moments in response to the Buddhist idea of impermanence; is self-conscious about the dramatic utility of its elements; reproduces the sentence-pattern of the Japanese language; and mirrors the hopes and fears of its audience through romantic stories.]
The present kabuki stage has its own permanent architectural features, though these may often be disguised with scenery. Downstage right is a grille behind which the musicians sit. Any scenery set in front of it is, almost invariably, similarly pierced, so that even in the most realistic set the musicians' place is obvious. Downstage left is the small alcove with its miniature revolve, the usual place for the joruri chanter. If the setting makes this impossible, there is another, higher alcove he can use; and when the set is really complicated, he may be driven out upon the forestage. Most of the stage space is occupied by the large revolve, and studded with trapdoors, some large enough for whole buildings or bridges to rise into sight. Stage settings are unfailingly magnificent, and utilize the full width of the stage to show several buildings, or rooms in the...
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SOURCE: Ortolani, Benito. “Kabuki.” In The Japanese Theatre: From Shamanistic Ritual to Contemporary Pluralism, pp. 153-99. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1990.
[In the following excerpt, Ortolani provides a critical overview of Kabuki's historical and socio-political development, its use of supernatural elements, and its major figures and works, including the playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon and the play Chūshingura.]
BACKGROUND OF KABUKI AND JōRURI
The history of Edo's theatrical splendor under the Tokugawa regime (1603-1868) has been the subject of several studies by Japanese and western authors, especially since World War II. The wealth of information available makes it possible to reconstruct a rather accurate picture of the complex and fascinating kabuki and jōruri worlds. Especially important are those studies that relate these genres to the phenomenal development of the new middle class in Edo and Osaka, the big Japanese cities that shared with Kyoto, and eventually took over from it, the leadership of theatrical fashion.
All authors agree that kabuki and jōruri are the typical theatrical expressions of the Tokugawa culture as it developed in the urban milieu, where the merchants played the main role in their fluctuating and ambiguous position of energetic economic leadership in the face of socio-political...
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Criticism: The Development Of Kabuki
SOURCE: Scott, A. C. “Plays and Playwrights.” In The Kabuki Theatre of Japan, pp. 199-235. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1955.
[In the following excerpt, Scott explains that in the early years of Kabuki's development, the play and playwright did not assume as central role as they have always done in Western theater—since dialogue was only as important as movement, gesture, music, and dance—and points out that the craft of writing for the theatre eventually developed into a profession of which there were several notable Kabuki practitioners who produced enduring works, including the hugely popular Chūshingura.]
The Kabuki play has always laid great emphasis on visual appeal and pictorial effect. In a sense all drama aims at visual appeal, but whereas in the Occident, at any rate in more orthodox playwriting, any visual effect is merely a support to the all important spoken word, the reverse is true of the Kabuki. Here the dialogue is only a part of the general stage pattern, it supplements and assists but does not supersede movement and gesture on the stage. The aim of the Kabuki playwright, as previously noted, was to draw a picture, not a Chinese character, in short to start with pictorial not literary effect. This characteristic is predominant throughout all Kabuki plays and even when more complicated psychological elements were introduced through the stage characters, and the realism of the...
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SOURCE: Gerstle, C. Andrew. “Flowers of Edo: Eighteenth-Century Kabuki and Its Patrons.” Asian Theatre Journal 4, No. 1 (Spring, 1987): 52-75.
[In the following essay, Gerstle argues that the Kabuki theater that developed in Edo in the eighteenth century is strikingly different from that seen in Kyoto or Osaka during the same period, and maintains that Edo Kabuki's amoral, outlandish image was fed by the Confucian government's stifling conservatism as well as the theater audience's desire and fascination for Kabuki's defiance of authority.]
At Tokyo's National Theatre, kabuki plays conceived and premiered during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are performed today, yet the audience's experience is radically different from that of the period before 1868. Patrons of kabuki in Edo (Tokyo) in 1770 would not have felt comfortable at all in having their theatre so close to the seat of government (in view of the Diet and Imperial Palace and next to the Supreme Court) nor would they have enjoyed the quiet, almost solemn atmosphere or the ban on eating and drinking in their seats. In short, they would be bored to tears at the exalted National Theatre with its posh furnishings. They would feel a bit more comfortable at the Kabuki-za perhaps or would have at the old Shinbashi Enbujō Theatre recently demolished. If they wanted to get closer to eighteenth-century kabuki, they...
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SOURCE: Kominz, Laurence. “Origins of Kabuki Acting in Medieval Japanese Drama.” Asian Theatre Journal 5, No. 2 (Fall, 1988): 132-45.
[In the following essay, Kominz maintains that the impulse toward Kabuki drama began as early as the 1400s, and that Kabuki elements such as the role types aragoto (violent superhero) and wagoto (sensitive lover) are anticipated in such medieval plays as Soga Slices the Chest and Wada's Saké Party.]
Much of the appeal of Japan's kabuki theatre lies in its vivid contrasts and startling juxtapositions: the stylized sets, like woodblock prints, peopled by human actors who often move like puppets; the unsurpassable grace and femininity of the female impersonators; the wicked samurai, noble outlaws, and virtuous prostitutes who turn the social order upside down. Of kabuki's contrasts none has been as consistently popular as the combination in a single play of two totally different male characters, the violent superhero and the meek, sensitive lover. These role types are known respectively as aragoto (rough business) and wagoto (gentle business), and plays based on the adventures of the two types of characters have been performed regularly from the Genroku period (1680-1704) until the present. The perfection of the two role types is credited to the two greatest actors in kabuki history, the Kyoto wagoto...
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Criticism: Major Works
SOURCE: Leiter, Samuel L. “The Kabuki Juhachiban.” Literature East & West XVII, Nos. 2-3-4 (June-December, 1973): 320-34.
[In the following essay, Leiter discusses the different styles used in the collection of plays known as Juhachiban, or “Kabuki Eighteen,” and describes some of the most popular plays from the group, noting the Japanese fondness and reverence for these pieces, partly because of their association with the prestigious actor-family of Ichikawa.]
In the classical Kabuki play, Narukami, first presented in 1684, a young princess, Taema-no-hime, has come to the mountain retreat of the priest, Narukami, to trick him into releasing the rain-god, whom he has captured. Her method is seduction. When she feigns illness the priest undertakes to cure her and the following dialogue ensues:
… Oh, it pains!
How pitiful. … Here, let me massage you a little.
That would be more than I deserve. How could I ask a priest to … ?
Lady, you are ill; you need not be modest. Now are you ready? [He rubs] There, it seems that the source of the illness has been suppressed.
It is pleasurably smoothing. [As he is rubbing her breast, he suddenly pulls out his...
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SOURCE: Brandon, James. “The Theft of Chūshingura: or The Great Kabuki Caper.” In “Chūshingura”: Studies in Kabuki and the Puppet Theater, edited by James R. Brandon, pp, 111-46. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1982.
[In the following excerpt, Brandon examines how the joruri play Chūushingura was stolen by Kabuki actors, which seems difficult to understand considering that the two forms were originally so different, and he argues that the Kabuki performers deliberately set out to transform the play and make it particularly theirs, so that it is now the most beloved Kabuki play.]
It did not take kabuki producers and actors long to recognize that the jōruri play Kanadehon Chūshingura was a valuable stage property well worth the effort to appropriate for the kabuki stage. Even before the puppet play opened on the fourteenth day of the eighth lunar month in 1748 at the Takemoto Puppet Theater, it was the talk of Osaka. Audiences clamoring to see the exciting events of the well-known Akō vendetta made the play an instant success, and its run of two months would surely have extended through the year and into 1749 had it not been for an artistic dispute that arose between the company's chief puppeteer, Yoshida Bunzaburō, and its chief chanter, Takemoto Konotayū. At issue was the tempo at which a passage from Act IX should be chanted. Bunzaburō was manipulating...
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SOURCE: Kominz, Laurence. “Ya no Ne: The Genesis of a Kabuki Aragoto Classic.” Monumenta Nipponica 48, No. 4 (Winter, 1983): 387-407.
[In the following excerpt, Kominz discusses the modification of the story Soga Monogatarai to provide the essential premises for the Kabuki play Ya no Ne, and points out that the most important differences in the Kabuki version are its New Year setting, the strength and determination of the central character and vitruosity required of the actor playing him, and the emphasis on visual effects. Ideographic characters in this essay have been silently removed. This essay has been slightly revised by the author for reprint here.]
The kabuki of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was essentially an actor's art. We know most plays by title only and it is often difficult to determine the authorship of the texts that have survived, but a wealth of detail remains telling us which roles individual actors played and how well they were received. Through the 1670s plays were rough-hewn constructions. The lead actor decided on a plot and its breakdown into scenes, and with the help of ‘authors’ he invented speeches for the various actors. At rehearsals the actors wrote down at most the opening lines of their parts and relied on memory and imagination to fill in the rest on stage.1 In the course of time kabuki developed and play-writing...
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Criticism: Kabuki And Society
SOURCE: Shively, Donald H. “Bankufu Versus Kabuki.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 18, No. 3/4 (December, 1955): 326-56.
[In the following essay, Shively examines the relationship between the conservative Confucian government, or bakufu, and the popular Kabuki theatre during the Tokugawa period (1603 to 1850), and concludes that the government's repression may ultimately have been beneficial to Kabuki as a dramatic form. Ideographic characters in this essay have been silently removed.]
The kabuki drama of the Tokugawa period was an art form which represented the taste and interests of the class of townsmen. Deprived of political and social opportunities, the townsmen tended toward grosser pleasures, and evolved a theater which was gaudy, graphic, and emotionally unrestrained. It contrasted with the drama of their social superiors, the military class of shogun, feudal lords, and upper samurai, who patronized nō drama: subtle, symbolic, a form already made static by tradition. Of all the lively forms of entertainment and art for which the culture of the townsmen is well known, none excited so much interest in all classes of society as early kabuki. Certainly there was none which ran so blatantly counter to the social and moral principles espoused by the Tokugawa government, the bakufu, nor which was more disruptive to the structure of Confucian relationships...
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SOURCE: Shively, Donald H. “The Social Environment of Tokuawa Kabuki.” In Studies in Kabuki: Its Acting, Music, and Historical Context, edited by James R. Brandon, William P. Malm, and Donald H. Shively, pp. 36-61. Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii, 1978.
[In the following excerpt, Shively argues that the close connection between Kabuki and the quarter of town that was the center of prostitution illustrates how the theatre was a product of the social environment of Japanese cities in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.]
THE LIFE AND ART OF ACTORS
The life of the actor—his background, training, and professional and social relationships—was fascinating to the wider audience of theatergoers. The main focus of kabuki was less the play than the actor who attracted attention not only because of his dramatic talent but because of his lineage, his physical assets, and his private life. Boyish beauty, unusual acting ability, elaborate reputations for a luxurious lifestyle, and romantic entanglements titillated a public vulnerable to the glamor of the theater world.
Actors were instructed to live in the quarter or in its close vicinity. In Kyoto their homes were found especially in Gion-machi, Miyagawa-chō, and Kawara-machi north of Shijō. The great Genroku actors Sakata Tōjūrō and Miyuki Tatsunosuke lived at the latter address, a few blocks west...
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SOURCE: Takakuwa, Yoko. “Performing Marginality: The Place of the Player and of ‘Woman’ in Early Japanese Culture.” New Literary History 27, No. 2 (Spring, 1996): 213-25.
[In the following essay, Takakuwa considers the problem of marginality and status of “other” of the Kabuki female impersonator in the closed society of early modern Japan.]
The economy of our culture can be analyzed in terms of what it has excluded in its (hi)story (histoire)—what meanings are marginalized in the textual system we inhabit. During the Edo era (1603-1867), the Tokugawa shogunate adopted a policy of seclusion in 1633 and carried it out by 1641, in order to interdict Christianity and protect home trade. Japan closed the door from then until 1854 when America forced the country to open up to foreign intercourse. It was in the course of the radical cultural paradigm shift at the turn of the sixteenth century that a woman originated Kabuki, which was developed into the most popular (and scandalous for the shogunate) entertainment representative of Edo culture for almost 260 years. Kabuki is precisely a child of the times, nurtured within the closure of Japanese culture as a result of the national policy of seclusion and exclusion of the other (strangers). Some questions arise. After Japan isolated itself from the world outside, who became the marginal other to be excluded within the economy of early modern...
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SOURCE: Leiter, Samuel L. “From Gay to Gei: The Onnagata and the Creation of Kabuki's Female Characters.” Comparative Drama, 33 (Winter, 1999-2000): 495-514.
[In the following essay, Leiter surveys the role of women in Kabuki theater and argues that despite the persistence of patriarchal attitudes, Kabuki was surprisingly fair to and respectful of women, probably because their characters on stage were played on men.]
From 1629 to 1877, women were officially forbidden to act in Japan's kabuki theater, which—under the leadership of a former shrine priestess named Okuni—they had founded in 1603. From 1629 on, male actors, the onnagata, played women's roles. The reasons for the banning of actresses have been frequently recounted elsewhere and need not be reexamined here in detail.
At the time, Japanese urban culture was largely under the influence of Confucian ethics and Buddhist religious practice, both being antifemale systems. Whereas, despite endemic misogyny, ancient and medieval Japan had many women of accomplishment, such women were exceedingly rare during the Tokugawa period (also called the Edo period, 1603-1868). Women of the time may have been more socially and commercially active than is commonly supposed,1 but it is clear that Tokugawa women were, by and large, second-class citizens. People were to behave in this world...
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Arioshi, Sawako. The Kabuki Dancer: A Novel of the Woman Who Founded Kabuki, translated by James R. Brandon. Palo Alto, CA: Kodansha America, 1994, 348 p.
Fictional depiction of the life of Okuni, the dancer who is generally credited with giving birth to Kabuki theater.
Brandon, James R., editor. Chūsingura: Studies in Kabuki and the Puppet Theater. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1982, 231 p.
Collection of essays on the 1748 play Kanadehon Chūshingura, perhaps the most highly praised drama of Japanese popular theater; includes Donald Keene's description of how the play is a modern interpretation of the historical Akō vendetta of the early eighteenth century; William Malm's analysis of the music of puppet theater; and Donald Shively's important essay “Togugawa Plays on Forbidden Topics,” which shows how dramatists avoided censorship by placing events into historical worlds safely past.
Brandon, James R., William P. Malm, and Donald H. Shively. Studies in Kabuki: Its Acting, Music, and Historical Context. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1978, 183 p.
Discussions by three experts on the art form, covering socioeconomic conditions that nutured Kabuki's early rapid development, acting forms and techniques, and the functions and specific uses of the music....
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