Kabuki Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


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.