Kabuki Essay - Critical Essays




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.

Representative Works

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

Murase Genzaburō
Ya no Ne 1729

Namiki Gohei
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
Kana-dehon Chūsingura [Chūsingura, or The Noble Precept Set by the Loyal Retainers; Kabuki adaptation of Ningyo-joruri] 1748

Matsu Kanshi, Takahashi Buhei, and Yoshida Kadomaru
Meiboku Sendai Hagi [The Disputed Succession of the Date Family] 1785

Donald Keene, translator
Major Plays of Chikamatsu (collection) 1961
Chusingura: The Treasury of the Loyal Retainers 1971

Kawatake Mokuami
Akamatsu Manyu Ume-no Shira-hata [The Story of Akamatsu Manyu 1758

Chikamatsu Monzaemon
Sonezaki Shinju [Double Suicide at Sonezaki] 1703
Koi-no Tayori Yamato Orai [Love's Messenger on the Yamato Highway] 1711
Kokusenya Kassen [The General's Great Battle] 1715
Shinju Ten-no Amijima [The Double Suicide at Amijima; adapted for the Kabuki stage in 1721] 1720

Kawatake Shinshichi
Shinobuuri [Vendor of Sweet Fern] 1775

Fujimoto Tobun
Kyo-ganoko Musume Dojoji [The Gay Scene of the Maiden at the Dojoji Temple] 1753

Various Authors
Kabuki Juhachiban [The Eighteen Favorite Kabuki Plays] (collection) 1680-1774

Chikamatsu Yangai, Chikamatsu Kosuiken, and Chikamatsu Senyoken
Ehon Taikoki [The Picture Book of the Taiko] 1799

Yo Yodai
Kagami-yama Kokyo-no Nishikiye [The Maidservant's Revenge, or Women's Chūshingura] 1782

Criticism: Overviews

Peter Arnott (essay date 1969)

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...

(The entire section is 8592 words.)

Benito Ortolani (essay date 1990)

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.]


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...

(The entire section is 11968 words.)

Criticism: The Development Of Kabuki

A. C. Scott (essay date 1955)

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...

(The entire section is 11691 words.)

C. Andrew Gerstle (essay date 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 7142 words.)

Laurence Kominz (essay date 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 5590 words.)

Criticism: Major Works

Samuel L. Leiter (essay date 1973)

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...

(The entire section is 5771 words.)

James Brandon (essay date 1982)

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...

(The entire section is 15440 words.)

Laurence Kominz (essay date 1983)

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 entire section is 7210 words.)

Criticism: Kabuki And Society

Donald H. Shively (essay date 1955)

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...

(The entire section is 11883 words.)

Donald H. Shively (essay date 1978)

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 of the actor—his background, training, and professional and social...

(The entire section is 8757 words.)

Yoko Takakuwa (essay date 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 5502 words.)

Samuel L. Leiter (essay date 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 7687 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 679 words.)