AskDefine | Define Kabuki

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  1. alternative spelling of kabuki

Extensive Definition

is a form of traditional Japanese theatre. Kabuki theatre is known for the stylization of its drama and for the elaborate make-up worn by some of its performers. The individual kanji characters, from left to right, mean sing (歌), dance (舞), and skill (伎). Kabuki is therefore sometimes translated as "the art of singing and dancing." These are, however, ateji, characters that do not reflect actual etymology. The kanji of 'skill', is however generally referred to as a performer in kabuki theatre. The word kabuki is believed to derive from the verb kabuku, meaning "to lean" or "to be out of the ordinary", so kabuki can be interpreted to mean "avant-garde" or "bizarre" theatre. The expression kabukimono (歌舞伎者) referred originally to those who were bizarrely dressed and swaggered on a street.

1603–1629: Female Kabuki

The history of Kabuki began in 1603 when Okuni, a miko (young woman in the service of a Shinto shrine) of Izumo Taisha, began performing a new style of dance drama in the dry riverbeds of Kyoto. Female performers played both men and women in comic playlets about ordinary life. The style was instantly popular; Okuni was even asked to perform before the Imperial Court. In the wake of such success, rival troupes quickly formed, and kabuki was born as ensemble dance and drama was performed by women—a form very different from its modern incarnation. Much of its appeal in this era was due to the ribald, suggestive performances put on by many troupes; this appeal was further augmented by the fact that the performers were often also available for prostitution. poses and mask-like kumadori make-up.
In the mid-18th century, kabuki fell out of favor for a time, with bunraku taking its place as the premier form of stage entertainment among the lower social classes. This occurred partly because of the emergence of several skilled bunraku playwrights in that time. Little of note would occur in the development of kabuki until the end of the century, when it began to re-emerge.

Kabuki after the Meiji Restoration

The tremendous cultural changes begun in 1868 by the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, the elimination of the samurai class, and the opening of Japan to the west helped to spark the re-emergence of kabuki. As the culture struggled to adapt to its new lack of isolation, actors strove to increase the reputation of kabuki among the upper classes and to adapt the traditional styles to modern tastes. They ultimately proved successful in this regard—on one occasion (21 April 1887), a performance was given for the Meiji Emperor.
Many kabuki houses were destroyed by bombing during World War II, and the occupying forces briefly banned kabuki performances after the war. However, by 1947 the ban had been rescinded, and performances began once more.

Kabuki today

The immediate post-World War II era was a difficult time for kabuki. Besides the devastation caused to major Japanese cities as a result of the war, the popular trend was to reject the styles and thoughts of the past, kabuki among them. Director Tetsuji Takechi's popular and innovative productions of the kabuki classics at this time are credited with bringing about a rebirth of interest in the kabuki in the Kansai region. Of the many popular young stars who performed with the Takechi Kabuki, Nakamura Ganjiro III (b.1931) was the leading figure. He was first known as Nakamura Senjaku, and this period in Osaka kabuki became known as the "Age of Senjaku" in his honor. For example, the well-known onnagata Bandō Tamasaburō V has appeared in several (non-kabuki) plays and movies—often in a female role. Kabuki is also referenced in works of Japanese popular culture such as anime.
Though there are only a handful of major theatres in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, there are many smaller theatres in Osaka, and throughout the countryside. The Ōshika Kabuki troupe, based in Ōshika"大鹿", Nagano Prefecture"長野県", is one example.
Some kabuki troupes now use female actors in the onnagata roles, and the Ichikawa Kabuki-za (an all-female troupe) was formed after World War II. In 2003, a statue of Okuni was erected near Kyoto's Pontochō district.
Interest in kabuki has also spread in the West. Kabuki troupes regularly tour Europe and America, and there have been several kabuki-themed productions of canonical Western plays such as those of Shakespeare. Western playwrights and novelists have also experimented with kabuki themes, an example of which is Gerald Vizenor's Hiroshima Bugi (2004). Writer Yukio Mishima pioneered and popularized the use of kabuki in modern settings, and revived other traditional arts, such as Noh, adapting them to modern contexts.
In Australia, the Za Kabuki troupe at the Australian National University has been performing a Kabuki drama each year since 1976; the single longest regular Kabuki performance outside of Japan.
Kabuki was enlisted on the UNESCO's 'Third Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity' on 24 November, 2005.

Elements of kabuki

Stage design

The kabuki stage features a projection called a hanamichi (花道; literally, flower path), a walkway which extends into the audience and via which dramatic entrances and exits are made. Okuni also performed on a hanamichi stage with her entourage. This type of stage is very important in kabuki theatre. The stage is used not only as a walkway or path to get to and from the main stage, but also important scenes are also played on the stage. Kabuki stages and theaters have steadily become more technologically sophisticated, and innovations including revolving stages and trap doors, introduced during the 18th century, added greatly to the staging of kabuki plays. A driving force has been the desire to make manifest one frequent theme of kabuki theater, that of the sudden, dramatic revelation or transformation. A number of stage tricks, including rapid appearances and disappearances of actors, have evolved using these innovations. The term keren (外連), often translated playing to the gallery, is sometimes used as a catch-all term for these tricks. Hanamichi and several innovations including revolving stage, seri and chunori have all contributed to sophisticating kabuki play, by which hanamichi creates the second dimensionality (depth) and both seri and chunori gains three dimensionality (height).
Mawari-butai (revolving stage) developed in the Kyōhō era (1716–1735). Originally accomplished by the on-stage pushing of a round, wheeled platform this technique evolved into a circle being cut into the stage floor with wheels beneath it facilitating movement. When the stage lights are lowered during this transition it is known as kuraten (“darkened revolve”). More commonly the lights are left on for akaten (“lighted revolve”), sometimes with the transitioning scenes being performed simultaneously for dramatic effect. About 300 years ago, this stage was first built in Japan, and was designed for quick changes in the scenes. This stage is very useful because it helps the transition without any distractions.
Seri refers to the stage traps that have been commonly employed in kabuki since the middle of the eighteenth century. These traps raise and lower actors or sets to the stage. Seridashi or seriage refers to the traps moving upward and serisage or serioroshi when they are being lowered. This technique is often used for dramatic effect of having an entire scene rise up to appear onstage.
Chūnori (riding in mid-air) is a technique, which appeared toward the middle of the nineteenth century, by which an actor’s costume is attached to wires and he is made to “fly” over the stage and/or certain parts of the auditorium. This is similar to "wire fu"of modern cinema. As these “trick” (keren) devices have fallen out of favor many stages are no longer equipped to handle them.
In kabuki, as in some other Japanese performing arts, scenery changes are sometimes made mid-scene, while the actors remain on stage and the curtain stays open. This is sometimes accomplished by using a Hiki Dōgu, or small wagon stage. This technique originated at the beginning of the 18th century, where scenery or actors are moved on or off stage by means of a wheeled platform. Also common are stage hands rushing onto the stage adding and removing props, backdrops and other scenery; these stage hands, known as kuroko (黒子), are always dressed entirely in black and are traditionally considered invisible. These stage hands also assist in a variety of quick costume changes known as hayagawari (quick change technique). In plays, when a character's true nature is suddenly revealed, the devices of hikinuki or bukkaeri are often used. Hikinuki or bukkaeri is accomplished by having costumes layered one over another and having a stage assistant pull the outer one off in front of the audience.


There are three main categories of kabuki play: jidai-mono (時代物, historical, or pre-Sengoku period stories), sewa-mono (世話物, domestic, or post-Sengoku stories), and shosagoto (所作事, dance pieces).
Jidaimono, or history plays, were often set within the context of major events in Japanese history. Strict censorship laws were in place almost throughout the entire Edo period, prohibiting the representation of contemporary events and particularly prohibiting criticism of the shogunate or casting the shogunate in a bad light. Strict as the word of the law may have been, however, the strictness of enforcement varied greatly over the years. Most jidaimono, set in the context of the Genpei War of the 1180s, the Nanboku-chō Wars of the 1330s, or other historical events, actually used these historical settings, and the events and historical figures within them, as thinly veiled metaphors for contemporary events. Kanadehon Chūshingura, one of the most famous plays in the kabuki repertoire, serves as an excellent example; it is ostensibly set in the 1330s, though it actually depicts the contemporary (18th century) affair of the revenge of the 47 Ronin.
Unlike jidaimono which generally focused upon the samurai class, sewamono focused primarily upon commoners, namely townspeople and peasants. Often referred to as "domestic plays" in English, sewamono generally related to themes of family drama and romances. Some of the most famous sewamono are likely the love suicide plays, adapted from works by the bunraku playwright Chikamatsu; these center on romantic couples who cannot be together in life due to various circumstances and who therefore decide to be together in death instead. Many if not most sewamono contain significant elements of this theme of societal pressures and limitations.
Important characteristics of Kabuki theater include the mie (見得), in which the actor holds a picturesque pose to establish his character.
While many plays were written for kabuki, many others were taken from jōruri plays, Noh plays, folklore, or other performing traditions such as the oral tradition of the Tale of the Heike. While plays taken from jōruri tend to have serious, emotionally dramatic, and organized plots, those plays written specifically for kabuki generally have far looser, sillier plots. One of the crucial differences in the philosophy of the two forms is that jōruri focuses primarily on the story and on the chanter who recites it, while kabuki focuses more on the actors. Thus, it is not unknown in a jōruri play to sacrifice the details of sets, puppets, or onstage action in favor of directing attention to the chanter, while by contrast kabuki is known to sacrifice drama and even the plot itself in favor of showing off an actor's talents. It was not uncommon in kabuki to insert or remove individual scenes from a day's schedule in order to cater to the talents or desires of an individual actor—scenes he was famed for, or better at showing off in, would be inserted into a day's program where it made no sense in terms of plot continuity. For a long time, actors from one region often failed to adjust to the styles of the other region and were unsuccessful in their performance tours of that region.

Famous plays

While there are many famous plays known today, the three most famous ones were written in three successive years in the middle of the 18th century. Like most of kabuki's longer, more serious, more dramatic plays, these were originally written for jōruri (bunraku) and were adopted by kabuki soon afterwards. All three were written by Takeda Izumo II, Miyoshi Shōraku, and Namiki Senryū I, between 1746 and 1748.
  • Kanadehon Chūshingura (Treasury of Loyal Retainers) is the famous story of the Forty-seven Ronin who track down their lord's killer, and exact revenge upon him before committing seppuku as required by their code of honor upon the death of their lord.
  • Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami (Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy) is based on the life of famed scholar Sugawara no Michizane (845–903), who is exiled from Kyoto, and upon his death causes a number of calamities in the capital. He is then deified, as Tenjin, kami (divine spirit) of scholarship, and worshipped in order to propitiate his angry spirit.

Major theatres in operation


Ronald Cavaye (1993) Kabuki - A Pocket Guide. USA and Japan: Charles E. Tuttle,
Ronald Cavaye, Paul Griffith and Akihiko Senda (2004). A Guide to the Japanese Stage. Japan: Kodansha International.
Scott, A. C. (1955). The Kabuki Theatre of Japan. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.
Ernst, E. (1956). The Kabuki Theatre. New York: Oxford University Press.
Senelick, L. (2000). The Changing Room: Sex, Drag, and Theatre. London: Routledge.
Facts JPN-kabuki. 25 November 2007 .
Japanese Culture. 25 November 2007 .
KABUKI. Ed. Shoriya Aragoro. 9 September 1999. 25 November 2007

See also

  • Kanteiryū, a lettering style invented to advertise kabuki and other theatrical performances
  • Rakugo, a Japanese entertainment form based on comic monologues
  • Kyogen, a traditional form of Japanese comic theatre that influenced the development of kabuki
  • Noh, a traditional form of Japanese theatre
  • Bunraku, a traditional Japanese puppet theatre from whose scripts many kabuki plays were adapted
  • Butoh, an avant-garde dance form
  • Takarazuka Revue, an all-female theatrical troupe based upon the original form of kabuki
  • Benshi, a tradition of narrating silent films, based on the narration style of kabuki
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