Classical theatre in Japan contains few performances forms: Kyogen (lyrical drama), Bunraku (puppet theater), Noh and Kabuki (which is a form of popular theatre). The word “Kabuki” can be interpreted in two ways. First one says that this word comes from three different words: ka (singing), bu (dancing), and ki (acting). This seems to be truth, as Kabuki as a performance includes all this three elements. Kabuki is a rich blend of dance, music, mime, and costuming spectacular and staging, it has been the most popular Japanese theatrical form for about four centuries.
According to Japanese scholar Masakatsa Gunji’s words, there is one aesthetic unique concept of Kabuki theatre that is providing its consistency - the yatsusi concept. The author offers a following definition: “Yatsushi is an attempt to basically modernize everything, to change it into terms of modern society, to parody the episodes from the old life by recreating it in terms of the familiar and present”. According to this rule, it is possible to say that Kabuki is just the yatsusi of Kyogen and Noh (the same way as haiku – the short forms of lyric - are the classical waka verse poem’s yatsusi) (Kurpiel, n.d.).
The Kabuki History
According to the traditional point of view, kabuki was created in 1603 by a Shinto priestess called Okuni. She and her troupe that consisted mostly of women performed deliberately provocative comic sketches and dances on a temporary stage arranged in the dry riverbed of the Kyoto’s Kamogawa River.
In times of the Edo period (1603-1868), when Kabuki was totally developed as a popular form of theatre, distinction between the commoners (artisans, peasants, and merchants) and the samurai class was observed more rigidly than at any other period of the Japanese history. Kabuki actors were lower than merchants, outcasts of society, until the Restoration of Meiji in 1868. Very often they were called kawara kojiki (riverbed beggars).
The kabuki art was cultivated mostly by the merchant class, compared with the theater of Noh that was refined and sponsored by the ruling society class. Being ranked lowest in the hierarchy of society, merchants had become economically very powerful, but had to remain inferior socially in accordance with the strict social hierarchy. Kabuki, as chief entertainment form of the commoners, was strictly censored and regulated by the Tokugawa shogunate due to the fear that kabuki may provoke social disruption or possible ruling class contamination. For this reason, kabuki, similar to prostitution, was licensed and limited to segregated big cities areas, like Osaka and Edo (Tokyo). Even though it was suppressed fiercely by the shogunate, kabuki was important to the commoners as the artistic methods by which to demonstrate their suppressed emotions, taking into account such a strict social conditions (Matsuda, 1998).
In contrast to the other classical theater forms, nowadays kabuki is still very popular in terms of performing to enthusiastic audiences at different theaters such as Kyoto’s Minamiza, Tokyo’s Kabukiza, and Shochikuza in Osaka.
Roles and Actors
Kabuki is first of all an actor’s theater, where performances are the means for stars talents’ identification. Even though many fans of kabuki, for sure, have preferences among the performances, most of them visit the kabuki theater to watch the playing of the actors that they like, although it may not be their favorite play or role. Every actor is a part a family involved in acting, and those families possess a unique approach and style of performance. Among the most well-known lines of kabuki family is the one that is named after Ichikawa Danjuro XII (b. 1946). Any actor that inherits the name of Ichikawa Danjuro should not only learn his predecessors’ role approach, but also create his own individual aspects and peculiarities. Other well-known family lines are known under the name of Sakata Tojuro VI (b.1931) and Onoe Kikugoro VII (b.1942).
The most famous Kabuki aspect is perhaps its onnagata use (male actors in roles of female). The onnagata ideal is not just to imitate women but to express symbolically the feminine essence. Attempts of actresses’ introducing into Kabuki in the modern times have failed. The onnagata is such an integral Kabuki tradition’s part that its replacement by actresses is very unlikely.
Kabuki is really a theatrical performance, combining form, sound and color into one of the great world's theatrical traditions. A half an hour spent at the Shin-Kabukiza in Osaka the Kabukiza Theater in Tokyo, or the Minamiza in Kyoto is probably all that the one needs to get the basic understanding of Kabuki. UNESCO announced the decision in November 2005 to designate Kabuki as one of the Masterpieces of the Intangible and Oral Heritage of Humanity. The general director of UNESCO at that time was Matsuura Koichiro (a Japanese). Thus, Kabuki joined Nohgaku Theater, designated similarly in 2001, and Puppet Theater of Ningyo Johruri Bunraku, designated in 2003, usually referred to as Bunraku (Japan-zone.com, n.d.).
Some acting styles of Kabuki are truly exclusive and can be observed in no other form of art. For instance, the colorful makeup lines on the faces and bodies of actors, the poses, larger than real movements, and also the loud screams spectators can hear are all making impact into the performance effect. They are typical of the aragoto style ('wild stuff'), used for masculine heroes occasionally (KABUKI WEB, 2015).
The stage of kabuki is a projection called a hanamichi which means a walkway that extends into the visitors and via dramatic exits and entrances are made. Okuni also made performances with her entourage on a hanamichi stage. The stage is not only used as a path or walkway to get to and from the stage, but many scenes are also performed on it. Kabuki theaters and stages have gradually become more sophisticated from technological point of view, and innovations such as trap doors and revolving stages were introduced during the XVIII century.
Historical events, moral conflicts, warm hearted dramas, tales of tragedy, love stories, or other popular stories are usually the plots of the performances. A distinctive kabuki performance’s feature is that what is on show is usually just a part of a whole story (often the best part). For this reason, to increase the derived enjoyment, it would be a good idea to read something about the story before visiting the show. In some theaters, visitors can rent headsets that provide explanations and narrations in English (Japan-guide.com, 2013).
Kabuki is mostly carried on by actors’ families, but the Tokyo National Theater also has a school for young performers training outside this framework. The majority of performances of kabuki nowadays still largely rely on a classic Edo-period plays’ core and use traditional conventions and costumes. But there is also a new actors generation attempting to make plays up-to-date and to attract contemporary audiences with exciting techniques on stage.
The average performance length is five hours that includes intermissions. The bigger theaters such as National Theater in Tokyo and the Kabukiza offer earphone guides in English (Web-japan.org, n.d.). There is no doubt that kabuki is one of the most significant elements of Japanese culture and is broadly well-known inside and outside the country.
Kawatake Toshio, Kabuki, 2001, Tokyo
Masakatsu Gunji, Kabuki, printed in Japan
Tsubouchi Shoyo and Yamamoto Jiro, History and Characteristic of Kabuki the Japanese Classical Drama, Yokohama, 1960
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