Kabuki – Traditional Japanese Form of Theater

The Know Before You Go Guide to Kabuki 

What is Kabuki?

  • Written in 3 Chinese characters: 歌舞伎 
  • Traditional Japanese form of theater with roots in the Edo period (1603-1886)
  • Drama involves feudal period themes 
  • Actors wear feudal era clothing (kimono)  
  • Actors use an old-fashioned language and speak in monotonous voices
  • Words and actions are accompanied by traditional instruments  

Kabuki today involves…

  • a highly sophisticated art form
  • professional actors trained since childhood
  • sophisticated audiences who can appreciate and understand traditional drama

Kabuki raises many questions…

  • What are the origins of such a mysterious art form?
  • Why are there only men performers?
  • Why does kabuki always tell old stories and never contemporaneous ones?
  • Why is the dialog so indirect and subtle?
  • Why does kabuki emphasize moral and ethical conflicts?

To understand Kabuki…

  • We must think about the feudal-period origins of kabuki
  • We must think about life in the early Edo period (17th century) when kabuki began

Edo period conditions

  • The Tokugawa governments of the Edo period were very oppressive
  • Ordinary people were poor and oppressed but could not complain about their situation

Humble roots of Kabuki

  • Began as a form of entertainment for the lower social classes (peasants, craftsmen, and merchants)
  • Originally involved female dancers who performed folk and religious dances.
  • The dance locations were soon moved to the pleasure quarters of major cities (Kyoto, Osaka, Tokyo)

Kabuki’s original image

  • Beautiful female dancers performing before crowds of boisterous, drunken men in the pleasure quarters of major cities
  • Early kabuki was similar to early American vaudeville and burlesque
  • The original characters (kanji) for kabuki meant “tilted,” “out of balance,” or “abnormal behavior”
  • Kabuki was originally racy, exotic, and debauched

The government cracks down

  • The Tokugawa shogunate feared kabuki’s potential for social disruption
  • Kabuki was soon restricted to pleasure quarters of major cities
  • In 1629 women were banned from performing kabuki
  • Men assume female roles (onnagata)

Kabuki evolves

  • With the introduction of men, kabuki began to take on more of a dramatic character
  • Kabuki themes were expanded to incorporate social commentary
  • Since speech was dangerous, kabuki learned to convey meanings in other ways: makeup, stage setting, dance, and music
  • As kabuki became more sophisticated, its popularity expanded to all classes of society
  • Kabuki became a means to educate the populace about moral and ethical issues

Kabuki’s endless appeal 

  • Japanese people are still very indirect in their way of thinking and speaking
  • The old kabuki dramas have modern counterparts in contemporary Japanese business and society  

For details, please visit the Kabuki official website for info on upcoming plays and ticket booking:  https://www.kabukiweb.net/

You might also like