Tsubouchi Shoyo, the first Japanese translator of Shakespeare, once likened Kabuki to a chimera, the mythical monster with the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the tail of a dragon. Shoyo was talking Kabuki’s composite nature, bringing together dance, drama and music. Kabuki’s enthralling, almost magical dramatic power still comes from the close interaction between these elements – music is used to wring pathos from the tragic partings of lovers, drama and characterisation lend emotional depth to the most visually stunning of dance pieces, and the fluid movements of dance add an hallucinatory beauty to the most brutal of murder scenes.
Kabuki’s history begins in the early seventeenth century when a troupe led by a woman called Izumo no Okuni first performed on a dry riverbed in Kyoto. They performed exotic communal dances and risqué skits where women dressed as young toughs would banter with teahouse girls. Women entertainers were relatively unusual, and Okuni's outlandish, cross-dressing performances caused a sensation. During the first years of its existence, many Kabuki performers, both male and female, seem to have worked as prostitutes offstage.
Over the course of the seventeenth century, women were gradually banned from the stage, and Kabuki became an all-male theatre, a tradition still adhered to today. As plays became more complex, actors began to specialize in particular role types – the handsome lover, the scheming aristocrat, or the young and innocent maiden. Acting too became more sophisticated, and two broad styles can be identified, aragoto (wild style) and wagoto (soft style). Aragoto was associated with the Ebizo XI’s ancestor, the famous Danjuro Ichikawa I (1660-1704) and with the samurai-dominated city of Edo (modern Tokyo). Aragoto heroes are physically strong, impulsive, fierce and martial. This is reflected in the actors' dramatic, stylized make-up and costumes, and in their exaggerated poses. In contrast, the mercantile city of Osaka favored the wagoto style of acting. Wagoto, brought to perfection by Tojuro Sakata (1647-1709), was much more realistic than aragoto. Its heroes tended to be young playboys, quarrelling or making up with their courtesan lovers in the contemporary pleasure quarters. The main tone of wagoto acting was romantic, tender or humorous.
Today, kabuki is still a major part of Japan’s theatrical landscape, its mature master actors and young lions draw healthy crowds to theatre like the Kabuki-za and Kanamaru-za. Younger actors like Ebizo XI build new audiences through their work on television and on the non-kabuki stage. While preserving the traditions of centuries past, kabuki actors also seek to keep their art alive and in touch with the lives of the audience.
From its origins, dance has remained absolutely central to Kabuki. Full-length dramatic plays would always have a dance interlude that related to the rest of the story, and traditional dance (nihon buyo) forms the basis for all actor training.
A major difference between Japanese and Western dance is that in Kabuki dance is always accompanied by lyrics. The dancer must interpret not just the rhythm and melody of the music, but also the literal meaning of the lyrics. Dance lyrics are often difficult to understand, a dense and fragmented kaleidoscope of sensitively observed natural images, snatches of dialogue, lines from popular ditties, and references to classical literature. Like the dance itself, their meaning lies less in any coherent narrative than in the accumulated flow of snapshots they present. A sophisticated physical vocabulary has been developed for images that regularly appear in the lyrics, some grounded in everyday life and others more abstract. Audiences soon learn to recognize the hand or fan movements that briefly sketch mountain peaks, cherry petals blown on a spring breeze, and rising silvery moons.
Kabuki makes use of a rich range of music and sound effects to add aural colour to the performances. In dance pieces, vocalist and musicians appear on stage in full view of the audience, seated on a red dais to the side or back of the stage. At Sadlers Wells this year, there are in fact two distinct musical genres represented. The accompaniment for Fuji Musume is by the lyrical nagauta school of musicians, while that for Kasane is by the narrative kiyomoto musicians. Nagauta ensembles contain the three-stringed shamisen, as well as drums and flutes, whereas kiyomoto uses just the shamisen.
Hidden from the audience’s view are another group of musicians known as the geza or kuromiso. They play background music, the melodies of which often identify the setting for the scene. The geza musicians also provide Kabuki’s remarkable sound effects – listen out for how a large drum is used in Kasane to represent the sound of the rushing river or the eerie appearance of a ghost.
Curtain at the entrance to the hanamichi (see below).
Highly stylized for of acting. Literally “rough style”.
Dressing room, green room.
Hidden music room stage right. The geza ensemble is hidden from view in a small room behind a grille stage right and provides both background music and sound effects.
“Flower path”. The walkway running from the stage through the audience to the rear of the theatre.
hyoshigi or ki
The high-pitched wooden clappers used to signal the opening and closing of the main stage curtain.
A type of kabuki drama based on historical subject, as opposed to sewamono.
ka-bu-ki literally means “song-dance-artistry”, which is the essence of the art form.
A range of shouts from the musicians or from the audience. In the case of the musicians the range of different calls are an integral part of the music and aid to timing. With the audience, they are cries of encouragement, or appreciation of particularly elegant acting.
The costume used most frequently in kabuki. It consists of a wide shouldered shawl (kataginu) over a set of wide overtoursers (hakama). Both are worn over an outer kimono (kitsuke).
Upstage (stage left).
A school of narrative vocal music with shamisen accompaniment, founded in the early 19th century. The singing is high-pitched and nasal, frequently with elaborate embellishments.
A style of make-up.
A moment of high emotion culminating in an extreme dramatic pose. The literal meaning of the Japanese characters is “see-do”.
One of the major schools of kabuki music. Unlike kiyomoto, nagauta is lyrical, its words painting delicate and poetic images rather than telling a story. Nagauta ensembles frequently include flute and drum players in addition to the shamisen players.
A generic term for the musical ensemble that usually provides accompaniment from a special room offstage at stage right. For dance plays, the narimono ensemble, also known as hayashi , often appears onstage to the rear of the main performance area.
A loud double clack from the ki ten to fifteen minutes before the start of the play.
This flute has its origins in the Noh theatre. Like the takebue it is also made from bamboo, however the construction is different.
Large Japanese drum, played with drumsticks rather than with the hand. The geza musicians use the odaiko to simulate the sound of everything from waves to falling snow to the appearance of a ghost.
The early 17th century temple dancer to whom the creation of the first kabuki is attributed.
Female role played by a male lead. Literally “female person”.
Literally "long song". A for of accompaniment, which developed the kabuki around 1740.
An exaggerated style of exit along the hanamichi made by the principal character.
Domestic dramas or plays dealing with the lives of ordinary people. Tend to be more naturalistic in style and rely for their effect as much as on dialogue as on dramatic action. Best known sewamono are the love-suicide plays of Chikamatsu.
Three stringed Japanese instrument, plucked with an ivory plectrum. Its delicate, melodic sound is inextricably linked with kabuki.
Literally “7-3”. The point 7/10ths of the way along the hanamichi, which acts as the “power point” where most of the non-stage based acting or dancing takes place.
Downstage (stage right).
Generic term for kabuki dance plays.
Leading male roles in the kabuki repertoire.
The takebue (sometimes called yokobue or shinobue ), is made from bamboo and is used most frequently in the odoriji sections of nagauta during which it plays continuously.
Wooden clappers beaten on a board at the side of the stage to emphasize dramatic moments on stage.
Hour-glass shaped drums, which are struck with the hand.
Literally “gentle-style” plays – more refined and realistic style, as opposed to aragoto.
The system grouping actors into “guilds” or families. The name was taken from attempt from the actors to gain some social standing in the community.
The layout of a modern Kabuki theatre would be relatively familiar to the Western theatergoer, but there are several crucial differences. Most noticeable is the hanamichi, a narrow raised runway that extends from stage right to the back of the auditorium. Leading actors make dramatic entrances and exits along the hanamichi right through the centre of the audience. Another difference is the striped main stage curtain, which is pulled across to open instead of being raised or lowered.
The atmosphere in the theatre however is very different to that in the West End. Kabuki performances used to run from dawn to dusk, though today they usually last for around five hours. Theatres thus contain restaurants, snack-bars and shops, and it is normal to see the audience eating, drinking or talking (or even sleeping!) during the performances. Kabuki is still very much a social event, with the audience enjoying the whole experience, not just the plays.
Historically, Kabuki audiences have had closer relationships with actors than are usual in Western theatre. In physical terms, the hanamichi brings the actor to within touching distance of the audience. Kabuki fans go to the theatre to see particular actors, not plays or directors. A Westerner viewing Kabuki for the first time may be surprised by shouts (kakegoe) from the audience of actors' nicknames or other comments when their favourite star appears on stage or at particularly climactic moments.
Kabuki-za located in Ginza, Tokyo, is the principal Kabuki theatre in Japan. It opened in 1889 but was destroyed in a fire in 1921 and though it was rebuilt it was again destroyed in the Allied bombing during World War II. The theatre was reconstructed, based on the 1924 structure, which is an example of a Meiji-era construction using Western materials in traditional Japanese architectural styles. Performances are held nearly every day at Kabuki-za and tickets are sold for individual act as well as for the play in its entirety.
Built in 1835, the Kanamaru-za in Kotohira is Japan's oldest surviving, complete kabuki playhouse and is still infrequently staging kabuki performances. When no performances are held, the theatre’s audience hall, basement, stage and backstage including trap doors and a revolving stage can be explored.
James R. Brandon & Samuel L. Leiter (eds.), Masterpieces of Kabuki: Eighteen Plays on Stage, University of Hawaii Press, 2004.
Ronald Cavaye & Paul Griffith, World of the Japanese Stage: Traditional to Cutting Edge, Kodansha Europe, 2004.
Masakatsu Gunji, The Kabuki Guide, Kodansha Europe, 1988.
Laurence R. Kominz, The Stars Who Created Kabuki: Their Lives, Loves and Legacy, Kodansha Europe, 1997.
Samuel L. Leiter, New Kabuki Encyclopedia: A Revised Adaptation of "Kabuki Jiten, Greenwood Press, 1997.
Samuel L. Leiter (ed.), A Kabuki Reader, M.E. Sharpe, 2001.
William Malm, Japanese Music and Musical Instruments, Kodansha America, 2001.