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Kabuki Theater

Updated on March 25, 2016
Jaynie2000 profile image

With an eye on fashion, art, music and movies, Jaynie keeps her finger on the pulse of pop culture. Why? Because it's fun.

Kabuki Theater is an ancient Japanese form of dance and drama that began in the early 1600s. In its early days, kabuki was performed exclusively by women playing both male and female roles. It was popularized by a woman named Okuni who was invited to perform her work for the Imperial Court. As Okuni’s dance drama became more widely recognized, a host of rival dance troupes sprung up, adding their own brand of suggestive dance to Okuni’s invention. Many of these troupes also offered performers as prostitutes, leading the Japanese symbols for kabuki to be written into what would translate into ‘singing and dancing prostitute.’

Kabuki Actor
Kabuki Actor
Kabuki Masks
Kabuki Masks
Kabuki Masks
Kabuki Masks

Traditional kabuki were commentaries on current events during the Edo Period. Performers wore the latest in Japanese fashion, dined in the best restaurants and danced to the best in Japanese music, but by 1629, the provocative dance moves and suggestive drama led to women being banned from kabuki as a means of protecting the moral order. Quite simply, their performances were considered to erotic for the times. Kabuki continued to thrive without the women performers. Instead, young boys were given the lead in performances and, ironically, also offered into prostitution. Eventually, child kabuki performers were considered too culturally and morally disruptive, and adult males were finally given all roles in kabuki theater, much like they were in the traditional Shakespearian plays. This practice predominantly continues today.

Kabuki is an event, and not simply a performance. Those passionate about kabuki have always been willing to devote an entire day to attending the theatrical events. Most performances are put on in five acts. The opening act is a slow moving drama which lays out the plot in painstaking detail. While not much action takes place, theater-goers remain transfixed as the foundation for the following acts is laid out. The middle three acts include more lively elements such as tragedy, fighting, and great drama that keep patrons greatly entertained and are the reward for having given their rapt attention to act one. The plays typically culminate in a fast paced, much shorter final act that is designed to please the audience by extending the type of ending that they have come to desire.

Kabuki Production
Kabuki Production
Minamiza Theater Kyoto
Minamiza Theater Kyoto

Kabuki theater has survived several potentially devastating blows, from the removal of the founding female troupes to the droughts of the early 1800s that caused wildfires which burned many theaters to the ground. After World War II, forces occupying Japan temporarily banned kabuki performances, but this didn’t last long, and by 1947 kabuki was back in business. But business didn’t rebound to the extent that was initially hoped. Japanese in the 1940s were seeking to move forward and rebuilt their cities and their culture. What had once been a popular pastime was being rejected after the war. Young people wanted to start fresh, yet as it is with history, kabuki was eventually reborn. While theaters were once prominent throughout the country, only a handful remain today, yet the performances still draw crowds and intrigue not only locals, but throngs of international tourists. Kabuki has even become popular in western countries and troupes tour Europe and America. The Australian National University even has its own kabuki troupe.

About Kabuki - Youtube Clip

While still predominantly led by male cast members, a few kabuki troupes feature female performers as well. A traditional kabuki stage is accessed by a long walkway called a hanamichi. The hanamichi is the pathway that actors use to get to and from the stage, though they often use it as an extension of the stage itself for dancing and acting. The beauty of the stage is that the actors are made to feel as if they are part of the audience, or the audience, part of the performance. Over the years, staging, costumes and special effects have become more elaborate, transforming the kabuki into a breathtaking spectacle. In the mid-nineteenth century kabuki incorporated Chönori, in which actors are secured to wires and airborne to simulate the act of flying over the stage.

Asian culture, including kabuki theater appeals to westerners as a result of its vastly different nature. Kabuki incorporates rich color, heavily made up performers, elaborate traditional costumes and lively eastern music. It has become so popular that kabuki styles are even used as thematic ways to decorate western homes. Kabuki masks are both haunting and breathtakingly beautiful. Incorporating kabuki masks with samurai swords, pussy willows and silken tapestries into your décor is an innovative means of bringing a taste of Japan into your home.

Cinema Kabuki Preview: Dojoji- A Lover's Duet

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© 2010 Jaynie2000


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    • Jaynie2000 profile image

      Jaynie2000 7 years ago

      You're probably right. I think it's like opera here in the states. The opera is usually sung in Italian or German so the typical US citizen won't understand it, yet it is beautiful and a lot can be gained by simply watching and piecing things together. Though I suppose it's harder to do that with Kabuki. I do think the Japanese culture is beautiful.

    • Hezekiah profile image

      Hezekiah 7 years ago from Japan

      Nice hub, I've been living in Japan for 10 years and speak fluent Japanese, however I cannot understand Kabuki at all. I suppose it incorporates a lot of cultural elements which a native Japanese will have acquired since been a child.