Kabuki is the most popular form of Japanese drama. Kabuki originated at the end of the 16th century. Although it incorporates some of the highly stylized dances and the static, unrealistic poses of the noh theater, kabuki developed as a much freer, more extravagant type of entertainment.
In the kabuki, settings and costumes are lavish, acting is extremely broad and exaggerated, and heavy makeup is used instead of masks. Although music is an important element, the kabuki is most famous for its spectacular visual effects. These include elaborate tableaux, such scenic effects as storms and falling cherry blossoms, ferocious duels and bloody suicides, and the use of mechanical devices, such as trapdoors.
The plots of kabuki plays are generally based either on historical and legendary events or on scenes from everyday domestic life. The historical plays are mostly about the loyalty of warriors to their lords and usually include violent duels and suicide scenes. The most famous of these historical dramas is The Treasury of Loyal Retainers, dealing with the revenge taken by a group of samurai warriors on the murderer of their lord. The domestic plays are based on the moral and emotional conflicts of ordinary people and are often about impossible romances that end in double suicides.
Kabuki actors are among the most carefully trained and skillful performers in the world. As in the noh drama, they all are men. The most famous kabuki actors are the female impersonators, whose embodiment of feminine charm and grace has been thought to be unsurpassed even by women.