When you think of classic theatre in the United States, usually Tennessee Williams, musicals or Our Town pop to the top of the list. What combines the glitz and bravado of musicals with the high drama and intricacies of a play? Kabuki, of course! A highly evolved form of dance plays, kabuki has been popular in Japan since its creation in 1603.
It began when a priestess named Okuni performed her own innovative dance dramas on the riverbeds of Kyoto. As her cast of all female actors grew, so did her audience. Soon kabuki became a popular form of entertainment and had its own theatre in the city. This theatre was the happening place to be, where cutting edge fashion and gossip originated. The shogunate did not approve of kabuki, finding the material unsavory and the mixing of social classes at the theatre distasteful. In 1629, the female domination of this new art ended with the banning of female actors. Young boys took up the female roles but they were quickly banned too. From the 1630s all the way up to present day, only adult male actors play in kabuki.
With only male actors to rely on for a wide variety of parts, there arose three main acting styles. Arguably the most important, onnagata (women’s roles actors) use highly stylized affectations to embody a hyper-feminism to portray female characters. Aragoto, rough acting, involves large and exaggerated movement and costumes, a larger than life performance. Conversely wagoto is the more realistic, soft acting style of the two.
Legends make up the story stock of kabuki plays. From tales of butterflies and lions to Kanadehon Chuushingura (Treasury of the Loyal Retainters), kabuki plays run the gamut of fantastical to historical. Kabuki is the more mainstream of their theatrical cousins Noh, Bunraku and Kyogen. Many kabuki plays are adaptations from Noh and Bunraku plays. For example, Kanadehon Chuushingura came from the Bunraku play of the same name. Japanese cultural themes of sacrifice and the tragic hero are at the heart of most kabuki plays. For example, there are a number of plays wherein a loyal servant is charged with beheading a master’s son will instead sacrifice his own son in order to stay true to his duty. To a Japanese audience, this act is heroic.
The most flamboyant of Japan’s traditional theatre styles, kabuki costumes and sets are a sight to behold. River long hakama and demon/lion wigs so long they trail the floor, beautiful houses on kabuki’s spinning stage and epic fight sequences, kabuki has it all. Two signature elements of kabuki stages are their hanamichi (flower way) and mawari butai (revolving stage). The hanamichi is a strip of stage that reaches through the audience from the stage all the way to the back of the theatre. Actors can make mind-boggling entrances and exits via the hanamichi, so close the audience could reach up and touch them. In the middle of the stage there is a circular section that can turn independently called the mawari butai. This perfect for quick and dramatic scene changes via spinning the scenery around to reveal a new set on the other side. In addition to quick scene changes, trap doors, onstage stagehands and multilayered clothing allow for shockingly fast costume changes. One infamous costume change is that of a samurai being revealed as a fox spirit in Yoshitune Senbon Zakura (Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees).
Kabuki will be coming to Philadelphia this year at the end of March! For your chance to see a real kabuki performance in your hometown, stay tuned to the JASGP website for details!