Kabuki: A Resilient Traditional Art

By Jessica Hutchison

Kabuki (歌舞伎) 


Have you ever looked at anime and opera and wished someone would combine them into one form of entertainment? Well, I have good news for you. They already did. About 400 years ago. A lot of people have heard of kabuki. It’s become synonymous with Japan, which makes sense because it is a Japanese tradition, but it is also more popular in media than other iconic forms of Japanese drama (we’ll talk about noh and bunraku later). Kabuki (歌舞伎) is a type of Japanese stage performance that started in the early 17th Century. A lot about kabuki has changed over the years, but a lot hasn’t. This is pretty surprising considering the root of this traditional art and all the cultural changes Japan experienced in the past few centuries. So let’s take a look at one of Japan’s most iconic forms of entertainment.


A Very Brief History 

Knowing the history of a topic like kabuki can really help you understand why it is the way it is. A lot of tradition in kabuki comes from the very beginning. Kabuki was started by women. Well, one woman in particular. Izumi no Okuni started pulling together groups of women to dance in the riverbed in Kyoto in 1603. They would perform dances and act out dramas, and they quickly gained popularity. Their popularity could have stemmed from the fact that many of them were prostitutes. If you know anything about the government at the time, the Tokugawa Shogunate, you know they were incredibly strict. They were all about censorship and shutting down any sort of illicit behavior, so they forbade women from performing in these early kabuki plays.  


After that, the performers changed from women to young boys. People still enjoyed watching boys dance and perform, as they had the same femininity and grace as the ladies. They also enjoyed paying for their services afterwards, just as they did for the women. Once the government found out the boys were prostitutes as well, they banned their performances as well.  The art was eventually picked up by adult men. Even though the men would also engage in questionable behavior with audience members who were willing to pay a pretty penny, the government apparently cared less because they were men. This is how kabuki was changed from being all female casts to all male.  

Knowing the Audience

Kabuki was always meant for the commoners. It never had to compete with Noh plays (the ones with the creepy masks), because those were generally thought of as a higher art to be enjoyed by the aristocrats. It’s only real competition was bunraku (puppet theatre), and honestly, it always lost. People absolutely adored bunraku plays, and many plays started with puppets before they were transferred to the kabuki stage. Isn’t it interesting that kabuki almost completely overshadows bunraku now, despite the fact bunraku was more popular? Funny how these things work.  


Because the stories were written for commoners, many of the plots focus on commoners or places they would be familiar with, such as the red light district. Occasionally, you’ll get the classic stories like those from The Tale of the Heike, or great stories of bravery and loyalty like Chūshingura. Stories that would entertain the everyday cityfolk.  These commoner roots also show in the costume design of kabuki plays. The people putting on these plays were, obviously, actors. At this time, actors were basically outcasts in society. Japanese society had a rigid class system, and your class would determine most things about your lifestyle: where you could live, where you could go, and what you could buy, to name a few. Certain products, including certain types of fabric, were only available to certain classes. So if a play had a samurai lord in it, there would be no way a kabuki actor could purchase the proper material to make a samurai lord costume. They had to show rank in a different way. So they made the higher ranking characters have more gaudy, extravagant clothes. 


The Rapid Westernization of the 20th Century

As you learn more about Japanese history, you’ll learn about the major cultural shift that happened at the turn of the century. This actually ended up being a good thing for kabuki. Japan was trying to modernize (read here “westernize”), and a lot of foreign influence was coming into the country. Considering they had spent the last 150 years cut off from the Western world, it was a lot to take in. A lot of people turned back to their Japanese roots in an attempt to keep their traditions and not have them washed away in this flood of new ideas. During this time, kabuki started becoming more of an upper class sort of entertainment. This is despite the fact that most performances took place in the red light district thirty years prior. People turned to it as a traditional Japanese art, and it gained popularity.  


After World War II, kabuki began to really struggle. During the American occupation, a lot of Japanese tradition was pushed aside in favor of adopting Western ideals. That worked great for the economy, but less so for kabuki. It’s only been in the last few decades that kabuki has regained popularity, and part of that comes from foreign interest in an exotic art. What Makes Kabuki So Cool? Basically everything. I love watching kabuki, and here are a few reasons why.   


The Costumes I already talked a little about how gaudy the costumes can be, but honestly, they are really fun. There’s a bit of a misconception (thanks to a certain popular film with a lovable white balloon robot) that kabuki actors use masks. That’s actually a tradition of noh plays. But the marks on a “kabuki” mask are what define them as “kabuki.” Each character type has a specific way of doing their makeup, and the makeup is all done by the actors themselves. As they learn and train to become actors, they also learn the different makeup patterns so they can transform themselves into a warrior, a villain, or even a princess. The most iconic is the red streaks worn by many warrior protagonists.   


The clothes are also very fun to see. In one play, a character’s traditional nature was shown by putting him Heian Period court clothes. They were incredibly impractical considering he was guarding a mountain pass, but they certainly got his rank across. It’s also fun to see traditional courtesan outfits, just because they are so flashy and extravagant. You’ll also see great wigs, such as the one worn by the lion spirit in Kagamijishi. Every show has fantastic costume design.

You Must Watch It 


My favorite parts of kabuki are the quick changes. Some actors are famous for being able to change costumes in literally seconds. In one show, the main actor portrays ten different characters and changes costumes 47 times, with many of those being onstage quick changes. The StoriesA lot of kabuki stories come from classic literature. If you go see a play, it’s important to know the story beforehand, or you may be very confused. It’s important to note here that kabuki is performed in the same Japanese as it was in the Tokugawa Period. You may think this is like Shakespearean English, and you’ll be okay if you know Japanese well enough. Really, it’s more like Chaucer English. Speaking as a learner of Japanese for over six years, I can usually only catch a few bits and pieces of the dialogue. Even native speakers will follow along with the story in the program provided.   


It’s good to know the stories not just to follow along, but because they are really good stories. You can experience so many emotions while watching a kabuki play. You can feel the tension and excitement as the forty-seven rōnin finally corner the man who killed their lord. You can feel the heartbreak and pain as Oiwa realizes she has been poisoned. You can feel the relief as Benkei and Yoshitsune finally manage to make it past the mountain guards. These are not light stories, and sometimes you just need a nice drama. Kabuki is definitely a good choice for that.   


The Fight Scenes Along with the actual stories, the fight scenes are amazing. They have fun sound effects, such as hitting wood blocks to make the sounds of swords hitting. The fights are definitely stylized, so if you’re into realistic stage combat, you will be disappointed. But this is where the acrobatics come in. Warriors will perform all sorts of backflips and rolls. Sometimes they even fly. I even saw a play where one actor threw a sword about thirty feet over the audience and another actor on stage caught it. It’s not realistic, but it sure is fun.   


The Actors

If you’re a movie buff, or you have a friend who is one, you know the names of most of the actors in Hollywood off the top of your head. American actors can get pretty high up on the totem pole of fame, but I doubt any of them have been declared Living National Treasures. In Japan, a Living National Treasure is someone who has done much to preserve the traditional culture of Japan. There are quite a few kabuki actors on that list (eight, currently). Since kabuki has regained its popularity recently, and is exclusively Japanese, these actors, and all kabuki actors, work hard to maintain the traditions of the art.   


There are a few main families that carry on the kabuki tradition. Becoming an actor is a bit of a process. Sons born into a kabuki family begin their training at a young age. If there are no sons who want to go into kabuki, the families will sometimes adopt someone in to carry on the tradition. Once the actor is trained and ready to debut, he will pick a name for himself. The name they pick usually goes along with the type of actor they want to be (such as onnagata). This leads to actors having names like Bandō Tamasaburō V. There wasn’t necessarily a string of Bandō Tamasaburōs (in fact the fifth was adopted into the family), he was just the fifth actor to take the name.   


Onnagata (女形) 

Since I mentioned onnagata, and you might have been wondering about perhaps the most iconic part of kabuki, let’s talk about them. Onnagata (女形) are men who portray women in kabuki. They are famous for being elegant and graceful. Women liked onnagata because they seemed to really understand how women felt, and men liked them because they were pretty. Everybody wins.   


The idea of men portraying women in performances is not inherently Japanese—China has their equivalent of onnagata. But one idea that seems to permeate many East Asian cultures is the appeal of feminine beauty in men. This can be seen in Japanese media (I mean, have you seen how pretty some of those anime boys are?), and in the style choices of quite a few young men in Japan. This is one part of kabuki that truly is unique, and scholars have said it is one of the aspects of kabuki that defines it and sets it apart. In ConclusionIf you’re in Japan, and you have a chance to see a kabuki play, take it. Learn the story before you go, but please go. Kabuki is fun and energetic and interesting. You’ll never experience anything like it. If you aren’t in Japan, you can still check out some shows. 


In the 80s, there was a whole film series made of famous plays with English commentary to help you follow along. If you’re lucky, your library might have a couple of them. Kabuki is a great way to experience traditional Japanese culture. It’s one of the few arts that actually became more dedicated to tradition through the major cultural changes in recent Japanese history. You’re not going to find anything like it anywhere else in the world. Also, they just made one based on One Piece. If that doesn’t sell it to you, I don’t know what else will.  

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