Kabuki Theatre in Japan

Essay add: 30-09-2015, 10:27   /   Views: 233
Kabuki Theatre in Japan

Three characters referring to dance, music, and skill represent kabuki in the Japanese language. Kabuki is the traditional Japanese form of theatre. Tradition has it that kabuki was founded in 1603, in the Edo period, by a Shinto priestess named Okuni. Dressed like man, she and her troupe of mainly women performed dances and sketches on a stage set up in the riverbed of the Kamogawa River in Kyoto. Kabuki theatre, in contrast with older Japanese art forms such as Noh, was cultured for the townspeople and not of the upper class. It remains widely popular among the people, and is drawing large audiences even now. Though highly stylized, Kabuki is much like traditional theatrical art. Essential qualities of theatre include the audience, environment, performers, what is being performed, and performance.

One of the most important differences between theatre and other performance arts such as film and television is the audience factor. The first kabuki stages were just raised platforms on dry riverbeds. It was not until 1617, that licenses were issued to allow the construction of permanent kabuki theatres. City officials did not allow the theatres to be roofed until 1724. The traditional kabuki stage is a variation of a platform and thrust stage, with the audience sitting on three sides. One unique invention of the kabuki stage is the hanamichi, a walkway from the back of the theatre through the audience to stage right, enabling the actors to make an entrance. First invented in Japan, the revolving stage makes the rapid change of scenery possible. The relationship between the performers and the audience in a kabuki play is a unique one. Inside a kabuki theatre, one would hear shouts of encouragement or recognition from the audience called kakegoe. These shouts consist of the audience praising the actor on stage by referring to the actor’s yago, a predecessor of the same name. There may be moments during a play when an actor comes out of his role to address the audience directly, whether to introduce a new rising star or to welcome another actor to the city. The atmosphere in a kabuki theatre is very spirited. One is likely to see the audience eating and drinking freely at the intermissions or even during the performance. The basic themes of kabuki plays involve conflict between the feudalistic system and the human element.

Kabuki is above all else an actor’s theatre. The plays serve mainly as star vehicles, showcases for the talents of the actors to shine. Every actor is a part of an acting family, with each family having their own personal style. One of the most recognized aspects of kabuki theatre is the onnagata, male impersonators playing female parts. Though women basically started kabuki, authorities, feeling the attention placed on them was demoralizing the public, banned actresses from the stage in 1629. Kabuki already being popular, the men stepped right in. The art of onnagata is not in the imitation of women but in the expression of the essence of women. Onnagata has become such an integral part of the kabuki tradition that even now, when the ban has been lifted, actresses are not used. The acting in kabuki is formalized. An important aspect of the acting is in the dance-like gestures and forms. One special technique used in climatic moments is the mie, when the actor will strike a pose, assume a stare and cross his eyes. The delivery of lines is also formalized, particularly in long monologues. The lines are half spoken and half sung. At times, dialogues and monologues are accompanied by music.

Kabuki plays are divided into three categories, historical plays, domestic plays, and dance dramas. They are usually about historical events or moral conflicts in love relationships. About half of the plays still performed today were written specifically for the puppet theatre, for in the early 18th century the Bunraku puppet theatre briefly passed kabuki in popularity. Thus, kabuki evolved. The actors created stylized movements mimicking puppets. In dance dramas, actors dance completely accompanied by instrumental and vocal music. Some of these tell a complete story while some are just fragments of dance pieces. These were mainly showcases for onnagata. Many of these plays originate in the older Japanese art forms such as noh and kyogen plays. Domestic dramas depict the life of the common class. The domestic drama is for the most part realism. However, often there are scenes where the acting and staging become unrealistic, emphasizing the diction of the words and the use of splendid colors. Historical dramas are often about historical facts or dramatizations of warriors or nobles. Many of the texts come from puppet plays and are deep tragedies with the hero making the gravest of sacrifices.

In a performance, all the elements of theatre come together. The audience watches the written text being performed by actors, while sitting next to the stage. They watch as other technical matters are presented before them, such as makeup, costumes, and sound. Make-up is an integral part of kabuki theatre. The usually exaggerated make-up is indicative of the type of character the actor is in the play. The look of the onnagata is subtle and refined while that of the hero, particularly in a supernatural role, is vivid and bombastic. There are about a hundred styles of make-up with emphasis around the eyebrows and lips. The basic color is white, made from rice powder. Red usually represents the good, expressing virtue and power, while blue tends to be bad, expressing jealousy and fear. As with the make-up, costumes can represent a certain class or trait of a character with its use of color and fabric. The more extravagant the color, pattern, and design are, the greater the stature of the character is. The costumes in domestic plays are often realistic of the clothes worn in the Edo period, while those in historical plays include magnificent robes and large wigs. The costumes for the onnagatas in dance pieces are particularly beautiful. The most important instrument in kabuki theatre is the shamisen, a three-stringed balalaika-like instrument played with a plectrum. A flute and percussion instruments are also used. A special sound effect in kabuki is performed through the use of the hyshigi, a wooden clapper. The musicians are usually hidden from the audience. The music starts as the curtain is drawn and gives cues for the entrance of the actors. It also accompanies conversations and monologues. In a dance drama, the musicians are visible and the music takes a more integral part in the play.

Kabuki theatre is entrenched in the culture of Japan. Still popular today, kabuki’s use of mie has inspired current shows such as the Power Rangers and Charlie’s Angels. Though irregular at a pictorial level, kabuki is much like traditional theatre at a visceral level. Flamboyant and passionate, kabuki gives the audience an escape from their world.


Kabuki for Everyone

About Kabuki: Japanese theater.

Brandon, James R., William P. Malm, and Donald H. Shively. Studies in Kabuki. (University of Hawaii East-West Center, Honolulu, Hawaii), 1978.

Article name: Kabuki Theatre in Japan essay, research paper, dissertation