Kabuki is a traditional Japanese performance art known for the elaborate makeup called Kumadori worn by some performers. It has been a major theatrical form in Japan for over 4 centuries. Kabuki plays have been growing in sophistication incorporating music, dance, and costumes and sets. It is gaining popularity internationally nowadays, and Kabuki theater was added to the list of an intangible heritage by UNESCO in 2005. Three years later, it was inscribed in the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Here’s about the brief history, meaning, and where to enjoy it today.
1.What does Kabuki mean?
Literally, the word Kabuki (歌舞伎) means the art of songs(歌), dances(舞), and skills (伎) associated with the stage performances. It is said that the word Kabuki is derived from the verb Kabuku(傾く), which means to be extraordinary, avant-garde, or bizarre. Kabuki is a theater entertainment to show such outrageous, unusual performances.
2.How and When did Kabuki begin?
Today’s Kabuki actors are all male, but it was originally created by a woman named Izumo no Okuni in 1603. She formed a female dance troupe and they played both men and women in comedic plays about ordinary life. This style is known as Onna Kabuki (Female Kabuki). They began performing in the early 1600s at various locations around Kyoto and their performances became so popular that Izumo no Okuni was asked to perform before the Imperial Court. But later, Onna Kabuki was banned in 1629 because the troupe had local misfits who were often available for prostitution. The ensuing moral panic led to the prohibition of all-female Kabuki.
Then, young boys kabuki called Wakashu-Kabuki followed but was banned again because they too were eligible for prostitution, and the Tokugawa Shogunate didn’t welcome the mixing and trading between merchants and performers, artists, and prostitutes at the event.
Later in the middle of 1600s to 1673, all adult male Kabuki called Yaro Kabuki was made and this style, what we call Kabuki now, has been kept and growing since. Male actors play both female and male characters and play are more focused on drama more than dancing (Note that some local Kabuki troupes today have female actors in female roles) .
After the Tokugawa shogunate era ended in 1868, Kabuki gained more popularity in the Meiji period. Even Emperor Meiji sponsored a performance on 21 April 1887. You could say that Kabuki together with Shinto animism have the significant influence on the form of Japanese pop culture today such as Manga and Anime.
The exaggerated facial lines are meant to produce dramatic animal or supernatural images. The color of it represents the character’s traits as below.
Red lines: Passion, heroism, righteousness, and other positive characteristics
Blue or black lines: Villainy, jealousy, and other negative characteristics
Green lines : The supernatural, Mysteriousness.
Purple lines : Nobility.
Together with Kumadori, Kabuki actors do the Mie (a picturesque pose to establish characters) during the performances.
・Three main categories
There are three main kinds of Kabuki play: Jidaimono (Historical stories), Sewamono (Domestic stories), and Shosagoto (Dance pieces).
Famous Kabuki plays include,
Chushingura (Treasury of Loyal Retainers)
A Jidaimono based on the true story of the 47 Ronin (masterless samurai) and their mission to avenge the death of their master.
Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami (Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy)
A story based on the life of a scholar ,Sugawara no Michizane lived in Heian era (794-1185). He showed in talent in poetry and got promoted as a public servant in Kyoto but some people were envied. Later he was exiled to Kyushu due to false accusation and then…
Sonezaki Shinju (The Love Suicide at Sonezaki)
A Sewamono about a forbidden love between a merchant named Tokubei and his lover Ohatsu, a courtesan. It was based on a similar incident happened in 1703.
・Colors and clothings
Emotions are expressed through the colors of the costumes.
Eye-catching and strong colors represent foolish or joyful emotions, and severe or muted colors mean seriousness and focus.
4.Famous Kabuki Theaters
Here are the places where you can enjoy Kabuki plays in Japan.
English guides and pamphlets are available at Kabuki theaters so don’t worry if you can’t understand Japanese. Due to the coronavirus, there’s a new attempt to play Kabuki online (a very first online Kabuki was performed in June this year). In the near future, we might be able to enjoy Kabuki performances at home, from anywhere in the world.
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