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The Kabukiza in Ginza is one of Tokyo's leading kabuki theaters.

Kabuki (歌舞伎) is a form of traditional Japanese theater. The individual kanji characters, from left to right, mean sing (歌), dance (舞), and skill (伎). Kabuki is therefore sometimes translated as "the art of singing and dancing." (These are, however, ateji, characters that do not reflect actual etymology. The word kabuki is believed to derive from the verb kabuku, meaning "to lean", "to be out of the ordinary", etc.) Kabuki theater is known for the stylization of its drama and for the elaborate make-up worn by its performers.


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Kabuki actor, by Shunsho Katsukawa (1726-1792)

The history of kabuki began in 1603, when Okuni(she called herself a priestess of Izumo Taisha) began performing a new style of dance in the dry river beds of Kyoto. The style was instantly popular; Okuni was even asked to perform before the Imperial Court. In the wake of such success, rival troupes quickly formed, and kabuki was born as ensemble dance performed by women — a form much different from its modern incarnation. Much of its appeal in this era was due to the ribald, suggestive performances put on by many of the imitators; these actresses were often also available for prostitution, and those male audience members who could afford to availed themselves freely of the women's services. For that reason, kabuki was also written as "歌舞妓" (singing and dancing prostitute) during the Edo period. The attention of the government was attracted, and in 1629 women were banned from the stage for the stated purpose of protecting public morals. Some historians suggest that the government was also concerned by the popularity of kabuki plays expressing what it considered dangerous thoughts.

Since kabuki was already so popular, young male actors took over after women were banned from performing. Along with the change in the performers' gender came a change in the emphasis of the performance: more stress was placed on drama than dance. Their performances were equally ribald, and they too were available for prostitution (also for male customers). Audiences frequently became rowdy, and brawls occasionally broke out, sometimes over the favors of a particularly handsome young actor, again leading the shogunate (幕府) to clamp down in 1652.

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A shudo-type tryst between a samurai and a kabuki actor; Young kabuki actors who played female roles were known as onnagata or oyama and doubled as sex workers. They were much debated and sought after by the sophisticates of the day. Painted shunga-style hand-scroll (kakemono-e); sumi, color and gofun on silk; Miyagawa Issh, ca. 1750; Private collection.

As a result, the style developed into a sophisticated, highly stylized form called yarō kabuki (roughly, "fellow's kabuki," or "guy kabuki"). This metamorphosis in style was heavily influenced by kyogen comic theater, which was extremely popular at the time. Today the "yarō" has been dropped, but all roles in a kabuki play are still performed by men. The male actors who specialise in playing women's roles are called onnagata (女形). Onnagata typically come from a long line of onnagata specialists. Two other major role types are aragoto (rough style) and wagoto (soft style).

During the Genroku era, kabuki thrived. The structure of a kabuki play was formalized during this period, as were many elements of stylization. Conventional character types were determined. Kabuki theater and ningyō jōruri, the elaborate form of puppet theater that later came to be known as bunraku, became closely associated with each other during this period, and each has since influenced the development of the other. The famous playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon — one of the first professional playwrights of kabuki — produced several influential works, though the piece usually acknowledged as his most significant, Sonezaki Shinju (The Love Suicides at Sonezaki), was originally written for bunraku. Like many bunraku plays, however, it was adapted for kabuki, and it spawned many imitators — in fact, it and similar plays reportedly caused so many real-life "copycat" suicides that the government banned shinju mono (plays about lovers' double suicides) in 1723. Ichikawa Danjuro also lived during this time; he is credited with the development of mie poses and mask-like kumadori make-up.

In the early 18th century, kabuki fell out of favor for a time, with bunraku taking its place as the premier form of stage entertainment among the lower social classes. This occurred partly because of the emergence of several skilled bunraku playwrights in that time. By the middle of the century, kabuki had begun to re-emerge, though little of note would occur in its development for the next century.

The tremendous cultural changes begun in 1868 by the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, the elimination of the samurai class, and the opening of Japan to the west had an impact on kabuki as well. As the culture struggled to adapt to its new lack of isolation, actors strove to increase the reputation of kabuki among the upper classes and to adapt the traditional styles to modern tastes. They ultimately proved successful in this regard — on one occasion, a performance was given for the Meiji Emperor.

Many kabuki houses were destroyed by bombing during World War II, and the occupying forces briefly banned kabuki performances after the war. However, by 1947 the ban had been rescinded, and performances began once more. In modern Japan, kabuki remains relatively popular — it is the most popular of the traditional styles of Japanese drama — and its star actors often appear in television or film roles. For example, the well-known onnagata Bando Tamasaburo V has appeared in several (non-kabuki) plays and movies — often in a female role.

In recent times a statue of Okuni, the "founder" of kabuki, has been erected near Kyoto's Pontochō district.

Elements of kabuki

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Scene of a kabuki performance.
The screen on the right hides the musicians.

The kabuki stage features a projection called a hanamichi (花道; literally, flowery path), a walkway which extends into the audience and via which dramatic entrances and exits are made. Kabuki stages and theaters have steadily become more technologically sophisticated, and innovations including revolving stages and trap doors, introduced during the 18th century, added greatly to the staging of kabuki plays.

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A watercolor rendition of an actor in keshō (make-up)

Important characteristics of Kabuki theatre include the mie (見得), in which the actor holds a picturesque pose to establish his character. In kabuki, as in some other Japanese performing arts, scenery changes are sometimes made mid-scene, while the actors remain on stage and the curtain stays open. Stage hands rush onto the stage adding and removing props, backdrops and other scenery; these stage hands, always dressed entirely in black, are traditionally considered "invisible."

There are three main categories of kabuki play: jidai-mono (時代物, historical), sewa-mono (世話物, domestic), and shosagoto (所作事, dance pieces).

Keshō, or make-up, provides an element of style easily recognizable even by those unfamiliar with the art form. Rice powder is used to create the white oshiroi base, and kumadori enhances or exaggerates facial lines to produce dramatic animal or supernatural masks for the actors.

External links

de:Kabuki es:Kabuki et:Kabuki fa:کابوکی fr:Kabuki it:Kabuki ja:歌舞伎 pt:Kabuki


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