The art of Kabuki can be traced back to the Edo period (1603–1867) and is one of Japan’s major classical theatres, along with noh and bunraku. Because Kabuki is a timeless and beloved national tradition, it has been named a part of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage and remains much the same today as when it was first developed.
In the past, Kabuki theatres were popular among the common class and could be found mostly in larger cities. Modern Kabuki theatres may be found in a variety of locations throughout Japan. Kabuki shows generally last all day and are usually broken up into two or three segments that consist of acts. Based on the theatre, tickets can be sold per show, segment or even act. Prices range from Ұ2,000 per act to Ұ25,000 per segment, depending on seating.
When Kabuki theatre first began, roles were acted out only by women. During the later part of the Edo period, the Tokugawa Shogunate government took more of an ownership over the art and forbid women to act. Today, all Kabuki roles are acted by men and those who specialize in portraying female characters are called “onnagata.” Traditional Kabuki plots are often based on historical events with themes ranging from love and tragedy to drama or moral conflict. Kabuki scripts are taken from written works—the climax or another interesting part of the story. Theatre-goers can read the original work in full before attending the show.
Much like Western Shakespearean plays, traditional Kabuki stories are written in an old form of the Japanese language, which can be hard to understand no matter how fluent one is in Japanese. Because of this, vigorous gestures and movements are used to capture the audience’s attention and narrate through movement. Music is a vital part of Kabuki performances and an orchestra made up of traditional Japanese instruments completes each scenes’ mood.
Elaborate costumes, over-the-top makeup, wigs, and intricately-designed, mobile and revolving sets make Kabuki unique among other dramatic arts. Trapdoors and even footbridges (hamach) give the actors tools for quick, dramatic entries and exits, sometimes through the audience aisles. “Kuroko” assist with these sets and props, dressed in all black. Though these crew members will be seen on stage throughout the show, it is customary to pretend not to notice.
Though four centuries old, Kabuki is bold, inventive and fascinating. Kabuki is a family business; an inherited art form passed down from generation to generation. Kabuki actors are known by their “yago” or stage name. These stage names are given by family members and based on the theatre troupe to which actors belong. Audience members will often call out an actor’s yago at an appropriate time during the performance as an act of respect.
When a spectator prepares to attend a Kabuki play, dress codes are not required. Still, Japanese women often wear a traditional kimono, especially on opening night. Many venues are westernized and offer English headsets and/or programs, though some still have traditional Japanese-style seating.
Though Kabuki is deep-seated in tradition, many modern Kabuki theatres have contemporary shows as well, with comedy, singing and more modern story plots. Kabuki theatre offers a tale for everyone, no matter their interests and delivers theatre in a way that challenges perception and captivates the audience.