The individual kanji, 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 which do not reflect actual etymology. The kanji of ‘skill’ generally refers to a performer in kabuki theatre. Since the word kabuki is believed to derive from the verb kabuku, meaning “to lean” or “to be out of the ordinary”, kabuki can be interpreted as “avant-garde” or “bizarre” theatre. The expression kabukimono (歌舞伎者) referred originally to those who were bizarrely dressed. It is often translated into English as “strange things” or “the crazy ones”, and referred to the style of dress worn by gangs of samurai.
In 2005, the Kabuki theatre was proclaimed by UNESCO as an intangible heritage possessing outstanding universal value. In 2008, it was inscribed in the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
1603–1629: Female kabuki
The history of kabuki began in 1603 when Izumo no Okuni, possibly a miko of Izumo-taisha, began performing a new style of dance drama in the dry riverbeds of Kyoto. It originated in the 17th century. Japan was under the control of the Tokugawa shogunate, enforced by Tokugawa Ieyasu. The name of the Edo period derives from the relocation of the Tokugawa regime from its former home in Kyoto to the city of Edo, present-day Tokyo. Female performers played both men and women in comic playlets about ordinary life. The style was immediately popular, and Okuni was asked to perform before the Imperial Court. In the wake of such success, rival troupes quickly formed, and kabuki was born as ensemble dance and drama performed by women—a form very different from its modern incarnation. Much of its appeal in this era was due to the ribald, suggestive themes featured by many troupes; this appeal was further augmented by the fact that the performers were often also available for prostitution. For this reason, kabuki was also called “遊女歌舞妓” (prostitute-singing and dancing performer) during this period.
Kabuki became a common form of entertainment in the ukiyo, or Yoshiwara, the registered red-light district in Edo. A diverse crowd gathered under one roof, something that happened nowhere else in the city. Kabuki theaters were a place to see and be seen as they featured the latest fashion trends and current events. The stage provided good entertainment with exciting new music, patterns, clothing, and famous actors. Performances went from morning until sunset. The teahouses surrounding or connected to the theater provided meals, refreshments, and good company. The area around the theatres was filled with shops selling kabuki souvenirs. Kabuki, in a sense, initiated pop culture in Japan.
The shogunate was never partial to kabuki and all the mischief it brought, particularly the variety of the social classes which mixed at kabuki performances. Women’s kabuki, called onna-kabuki, was banned in 1629 for being too erotic. Following onna-kabuki, young boys performed in wakashū-kabuki, but since they too were eligible for prostitution, the shōgun government soon banned wakashū-kabuki as well. Kabuki switched to adult male actors, called yaro-kabuki, in the mid-1600s. Male actors played both female and male characters. The theatre remained popular, and remained a focus of urban lifestyle until modern times. Although kabuki was performed all over ukiyo and other portions for the country, the Nakamura-za, Ichimura-za and Kawarazaki-za theatres became the top theatres in ukiyo, where some of the most successful kabuki performances were and still are held.
1629–1673: Transition to yarō-kabuki
The modern all-male kabuki, known as yarō-kabuki (young man kabuki), was established during these decades. After women were banned from performing, cross-dressed male actors, known as onnagata (“female-role”) or oyama, took over. Young (adolescent) men were preferred for women’s roles due to their less masculine appearance and the higher pitch of their voices compared to adult men. In addition, wakashū (adolescent male) roles, played by young men often selected for attractiveness, became common, and were often presented in an erotic context. Along with the change in the performer’s gender came a change in the emphasis of the performance: increased stress was placed on drama rather than dance. Performances were equally ribald, and the male actors too were available for prostitution (to both female and male customers). Audiences frequently became rowdy, and brawls occasionally broke out, sometimes over the favors of a particularly handsome young actor, leading the shogunate to ban first onnagata and then wakashū roles. Both bans were rescinded by 1652.
1673–1841: Golden age
During the Genroku era, kabuki thrived. The structure of a kabuki play was formalized during this period, as were many elements of style. Conventional character types were established. 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, and each has since influenced the other’s development. The famous playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon, one of the first professional kabuki playwrights, produced several influential works, though the piece usually acknowledged as his most significant, Sonezaki Shinjū (The Love Suicides at Sonezaki), was originally written for bunraku. Like many bunraku plays, 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 Danjūrō I also lived during this time; he is credited with the development of mie poses and mask-like kumadori make-up.
1842–1868: Saruwaka-chō kabuki
Male actors played both female and male characters.
In the 1840s, fires started to affect Edo due to repeated drought. Kabuki theatres, traditionally made of wood, were constantly burning down, forcing their relocation within the ukiyo. When the area that housed the Nakamura-za was completely destroyed in 1841, the shōgun refused to allow the theatre to be rebuilt, saying that it was against fire code. The shogunate did not welcome the mixing and trading that occurred between town merchants and actors, artists, and prostitutes. The shogunate took advantage of the fire crisis in 1842 to force the Nakamura-za, Ichimura-za, and Kawarazaki-za out of the city limits and into Asakusa, a northern suburb of Edo. Actors, stagehands, and others associated with the performances were forced out as well. Those in areas and lifestyles centered around the theatres also migrated, but the inconvenience of the new location reduced attendance. These factors, along with strict regulations, pushed much of kabuki “underground” in Edo, with performances changing locations to avoid the authorities.
The theatres’ new location was called Saruwaka-chō, or Saruwaka-machi. The last thirty years of the Tokugawa shogunate’s rule is often referred to as the Saruwaka-machi period. This period produced some of the gaudiest kabuki in Japanese history. The Saruwaka-machi became the new theatre district for the Nakamura-za, Ichimura-za and Kawarazaki-za theatres. The district was located on the main street of Asakusa, which ran through the middle of the small city. The street was renamed after Saruwaka Kanzaburo, who initiated Edo kabuki in the Nakamura Theatre in 1624.
European artists began noticing Japanese theatrical performances and artwork, and many artists (for example, Claude Monet) were inspired by Japanese wood block prints. This Western interest prompted Japanese artists to increase their depictions of daily life including theatres, brothels, main streets and so on. One artist in particular, Utagawa Hiroshige, did a series of prints based on Saruwaka from the Saruwaka-machi period in Asakusa.
The relocation diminished the tradition’s most abundant inspiration for costuming, make-up, and story line. Ichikawa Kodanji IV was one of the most active and successful actors during the Saruwaka-machi period. Deemed unattractive, he mainly performed buyō, or dancing, in dramas written by Kawatake Mokuami, who also wrote during the Meiji period to follow. Kawatake Mokuami commonly wrote plays that depicted the common lives of the people of Edo. He introduced shichigo-cho (seven-and-five syllable meter) dialogue and music such as kiyomoto. His kabuki performances became quite popular once the Saruwaka-machi period ended and theatre returned to Edo; many of his works are still performed.
In 1868, the Tokugawa shogunate fell apart. Emperor Meiji was restored to power and moved from Kyoto to the new capital of Edo, or Tokyo, beginning the Meiji period. Kabuki returned to the ukiyo of Edo. Kabuki became more radical in the Meiji period, and modern styles emerged. New playwrights created new genres and twists on traditional stories.
Kabuki after the Meiji period
Beginning in 1868 enormous cultural changes, such as the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, the elimination of the samuraiclass, and the opening of Japan to the West, helped to spark kabuki’s re-emergence. As the culture struggled to adapt to the influx of foreign ideas and influence, 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 21 April 1887, the Meiji Emperorsponsored a performance.
The immediate post–World War II era was a difficult time for kabuki. Besides the war’s physical devastation, many rejected the styles and thoughts of the past, kabuki among them. Director Tetsuji Takechi‘s popular and innovative productions of kabuki classics at this time are credited with bringing about a rebirth of interest in kabuki in the Kansai region. Of the many popular young stars who performed with the Takechi Kabuki, Nakamura Ganjiro III (b. 1931) was the leading figure. He was first known as Nakamura Senjaku, and this period in Osaka kabuki became known as the “Age of Senjaku” in his honor.
Today, kabuki 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 Bandō Tamasaburō V has appeared in several (non-kabuki) plays and movies, often in a female role. Kabuki appears in works of Japanese popular culturesuch as anime. In addition to the handful of major theatres in Tokyo and Kyoto, there are many smaller theatres in Osaka and throughout the countryside. The Ōshika Kabuki troupe, based in Ōshika, Nagano Prefecture, is one example.
Some local kabuki troupes today use female actors in onnagata roles. The Ichikawa Shōjo Kabuki Gekidan, an all-female troupe, debuted in 1953 to significant acclaim but failed to start a new trend.
The introduction of earphone guides in 1975, including an English version in 1982, helped broaden the art’s appeal. As a result, in 1991 the Kabuki-za, one of Tokyo’s best known kabuki theaters, began year-round performances and, in 2005, began marketing kabuki cinema films. Kabuki troupes regularly tour Asia,Europe and America, and there have been several kabuki-themed productions of canonical Western plays such as those of Shakespeare. Western playwrights and novelists have experimented with kabuki themes, an example of which is Gerald Vizenor‘s Hiroshima Bugi (2004). Writer Yukio Mishima pioneered and popularized the use of kabuki in modern settings and revived other traditional arts, such as Noh, adapting them to modern contexts. There have even been kabuki troupes established in countries outside Japan. For instance, in Australia, the Za Kabuki troupe at the Australian National University has performed a kabuki drama each year since 1976, the longest regular kabuki performance outside Japan.
In November 2002 a statue was erected in honor of kabuki’s founder Okuni and to commemorate 400 years of kabuki’s existence. Diagonally across from the Minami-za, the last remaining kabuki theater in Kyoto, it stands at the east end of a bridge (Shijō Ōhashi) crossing the Kamo River in Kyoto.
More at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kabuki