Not Halloween… Kabuki.

Kabuki-za Theater, Tokyo
Kabuki-za Theater, Tokyo

I’ve never seen a Kabuki show in person but I’d like to at least once in my lifetime. I don’t understand Japanese well enough to say I’d follow the story completely but my Japanese friends have told me that the language used in Kabuki is so old not even they completely understand what’s being said.

Kabuki Actors
Kabuki Actors

Sounds a lot like Shakespeare to me…

I don’t mind Shakespeare.

“Kabuki means when broken down “Sing” “Dance” and “Skill” and it started around the year 1600.

Kabuki (歌舞伎?) is a classical Japanese dancedrama. Kabuki theatre is known for the stylization of its drama and for the elaborate make-up worn by some of its performers.

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, atejicharacters 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.[1] The expression kabukimono (歌舞伎者) referred originally to those who were bizarrely dressed and swaggered on a street.” -Wikipedia

Much like old Shakespearean plays, traditional Kabuki performances consist of all males casts. What’s interesting, however, is that Kabuki was believed to have been started by a woman.

ja: 出雲阿国(京都国立博物館収蔵『阿國歌舞伎圖屏風』より)。 en: Izumo no ...
The earliest portrait of Izumo no Okuni, the founder of kabuki (1600s)

“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.

Otani Oniji by Toshusai Sharaku, Edo era, Japan
Kabuki Actor Otani Oniji by Toshusai Sharaku, Edo era, Japan

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 lush 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 shogun 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.” – Wikipedia

Begin Japanology (my favorite series about Japanese culture) did an episode about Kabuki. Check it out below or follow this link

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Author: hikikomori78

American Hikikomori is an upcoming short film that explores the emotional struggles of a Japanese teenager named Isamu Fujihara, when he moves to America.

4 thoughts on “Not Halloween… Kabuki.”

  1. If you ever make it to Hawai’i you might be able to catch a Kabuki play performed in English at the University of Hawai’i

    The UH usually alternates among several Asian theatrical traditions doing Beijing Opera one year, Kyogen the next, perhaps Wayang Kulit after that followed by kabuki the next year.

    This is from the 1979 UH production of Chushingura.

    1. Awesome. I’ll have to check for the latest rotation if I do make it out there, but sounds like no matter what’s playing, the experience will be unique indeed. Thanks for sharing!

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