Kabuki is one of the famous well-known aspects of Japanese culture, yet for many non-Japanese, Kabuki remains a mystery. The exaggerated movements and oddly done make-up are more baffling than the archaic Japanese that the actors are using. Now, some Kabuki theaters offer English translations for its foreign fans, but the language is only half of the battle. For those who want to experience Kabuki, it might be frustrating to even figure out what the story line is! For those curious about Kabuki, here is an enlightening breakdown of some of the major characters and acting techniques you’ll need to understand Kabuki.
First, let’s look at the types of characters. In Kabuki, there are several character types that can be seen in all Kabuki plays. To help you understand Kabuki it is helpful to be able to recognize the character types. Each role is distinctly different. The makeup for each role in Kabuki is unique to the role. The costumes each wear can also be used to help decide what role each character is representing. There are movements and gestures specific to each role that the actor must effectively convey. All of these help the audience understand what role each actor is playing and therefore what each character’s possible motive is in the play.
Female Role (Onnagata)
The first type is the “onnagata”, or the “female role”. Women have long been banned from the Kabuki stage so all female parts are played by men. This category can be subdivided into different roles; high-born ladies in waiting, elderly women, faithfull wives, etc. These men over-emphasis femininity by over-playing stylized feminine characteristics.
Good Guys (Tachiyaku)
The next type of character is the tachiyaku or the “good guys”. Like the onnagata, the tachiyaku can be broken down into several roles, including the tragic and suffering wise, righteous and clever man (jitsugotoshi), a comic actor (dokegata) and even boys’ roles.
Bad Guys (Katakiyaku)
The last main type of character is the katakiyaku, or the “bad guys”. Villainous roles include the handsome Iroaku, the high-born Kugeaku, and the Kunikuzushi, who always have grandiose plans of taking over the country.
The next point I’d like to breakdown is acting techniques. One technique is the pose or “mie”. Each role has a unique, special pose, but how each character enters their pose can vary across Kabuki plays. Poses are often struck during emotionally charged scenes. Off-stage, wooden clappers start clapping slowly, the character (male characters pose more than female) rolls his head, poses and crosses his eyes. The pose aims to highlight the intensity of the moment. The actor’s timing is crucial in making the pose memorable for the audience.
Another technique is the dance. Dances are not formalized choreography, but general patterns of dances persist throughout Kabuki plays. There are two types of dance; mitate and monomane. Monomane is when an actor “takes on the bodily style of a character”. Mitate is when an actor substitutes one prop for another. For example, instead of using a real sword, an actor swings his folded fan in such a way as to make it clear it is a sword. Kabuki dance master Bando Kotoji demonstrates monomane and mitate in this short video (See it here). Dances are meaningful and often tell a story.
The actors expect the audience to be able to figure out what is going on during the play. Poses, dance, make-up, and costumes; if the audience isn’t at least somewhat familiar with these, then the actors won’t be able to effectively tell the story. Kabuki is an extremely culturally rich and deep form of Japanese drama that can and should be enjoyed by anyone who wants to. The subtle complexities of Kabuki cannot be explained here, but in a very light and superficial way, I hope this introduction has helped you understand some of the riddles of Kabuki.