A combination of all fine performance arts – music, theater, and dance – kabuki is the art of Japanese opera. Performances are seasonal, and tickets tend to sell quickly, so opportunities to see this rare art form are relatively few. The tradition originates in the Edo period, where it began as more of an eccentric cabaret, much like Western opera, but has since evolved into a craft of intense discipline whose various roles are passed down through generations of families.
There are no women in traditional kabuki, so female roles are played by men, some of whom have come into much fame for being exceptional at expressing their feminine characters. Also, the actors who play female roles are trained from a young age to play these roles exclusively as their specialty, from their fathers and grandfathers, who also specialized in playing these roles. And it is in this way that all roles of the kabuki theater are passed down: drummers, flautists, woodblock-players, stagehands, and non-speaking actors all learned the nuances of their craft from the older generations who assumed the same roles.
The tradition extends even to the audience. In a traditional performance of three plays, the middle typically being a comedy, the audience enjoys certain traditional foods. A lunch box is sold with your ticket, and it is given to you upon your arrival at the theater, featuring pickled vegetables, fish, rice, and other traditional staples of the Japanese diet. For dessert, a traditional treat, monaka, is available at food stands outside the performance hall. Monaka are traditionally sweet red beans between two cookies or wafers, but in recent times, green tea or azuki ice cream has replaced the red beans.
Japanese people themselves tell you that they find kabuki difficult to understand, because the language is quite old and the style of speech is unique to the art. However, the actors are highly skilled at expressing emotions and events, and between their performance and the very enhancing and strategic musical accompaniment, the stories are easy to understand, even for someone who doesn’t speak Japanese.
If you have the opportunity, there are few experiences more moving or more Japanese than Kabuki.