Everything You Need to Know about the Magic and Mysteries of Kabuki!

  • Finally, we come to the last installment of the three-part series about the top three traditional performing arts of Japan – Kabuki! This is probably more well-known compared to its counterparts i.e. Noh and Bunraku partly due to the fact that many of the kabuki actors these days tend to appear in many TV dramas and movies thus boosting awareness of this art form indirectly.

    What exactly is Kabuki?

    If you look at the three Japanese kanji characters for Kabuki (歌舞伎), they actually mean song (歌), dance (舞), and skill (伎) which are the key elements in a Kabuki performance i.e. a drama which features song and dance. However, the meaning of the third character can also be interpreted differently to refer to a performer of kabuki.

    It is also said that the term kabuki arose from the verb kabuku (傾く) which is an ancient form of the term katamuku (same kanji) that means people who were dressed in flashy clothing and behaved in a way different from the norm. Such people were then referred to as kabukimono.

    Kabuki was declared an outstanding art form in 2005 by UNESCO which subsequently added it to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list officially in March 2009.

    The roots and development of Kabuki

    Kabuki is said to have originated in 1603 according to the Toudaiki (当代記), a historical book in the Kanei era ( 寛永年間). At that time, a woman named Okuni (お国) who claimed to be a shrine maiden of Izumo Taisha (later referred to as Izumo no Okuni) started performing a new form of dance drama in Kyoto while dressed as a man and imitated the kabukimono. This gradually became known as kabuki odori (歌舞伎踊り) which led to Okuni being asked to perform before the Imperial Court by the Tokugawa shogunate after they relocated from Kyoto to Edo i.e. present-day Tokyo.

    In contrast to how kabuki is performed today, kabuki at that time was exclusively performed by women who played both male and female roles. Owing to the suggestive themes of kabuki performances by various troupes and that the performers were often assumed to be prostitutes, kabuki was also known as yuujo kabuki (遊女歌舞妓) i.e. prostitute kabuki performer.

    As kabuki thrived in Yoshiwara, the official red-light district in Edo, it became the signature entertainment featuring the latest trends and events thus was considered a form of pop culture in Japan then. However, the shogunate didn’t like the bad influences brought about by kabuki especially the mixing of people from different social classes at such performances.

    As a result, the onna-kabuki i.e. women’s kabuki was banned from 1629 for being too erotic and led to the new genre of wakashu-kabuki (若衆歌舞伎) i.e. young men kabuki which became banned again due to its actors being involved in the sex trade. Since then, kabuki took on a new form named yaro-kabuki (野郎歌舞伎) where only male adult actors were allowed to act in kabuki performances and took on both male and female roles.

    Kabuki went through various cultural changes over the years such as the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, the end of the samurai class and Meiji Restoration. It was briefly banned after World War II for its strong support for the war but the restriction was lifted by 1947. However, the post-war period saw a dip in the art form’s popularity due to the devastation left behind by the war and the trend then to reject past influences.

    Thanks to the adaptation of kabuki in various forms such as movies, dramas, and anime as well as the introduction of earphone guides since 1975 to enhance understanding by the audience, this has helped the traditional art form to regain its past glory and become what it is today. To mark Kabuki’s 400-year history in 2002, a statue of Okuni was placed across the Minami-za, the last kabuki theatre in Kyoto.

    Types of Kabuki performances
    Kabuki play – Jidaimono

    There are two main categories of kabuki plays i.e. kabuki kyougen which means kabuki drama (歌舞伎狂言) and kabuki buyou which means kabuki dance (歌舞伎舞踊). Under the kyougen category, there are two sub types i.e. jidaimono (時代物) which means historical or pre Sengoku-era stories and sewamono (世話物) which refers to domestic or post Sengoku-era stories.

    Jidaimono were usually based on major events in Japanese history prior to the Edo era because of censorship laws by the shogunate which wanted to prevent criticism of it and the current events then. This led to many shows using historical events as metaphors for current happenings at that time e.g. the Kanadehon Chushingura (仮名手本忠臣蔵) which was set in the 1330s but was actually about the 47 Ronin which happened in 1701. On the other hand, the sewamono stories focused on the commoners and featured themes of family and romance. amid elements of social pressure and class limitations.

    The Kabuki actor factions
    The name succession ceremony of Nakamura Kankuro VI

    Kabuki actors belong to a faction or are associated with a particular theatre and perform with their stage names which are different from their birth names. Usually, these stage names are inherited within the family from father to son and are of great honour and significance. There are exceptions at times when foster sons (not necessarily recognised legally; can be foster parent-and-son relationships on stage only), brothers or disciples will take on these stage names.

    For those who aren’t born into kabuki families, they are usually recruited as interns by the National Theatre of Japan before they become kabuki actors who can hold their own on stage.

    As these names are associated with specific roles or acting styles, it takes great skill and style before an actor can “take on” these esteemed stage names. It is, therefore, common for actors to go through a number of name changes throughout the course of their careers. When it’s time for the actors to take on new stage names, there will be a grand naming ceremony called shumei (襲名) held in front of the audience at the kabuki theatre. Each stage name will come with the yago (屋号) which is the name of the faction.

    How to watch a Kabuki performance
    The Kabukiza in Tokyo

    At present, Kabuki performances are mainly managed by Shochiku whereby the Ookabuki plays (大歌舞伎) are performed by veteran actors and Hanagata Kabuki plays (花形歌舞伎) are performed mainly by younger actors. With the exception of the Kabukiza in Tokyo which holds kabuki performances only, there are other venues nationwide where such performances are also held, such as the Shinbashi Enbujo, National Theatre of Japan, Meijiza, Osaka Shochikuza and Hakataza.

    Kabuki performances are usually organised on a monthly basis. With the exception of the last few days of the month, there are kabuki performances held on 25 days in a month. Most of the plays last for an entire day and tend to comprise of 2 parts i.e. morning and evening with some having three parts. Each part will feature a different story which is then broken up into several segments. The morning session starts from 11am to 4pm while the afternoon session is from 4.30pm to 9pm. However, the ending time for each session may differ depending on the performance being staged.

    In order to help viewers appreciate the kabuki plays more, there are synopsis books, earphone guides and subtitle guides on sale. The earphone guides provide Japanese or English commentary during the performance in real time and will have to be returned at the end of the play.

    Meet 5 of Japan’s versatile Kabuki actors

    Many of the Kabuki actors these days appear regularly in dramas, variety shows, and movies besides playing the kabuki trade. As such, there is no lack of fans who head to the kabuki theatres just to see their favourite actors in action on stage. You might be surprised to know that your favourite actors have kabuki roots or are active in the kabuki scene!

    1. Ichikawa Ebizo
    Ichikawa Ebizo hails from the Naritaya faction (成田屋) and is the 11th holder of the Ebizo name in his clan. He made his Kabuki debut at the young age of six and appeared in the NHK Taiga drama “Hanna no Ran” with his father Ichikawa Danjuro XII in 1994. Ebizo landed his first leading role on TV playing Miyamoto Musashi in the 2002 Taiga drama “Musashi” and can be seen in various dramas and movies.

    In addition, he has also held successful kabuki performances overseas e.g. twice in Singapore to promote the traditional art form to overseas audiences. His son Kangen who was born in 2013, is slated to be his successor.

    2. Nakamura Shido
    Nakamura Shido comes from the Yorozuya faction (萬屋) and made his debut as a kabuki actor at 8 years old. He inherited the name Shido from his father after the latter retired. He starred in his first film rather late at 30 years old through the film “Ping Pong” in 2002 which earned him the Best Newcomer Award at the 2003 Japanese Academy Awards.

    Since then, Shido has appeared in many dramas and movies such as Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwojima”. He married his co-star Takeuchi Yuko in 2005 after they worked on the film “Ima, Ai ni Yukimasu” but the couple divorced in 2008 and his son’s custody held by Takeuchi. He has since remarried in May last year. Shido had also taken on voice acting roles such as Ryuk in the “Death Note” movies and anime series and the game software “Ryu ga Gotoku 3” as Mine Yoshitaka, the chairman of the Hakuho clan.

    3. Matsumoto Koshiro

    Matsumoto Koshiro is a veteran actor from the Kouraya faction (髙麗屋) and made his kabuki debut at the age of three. He can be seen in many films and dramas and Western stage plays such as the lead role in the Broadway musical “Man of La Mancha” in 1970 and also participated in productions such as “The King and I” and “Sweeney Todd”.

    Besides his career success, Matsumoto is also known for his famous family members of which his brother Nakamura Kichiemon and son Ichikawa Somegoro are both kabuki actors and his daughter Matsu Takako is a popular and experienced actress who had appeared in many hit dramas like “Love Generation” and “Hero” in the 90s and early 2000s but is more active in movies and stage plays in recent years.

    4. Kagawa Teruyuki
    If you are a regular viewer of Japanese dramas and movies, you may know who Kagawa Teruyuki is. He was especially prolific as the evil rival Oowada in the hit drama series “Hanzawa Naoki” which left a deep impression on many viewers. However, did you know that he was actually born into a kabuki family and only became a kabuki actor just a few years ago? Kagawa is the son of kabuki actor Ichikawa Enou II and former Takarazuka actress Hama Yuko. However, the couple divorced in 1968 when he was just three years old so he was raised single-handedly by his mother.

    Kagawa graduated from the prestigious University of Tokyo with a degree in social psychology and made his debut in an NHK drama one year after his graduation in 1989 despite having no intention to do so initially and was working as an assistant director at first. Since then, he has appeared in many dramas and movies and won lots of awards for his acting.

    As Kagawa had been estranged from his father for years, he had no intention of being a kabuki actor all this while. However, they finally reconciled partly due to the birth of Kagawa’s son Masaaki. Being the heir of the Omodakaya faction (澤瀉屋) and that he himself also has a successor, Kagawa felt duty-bound to carry on the family name which has a history of more than 140 years. As such, he announced his debut in the kabuki world under the name of Ichikawa Chusha in September 2011 and that Masaaki will also do the same under the name of Ichikawa Dango. His first kabuki performance was in June 2012. Since then, Kagawa uses his original name for his acting career while he is known as Chusha in his kabuki performances.

    5. Kataoka Ainosuke
    Unlike the kabuki actors profiled above, Kataoka Ainosuke was not born into a kabuki family. His entry into the kabuki world came in the form of being a disciple under the Matsushimaya faction’s Kataoka Nizaemon XIII in 1981 and later became the adopted son of Kataoka Hidetaro II in 1992. Prior to this, he had been a child actor since he was 5 years old when he passed the Shochiku Child Actors Audition. Following his success as Kurosaki, the somewhat effeminate investigation officer from the Financial Services Agency in the hit drama series “Hanzawa Naoki”, Kataoka became more sought-after in dramas and movies with his latest work being the ongoing NHK Taiga “Sanadamaru”. He announced his marriage to actress Fujiwara Norika on 30 March after dating for about 7 months.

    Now that you’ve learnt more about the kabuki world, are you interested in experiencing this traditional art form? Do check out the performing schedules before your trip to Japan and book your tickets early since they are very sought-after so as to avoid disappointment!

    Check out Voyagin or the official website below for more information on tickets and venues!

    Kabuki Website

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