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This article is an introduction to the Japanese Kabuki Theater, written by Scottish artist Paul Binnie. Paul Binnie lived in Tokyo for more than 5 years. Japanese Kabuki Theater and Noh Theater became his great passion.
First Publication: July 2001
Latest Update: May 2013
It is strangely ironic that Japanese Kabuki, an exclusively male preserve, a theater where women have been in the audience but not on stage for almost four hundred years, was created in large part by a woman and her female troupe.
Okuni, who may have come from the shrine of Izumo and thus have had a background in shamanistic ritual and No, set up a temporary stage on the dry bed of the Kamo River in Kyoto around 1603, where she and her company performed slightly suggestive dances and skits.
The very word Kabuki, which today is rendered in three ideograms meaning 'song', 'dance', 'skill', is in fact derived from a now obsolete adjective meaning eccentric, unconventional and rather shocking, a phrase applied to Onna Kabuki, or women's Kabuki.
The Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan's military dictatorship from 1603 to 1868, disapproved of this elevation of the position of women and, in 1629, citing the availability of the performers to their audience off-stage, banned all women from the stage on grounds of immorality.
Kabuki had, however, become so popular in the previous twenty-six years that teenage boys took to the stage to replace women, taking over all their roles, including those for private customers, which in 1652 caused this Wakashu Kabuki, teenage boys' Kabuki, to be banned in its turn.
Only adult men could now act on the stage, and this Yaro Kabuki continues basically unchanged to this day.
One of the major developments in acting was a direct result of this banning of women from the stage, in that men obviously had to play female roles and the onnagata, the female role specialist, was born.
Onnagata have produced a highly stylised version of femininity which seeks to represent a female type, and they have many methods to reduce their physical size on stage, as well as the refined movements and an extremely distinctive falsetto voice which are a very male view of women.
In the Meiji period (1868-1912) it was suggested that women could now act in Kabuki, but this was rejected since real women would be too real, and the art of Kabuki lies in artifice.
The physical theater of Kabuki today is based on Noh stages, which have existed since the fourteenth century, and the first difference we notice from a western theater is the long walkway running from the back of the auditorium to stage right. This is called the hanamichi, literally flower way, and is one of the main acting areas in conjunction with the stage itself.
The name is thought to derive from gifts of money, or hana, given by fans or sponsors on this walkway to the actors of their choice.
There is a point on the hanamichi which actors use to deliver their great monologues, surrounded by the audience like a modern theater-in-the-round, called the shichisan, or 7-3, a point 7/10 from the entrance at the rear of the auditorium and 3/10 from the stage, which on an eighteen meter hanamichi places the actor about five and a half meters into the audience.
The hanamichi is also used for dramatic exits, and a single actor can remain at the shichisan while the tricoloured striped curtain, the joshikimaku, is pulled across the procenium closing off the stage, and leaving the main actor to his climactic final moment.
The revolving stage, the mawari butai, was also developed in Japan long before the West, and allows scenes to be changed rapidly without a break in the action, as characters 'walk' to the next set which appears around from the back of the previous decor.
Nowadays, of course, the audience sit in western-style seats, but before the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, they sat in masu, square boxes with cushions on the floor for five people, rather like the sumo stadium still provides.
One Kabuki theater, the Kanamaru-za in Shikoku, still retains the masu seating, and is in fact a complete Edo period survival, giving an impression of how other Japanese Kabuki theaters would have looked before modernization and rebuilding.
Japanese Kabuki plays can be divided into three main catagories: shosagoto, or dance pieces; jidaimono, or history plays; and sewamono, or plays of the common people.
The basis of all Kabuki is dance, and an actor must undergo extensive training in this area in order to rise in the strict hierarchical system, and shosagoto are generally made up of a combination of mai, a circling movement with the heels kept close to the floor, odori, folk-influenced gestures and turns, and furi, use of mime often involving props such as fans.
Jidaimono, history plays, are usually set in distant historical periods, such as the Heian (794-1185) or Kamakura (1185-1336), or at the time of civil war between the Heike and Genji clans (late 12th century). This historical distance is often a pretext, however, to circumvent the strict censorship of the stage and particularily the representation of the Shogunate and all its works.
Characters in jidaimono may be aristocrats such as samurai, lords, princesses and empresses, or their retainers and vassals, and often a kind of superhero will dominate the drama.
Sewamono, the plays of everyday people, were first written around 1679 by Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725), a playwrite who worked for both Kabuki, and the rival puppet theater, Ningyo Joruri, nowadays known by the name of the last surviving troupe, Bunraku.
In sewamono, the characters are merchants, prostitutes, shopkeepers, firemen and so on, the lowest level of pre-modern Japanese society, and the plays often revolve around a conflict between giri, or duty to one's family or group, and ninjo, human emotions, which may be a forbidden love which causes a dramatic climax.
For male role actors there are two distinctively different styles of acting, dictated by the play itself, known as aragoto, or rough stuff, and wagoto, soft stuff.
Aragoto characters are the superhero types seen in jidaimono, and are recognized by their distinctive kumadori make-up, painted in stripes of red, black and blue on the face, arms and legs.
Their voices are powerful and exaggerated, bellowing and braying their often nonsensical lines, and the wigs and costumes are equally overscaled, padded and enlarged to increase the actors' physical scale. The first aragoto actor was Ichikawa Danjuro I (1660-1704), who lived in Edo, the old name for Tokyo.
Wagoto characters are quite the reverse, often being played by onnagata, and are much more sensitive, restrained and romantic in feel. One large category of sewamono plays deals with double suicide, and it is in these pieces that wagoto are seen to their best advantage, since the portrayal of intense emotion exemplifies this style.
Wagoto was developed by Sakata Tojuro I (1647-1709), and is based in his native Kamigata region, the area including Kyoto and Osaka.
Kabuki can be seen almost continually in Tokyo at the Kabuki-za theater, and frequently at the National Theater, too. Kyoto and Osaka have their own theaters, as well as a slightly particularised style of acting known as kamigata style, specific to the region.
Although in some ways the Kabuki stage of today has become somewhat gentrified and now appeals to a section of society quite different to the ordinary working people of the past, it is an authentically unbroken theatrical tradition streaching back almost four hundred years into the very history of Japan itself.
This is an excellent documentary for beginners into the subject of kabuki. The documentary shows scenes from famous kabuki plays that western people will regard as rather strange, but also captivating. Well, kabuki is an essential part of this strange Japanese culture. The explanations in the video are quite helpful. Thanks to worldmusicxx for sharing this with us.
(edited by Dieter Wanczura)
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