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Japanese Kabuki

Kabuki-za Theater

By Tomikichiro Tokuriki 1902-1999

By Tomikichiro Tokuriki 1902-1999

Kabuki literally means, song and dance. It was founded in the early 17th century in Kyoto by a female temple dancer, Izumo no Okuni.

Kabuki - Video Documentary

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.

The Golden Age of Kabuki

The late 18th Century, around 1770-1780s, is regarded as the golden age of kabuki. The theaters were full of glory, fantasy, romance and intrigue. The audience was entertained by the popular actors in lavish costumes. The playwrights poured their rich artistic imaginations to the newest forms of music and dance, and innovative theater tricks.

Namiki Shozo (1730-73) created many grand scale mechanisms such as the intricate cable system which enabled the actors to fly, hinged roofs that opened to show the action inside the houses, and large trapdoors which made a whole scene disappear almost instantly.

Kabuki Compared to Noh Theater

Japanese Kabuki was regarded as an entertainment for a broad audience - the townspeople in Edo and the other major cities like Osaka and Kyoto. In contrast to it was the refined Noh Plays which only the aristocrats and the samurai class were allowed to attend.

Kabuki and the Shogunate

During the whole Edo era Kabuki was looked at with suspicion by the bakufu authorities of the ruling shogun family. Over the years several bans and restrictions were imposed on kabuki. The most severe was the ban of women from the theater under the pretext of immorality. This was the origin of the onnagata role - men playing the role of women.

In spite of all government restrictions, Kabuki continued to flourish. It was simply too popular to ban it completely. And even the samurai class flocked into the theater although it was officially a no-go zone for them. They came in disguise, faced covered with a veil and watched the performances from reserved boxes that were protected with reed blinds.

Kabuki and Ukiyo-e

The kabuki theaters were closely connected to Ukiyo-e, the art of traditional Japanese woodblock printmaking. The kabuki theaters were by far the most important commissioners of woodblock prints.

Ukiyo-e were used for advertising, to announce theater performances and for portraits of popular actors. One Ukiyo-e School, the so-called Oasaka School was completely specialized on kabuki subjects.

Kabuki Today

Many of the old and traditional art forms like for instance Japanese sumo wrestling could keep their popularity until our days. Kabuki is unfortunately far away from the popularity of the old days.

The younger generation does not seem to be interested any longer in the art of kabuki. It developed into some kind of a niche market in the entertainment sector.

Although there are still enough audiences to finance the theaters and new plays, one cannot avoid the impression that many of the stories which attracted the people in the bygone era do not stir interests in the contemporary Western ideas.

Their stage tricks and pageantry are certainly not enough to compete with today's more sophisticated lighting, stage mechanisms and realistic computer generated special effects employed by movies and musicals which were produced with huge budgets.

Its music is somewhat foreign to the ears which are accustomed to western pop music. Only the time can tell the fate of this grand form of theatrical performance from Japan.

Literature source for Kabuki

Aubrey S. Halford and Giovanna M. Halford, "The Kabuki Handbook", published by Charles E.Tuttle Company, Inc., 1998, ISBN 0-8048-0332-3.

Dieter WanczuraAuthor: Dieter Wanczura

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