Kabuki is a world-renowned form of traditional Japanese performance art. Incorporating music, dance, and mime with elaborate costumes and sets, kabuki dramas depict tales derived from regional myths and history. Though internationally acclaimed today, its origins were humble and somewhat controversial. Many modern kabuki techniques and performers are directly descended from original methods and historical actors, leaving this artform largely unchanged for centuries. We’ll tell you all about the meaning, history, and methods behind this classical, complex and fascinating storytelling style.
1. What is Kabuki Theater?
Kabuki (歌舞伎) is made up of three kanji (Chinese characters): ka (歌) meaning sing, bu (舞) representing dance, and ki (伎) indicating skill. Literally, kabuki means the art of song and dance, but performances extend well beyond these two elements.
All told, Japanese kabuki is an outlandish visual spectacle which focuses more on looks than story. Production elements like costumes, lighting, props, and set design compliment performance aspects such as song and dance. All are presented in grandiose fashion to create a single, spectacular show.
2. How and When Did Kabuki Begin?
Today’s kabuki actors are all male, but the art was created by a woman. Izumo no Okuni was a Shinto priestess who began performing in the early 1600s at various locations around Kyoto, including at shrines and in the dry riverbed of the Kamo River. She formed an all-female troupe of local misfits and prostitutes, instructing them in theater, song, and dance. These women portrayed both male and female characters in comedic plays parodying everyday life. Known as onna-kabuki (onna means woman), the performances were witty and suggestive. This guerilla form of entertainment quickly became so immensely popular that rival troupes formed as far away as Tokyo (then called Edo) and Okuni herself was asked to perform for the Imperial Court.
Kabuki became common in red-light districts and also generally associated with prostitution, as performers sometimes offered their services to spectators. The ensuing moral panic led to the complete prohibition of women from performing in 1629. At first, young boys took over their roles, but they too were eligible for prostitution and also banned. Finally, adult men began performing, taking up the roles of both males and females as their predecessors had.
Kabuki was initially seen as avant-garde, a bizarre niche form of entertainment for the common people. They were drawn to the early performance’s bold eccentricity and lewdness, and audiences were often rowdy. The original meaning of kabuki is speculated to be related to the verb kabuku (傾く) which can mean to behave oddly. It took decades to evolve into the popular, formalized artform it became.
The 18th century was the golden age of kabuki history. The structure of the performances was formalized, recurring character types established, and all stigma erased. However, the movements and visuals remained over the top. Since this era, kabuki has persisted as one of the greatest and most famous Japanese arts. It’s recognized as one of Japan's three major classical performance arts along with noh and bunraku, and is on the list of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
3. What are Kabuki Plays About?
The three main categories of kabuki play are jidaimono (early historical and legendary stories), sewamono (contemporary tales post-1600) and shosagoto (dance dramas). In the video above you can see the dance performance by Nakamura Umemaru at the Portland Japanese Garden.
One of kabuki’s most central dramatic themes is the clash between morality and human emotions. Japanese moral ideals, both historically and today, rely heavily on the religious philosophies of Shinto, Buddhism, and Confucianism, which tend to emphasize qualities like devotion to one’s elders and community. However, emotions like revenge and love often get in the way of familial and other duties, creating the central conflict of most plays. These often end in tragedy.
Kabuki dramas sometimes include educational elements or attempt to provoke thought, but the main focus is on the cumulative sensory experience of witnessing the full visual spectacle come to life. Reality and consistency take a backseat to facets elaborate costumes and supernatural transformations.
Famous kabuki plays include:
Kanadahon Chushingura (Treasury of Loyal Retainers) - A jidaimono based on the famous tale of the 47 Ronin, a true story about a band of samurai who avenge their murdered master’s death before committing ritual suicide.
Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami (Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy) - Based on the life of Heian era (794-1185) scholar Sugawara no Michizane. Exiled from Kyoto, a number of calamities befell his enemies upon his death, leading them to deify the scholar in order to appease his vengeful spirit.
Sonezaki Shinju (The Love Suicide at Sonezaki) - A sewamono about a forbidden love between an orphaned merchant named Tokubei and his lover Ohatsu, a courtesan. The pair commit suicide at a shrine dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane.
4. Who Are the Most Famous Kabuki Actors and Playwrights?
In addition to Izumo no Okuni, the founding performer priestess, many key players shaped modern Japanese kabuki.
One of the most influential was Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725), a Japanese playwright so prolific he’s often compared to Shakespeare. He wrote The Love Suicide at Sonezaki as well as countless other scripts, many also about tragic suicides. Even though scripts aren’t considered as important as visual effects, Monzaemon is esteemed for perfecting and popularizing concepts kabuki is now known for.
Sakata Tojuro I (1647-1709) was an actor who collaborated with Chikamatsu Monzaemon. He became favored for his realistic and gentle acting style. Around the same time, Ichikawa Danjuro I (1660-1704) rose to prominence as a bombastic and ostentatious performer. Tojuro’s style was perfect for romantic stories; Danjuro’s for bloody tales of war and conflict. These styles became favored and are emulated to this day.
Both “Sakata Tojuro” and “Ichikawa Danjuro” have carried on as yago, stage names handed down to the actors who continue their methods. Other names taken from famous players have applied to several generations of performers, including Ichikawa Ebizo, Matsumoto Koshiro, and Nakamura Kanzaburo. Each new generation adds a number to the end of their name—contemporaries include Ichikawa Danjuro XII and Sakata Tojuro IV (whose lineage was broken for over 200 years before recently undergoing a revival).
5. What are the Key Elements of a Kabuki Performance?
By now you know kabuki plays combine many cohesive elements, most notably song and dance. Here is a more detailed look at the major components of a kabuki play and how they work together.
Music, created by both singers and instruments, helps set the narrative tone and pacing of a scene. Songs may be performed by one or many singers (utakata) at a time, and are usually accompanied by a shamisen, a type of Japanese lute. Other instruments can be used to create sound effects or act as cues for the actors. Depending on the performance, the musicians may be offstage entirely, positioned in the back or off to the side of the stage, or even directly incorporated into the action of the play.
Dance numbers are inserted into performances at almost any opportunity. However, kabuki acting is so stylized it’s indistinguishable from dance most of the time. Actors are trained to move and gesticulate using dance-like motions, meaning dance is an integral part of all kabuki plays. The movements differ based on the character: onnagata (female characters) flow daintily while doki (comedic characters) bounce jauntily. Many performances end with a lively dance finale (ogiri shosagoto) featuring the whole cast.
Actors employ many choreographed movements resembling dance, including:
Tachimawari: a stage combat technique. Choreographed fighting can be hand-to-hand or use swords.
Roppo: movement that simulates walking or running. Usually paired with upbeat drums.
Ningyoburi: the act of one actor controlling another’s movements, as if a puppeteer. This technique was inspired by bunraku, Japanese puppet theater.
Hikinuki: a specialized technique that involves changing one’s costume onstage, often perfectly timed with music.
Since kabuki dramas tend to be set in the past, performers usually wear kimono, Japanese traditional clothing. Styles range from practical and subdued to cumbersome and extravagant. One of the most important skills of the actors is simply manipulating and moving in their heavy costumes; no easy feat. The costumes and accompanying wigs are made by hand by skilled artisans and are sometimes ornately woven with fine silver and gold threads.
Known as kesho, kabuki makeup is based on a character’s traits. Actors’ faces are coated with oshiri (white paint) to make them both more visible and dramatic. Then, colored lines are added to enhance their features as well as describe their character. Red represents qualities like passion and anger; blue symbolizes evil or sadness. The patterns differ depending on the character’s gender. Supernatural beings like ghosts and demons wear the most dramatic makeup. Actors apply their own makeup so they can better understand their character. Alternatively, sometimes decorated kabuki masks are used, though these are more common in noh theater.
Set design and props
Stage decorations are lavish and typically include complex machinery. Moving lifts, traps, and curtains allow the performers and backgrounds to undergo astonishing transformations. For instance, an actor may suddenly disappear from the stage and reappear in the audience, or a background may revolve to simulate a ship moving across water. Apparitions and demonic characters are often suspended in midair with steel wires, a process called chunori. When actors themselves need to transform, a very useful player is the koken. Koken are stage assistants who help actors with costume changes and props. They often wear all black to maintain the illusion that the characters are transforming on their own.
During performances, it’s not unusual for audience members to shout and cheer for their favorite actor when he appears onstage or to applaud when something exciting occurs. Performers sometimes even address the spectators directly. It was only in later years that a stage separated the performers from the audience at all.
6. Where to See Kabuki In and Outside Japan?
Today, kabuki performances occur all over Japan and sometimes even tour overseas. A performance is typically divided into segments, one in the early afternoon and one in the early evening. Each segment is further divided into acts. Tickets are usually sold per segment, although in some cases they are also available per act. Tickets start at around ¥2000 ($18) for an act; depending on the seating; a full segment can cost up to ¥250,000 ($2,250)! Formal dress isn’t required to attend, but very casual or revealing clothing and shoes aren’t appropriate either.
Tokyo has three kabuki theaters, Kabukiza, Shinbashi Enbujo, and the National Theater. Kabukiza is the oldest; it originally opened in the early 1900s, but was recently renovated based on the original design. Kabukiza and the National Theater have English audio guides for rental, while Shinbashi Enbujo does not usually provide English guidance.
Address: 4-12-15, Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo (see map)
Hours: See the schedule here.
新橋演舞場 (Shinbashi Enbujo)
Address: 6-18-2, Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo (see map)
Hours: See the schedule here.
国立劇場 (Kokuritsu Gekijo)
Address: 4-1, Hayabusa-cho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo (see map)
Hours: See the schedule here.
The birthplace of kabuki is home to the famous Minamiza Theater. It was founded in 1610, but the current building was constructed in 1929, across from the same river where the priestess Okuni performed. English audio guides are available.
Address: 198 Nakanomachi, Shijodori Yamatooji Nishiiru, Higashiyama, Kyoto (see map)
Hours: See the schedule here.
Osaka’s kabuki theater is the Shochikuza Theater, first opened in 1923. It provides English pamphlets and audio guides.
大阪松竹座 (Osaka Shochikuza)
Address: 1-1-19, Dotonbori, Chuo-ku, Osaka (see map)
Hours: See the schedule here.
The Hakataza Theater in Fukuoka, on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu, was constructed in 1996. English pamphlets are available for most productions.
Address: 2-1 Shimokawabatamachi, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka (see map)
Hours: Front desk open daily from 10am-6pm. See the performance schedule here.
For information about overseas tours you can check here.
The spectacular visual aspects of kabuki allow it to be appreciated even by those who aren’t familiar with the local language, so don’t let a lack of Japanese hold you back from enjoying it. Just reading about it isn’t enough, to fully appreciate kabuki, you have to see it for yourself.