Kabuki Theater-A Japanese Tradition

Japan, or Nippon to the locals, is an island nation rife with its beautiful and deadly secrets. The ancient customs from thousands of years of toil still bubble in the winding cobblestone streets today. The caste of the Samurai hail from these mountainous pockets of land, along with the deadly katanas they wielded in battle. In periods of peace or political intrigue, they sat at the renowned teahouses that still operate today much as they always have, with geisha, and young maiko, attending them.

The guitar-like shamisen comes from these islands, as does the beautiful kimono dresses of silk, and the still-practiced national sport of Sumo wrestling.

Many Westerners find the traditional Japanese method of consuming fish, or Sushi, to be a tantalizing treat to the taste buds in today’s era, and the beautifully drawn anime figures from the wildly popular Manga stories incite readers to a frenzy on shores thousands of miles away.

Art and skill are values that are greatly prized in this land where old and new mix, the past calling out to the present, in a delicately balanced flower-and-willow world.

Another enduring legacy that the Japanese population continues to practice is the nation’s own stylized version of theater, or Kabuki. Very few schools exist today where the tradition of learning the dances and songs of old can be taught, but to those actors that are willing to dedicate years of time and practice, a lifetime of entertaining and honor of the old ways awaits.

Kabuki, the word itself, is believed to have derived from the verb kabuku, meaning “to lean” or “to be out of the ordinary.” This type of theater, therefore, always has been original, unique, daring, and bold. The word kabukimono referred to those who swaggered on the street in their brightly colored form of dress.

It all started with a spirit-woman in the 1603, named Izumo no Okuni. She danced before the imperial Court, the style quickly becoming wildly popular. Only females were originally allowed to dance, playing the male parts as well.

From its inception, Kabuki theater was a place to mingle with all castes of society, and ogle at the exquisite wardrobes of not only the actresses, but those in the audience watching the spectacle. It was a social hotbed of fashion, couture, and flair. Kabuki is the forerunner of all pop culture in Japan.

In 1629, females were banned from the stage by the shogun for being too erotic. Young boys were then cast to play the part, but at the time, they were eligible for prostitution from audience members just as much as the women were, so they were banned from performing as well.

That left men to play the roles of women, and since the stories, music, wardrobes, and drama were so poignant to the audiences, Kabuki remained wildly popular through the generations. Onnagata, literally meaning, “female role,” were what the male actors were called.

Through the centuries, Kabuki remained strong, even under pressure from Imperial protocol, fires that would break out amongst the wood-slatted buildings, and periods of rebellion and change. Its greatest silence wouldn’t come until after WWII, when the theater had to be shut down due to the rapid political and martial changes sweeping the country.

Even war couldn’t hold down the spirit of storytelling, dance, and drama for long, however. Kabuki remains firmly seated in present-day. Kabuki actors are often represented in television in film all over the world.

The plays often feature the use of trap doors, to bring surprise to the audiences, moving platforms, and several wardrobe and scene changes, some not always conducted off-stage, as is common in Western playacting.  An unusual, and common, form of expression in Kabuki Theater is when the actor holds a picturesque pose to establish his character, or mie. During this time, a cue is taken for an expert audience member to shout the actor’s name in appreciation and respect loudly over a hushed scene. For an even greater honor, the name of the actor’s father will be shouted.

One of the most signifying traits of kabuki is the makeup. Colors painted on faces represent emotion.

“…red lines are used to indicate passion, heroism, righteousness, and other positive traits; blue or black, villainy, jealousy, and other negative traits; green, the supernatural; and purple, nobility.” –Wikipedia

Kabuki is meant for an audience member to escape for an entire day. Plays lasted sometimes from sunup to sunset, and that is a tradition that carries on to the present. A full play is carried out in five acts, along the practiced measures of starting out slow, speeding up, and then finishing quickly. The last act is always carried out very shortly, culminating to an explosive finish.

Though females can legally be involved in Kabuki production, it is considered true to form for males to continue to play the part of both sexes. The onnagata role is still very heavily encouraged, and a male Kabuki actor is shown great favor in his native home. One of the most internationally famous of these actors is one named Tamasaburo Bando, an onnagata of high regard. His appearances in plays are famous, and he has aged gracefully in talent and art form.

Jennifer Cobb
Jennifer Cobb
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