Kabuki is probably the most recognizable form of Japan's main traditional theater styles due to its use of eccentric face paint, extravagant costumes and the distinctive movement of its stage actors.
Since the early 1600s, when Kabuki is thought to have originated, the art form has been diligently preserved and is still widely performed in Japan today.
The Uniqueness of Kabuki
However, it is Kabuki's unique history as "entertainment for the common people" that makes it stand in stark contrast to Japan's other main traditional theater styles of noh, kyogen and bunraku.
Its difference from noh in particular, which was historically aimed at the upper class, gives Kabuki a unique flavor that is expressed in everything from its story content to stage design and most notably, its character appearance.
Kumadori: The Color of Emotion
Without a doubt, the most recognizable aspect of Kabuki theater is the characteristic face make up used by the stage actors. The style of face make up that is done by highlighting the facial lines and muscles with colors such as red or blue is called kumadori.
The highlighting is done deliberately to highlight the expressiveness of the actor's face. Red is traditionally associated with characters that embody strength, vigor and passion, while blue is used for villains and is associated with fear and evil.
The costumes in Kabuki are also heavily stylized, exaggerated and flamboyant. They play a very important role in signifying a character's role in the story. For example, the costumes for the main heroic characters are usually extremely large and heavy relative to the other characters.
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In addition, all the actors wear wigs. The wigs also help express the emotional or social state of the character — neat and combed back in one scene, but messy and standing upright in another to express anger or betrayal.
Revolving Platforms, Trap Doors and Grand Entrances
One of the aspects of Kabuki that distinguishes it from the other main Japanese traditional theater styles is the use of sophisticated stage design elements such as revolving platforms, trap doors and extended walkways. These elements are all used to enhance the entrances and exits of characters or to portray supernatural events, spiritual transformations or dramatic revelations.
The hanamichi, which is the characteristic walkway on the left of all kabuki stages which extends into the audience, is one element that is used extensively in Kabuki. Characters make dramatic entrances and exits in the midst of the audience, often striking dramatic poses only inches away from audience members seated near the walkway.
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All Male Performances
One interesting aspect of Kabuki theater is that all the female and male characters are played by male actors. This has to do with Kabuki's early history of dealing with stories and themes that were less refined and more broadly appealing to commoners in the lower classes of society.
Kabuki is known to have started with a single female performer in Kyoto named Okuni in the 1600s. As Kabuki gained in popularity, more of the performances began to deal with more adult-oriented subject matter with some of the actresses engaging in prostitution. The conservative Japanese government deemed it immoral at the time and outlawed all women from performing kabuki. This custom of only male actors has continued until today.
Therefore, the men who play women in Kabuki today use very distinctive face make up with a pure white base and only slight accents of red and black on the eyes and lips. These actors are called onnagata and their style of portraying femininity has evolved into a very sophisticated portrayal that has been cultivated over the entire 400+ year history of Kabuki theater.
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Watching Kabuki Today
There are many theaters where Kabuki is performed in Japan today with several of them offering information, explanations and subtitles in English. It's important to highlight though that a single Kabuki performance can last several hours throughout the day. They are however, divided into segments and tickets are usually sold per segment, costing anywhere from 3,000 to 25,000 yen for individual segments depending on the seating area.
Here are some well known kabuki theaters to choose from:
Name: Kabuki-za Theater
Location: Tokyo, Japan
Name: Minami-za Theater
Location: Kyoto, Japan
Name: Hakata-za Theater
Location: Fukuoka, Japan
- Kyoto Prefecture Kyoto Shi Higashiyama Ward Shijyo Ohashi Ebisu