Kabuki: A Japanese Form Essay, Research Paper
Kabuki: A Japanese Form
Japan’s dances and dramas as they are seen today contain 1300 years of continuous uninterrupted history. This prodigious feat of conservation, theatrically speaking, makes Japan an extraordinary and unique country. In all of Asia, where tradition generally is sanctified and change eschewed, Japan stands as the only country whose theatre is its entirety has never suffered an eclipse nor undergone any drastic revivification or renovation. The most traditional form of Japanese theatre is kabuki. Its origin goes back to the latter part of the 16th century and, with extensive and continuous evolution, it has now been perfected into a state of classical refinement. Though not as flourishing as it once was, the kabuki theatre retains wide popularity among the people, and is in fact drawing quite large audiences even now.
During the period generally referred to as the Edo Era, during which much of the development of kabuki took place, distinctions between the warrior class and the commoners was more rigidly observed than at any other time in Japan’s history. Mainly the merchants cultivated the art of kabuki in those days. They had become increasingly powerful economically, but had to remain socially inferior as they belonged to the commoner class. To them kabuki was most significant as the artistic means by which to express their emotions under the prevailing conditions. Thus, the fundamental themes of kabuki plays are conflicts between humanity and the feudalistic system. It is largely due to this humanistic quality of the art that it gained such an enduring popularity among the general public of those days and remains this way today.
A unique feature of the kabuki art, and possibly the most significant detail and in keeping with the kabuki spirit of unusualness, is the fact that it has no actresses whatsoever (Bowers 325). Male impersonators known as onnagata play all female parts. The players of the kabuki drama in its primitive stage were principally women, and with the increasing popularity of kabuki, many of the actresses began to attract undue attention from male admirers. The authorities felt that this would lead to a serious demoralization of the public and in 1629 the theatrical appearance of women was officially banned.
However, since the public already accepted kabuki, men immediately took over and have continued performing to the present. The ban on actresses was in effect for about 250 years. In the mean time kabuki brought to perfection the art of the onnagata. As a result, there was no room for actresses in kabuki when the ban was lifted. Moreover, the art of onnagata had become such an integral part of kabuki that, if deprived of this element, the traditional quality of kabuki could be lost forever.
Another important characteristic of kabuki is that it is a wide-ranging and accumulative theatre (Hsu, 73). Born at the turn of the 16th century, it incorporated parts of all the preceding theatre forms of Japan. Among the traditional arts from which kabuki has drawn from, stage techniques and repertoire are the noh drama and the kyogen play. The kyogen plays are the comic interludes presented between the noh performances. Today, the number of Japanese who appreciate noh proper is far smaller than that of those who favor kabuki, but those kabuki plays adapted from or inspired by noh plays enjoy a wide popularity and constitute an essential portion of the entire kabuki repertoire (Mackerras, 132).
Another area from which kabuki has borrowed elements is the puppet theatre, often referred to as bunraku. The development of bunraku roughly paralleled that of earlier kabuki. In kabuki, the primary importance has always been placed on the actor rather than on any other aspect of the art, such as literary value of a play. During the early 17th century, some of the great writers, including Monzaemon Chikamatsu, often called the “Shakespeare of Japan”, left kabuki with its actors’ domination and turned to the puppet theatre where their creative genius was more or less unrestricted. As a result, there was a period when puppets overshadowed actors and the puppet theatre was more popular than kabuki. To meet this competition, kabuki adopted virtually all the puppet plays. Thus, today more than half of the conventional kabuki plays except for a group of dance-dramas is of bunraku origin. A final example of kabuki’s all-embracing acquisitiveness came at the end of the 19th century, which added an element of literary realism to the art (Bowers, 330).
Until kabuki, the people of Japan had never seen theatre of such color, glamour, excitement and general astonishment. In these qualities, perhaps no theatre elsewhere in the world can excel the kabuki drama (Hsu, 70).
There are about 300 plays in the conventional kabuki repertoire. Previously, the playwrights of the kabuki theatre itself supplied the plays almost exclusively.
There is a group of plays in the repertoire designated as shosa-goto, or dance-drama, which is primarily and almost entirely dance. In the dance-drama, actors dance to the full accompaniment of vocal and instrumental music. Many plays tell a complete story, while others are scarcely more than partial dance pieces. Many of them have their origin in the noh drama and the kyogen plays. Kanjincho (The Temple Offering List),Musume Dojoji (Maiden of the Dojoji Temple), Migawari Zazen (The Substitute), and Takatsuki (The Clog Dance) are examples of the dance-drama(Mackerras, 140).
The remainder of the kabuki plays may be divided into two categories from the standpoint of theme and dramatic persona. Historical dramas, known as jidai mono’s, depict historical facts or present dramatized accounts of warriors or nobles. Many of them are heavy tragedies relieved only by momentary flashes of comedy. Some of the texts come from the puppet plays and they often call upon the hero to make the greatest possible sacrifices. For example, Chushingura, one of the most celebrated kabuki adaptations of a bunraku play, tells the famous story of the forty-seven lordless knights. These men avenged the enforced self-sacrifice of their master after years of patient waiting and plotting, and, for this act, they also were compelled to commit suicide.
The second category of kabuki plays is domestic dramas. These plays, also known as sewa mono, invariably depict the life of the plebian class. The center of attention is focused upon the commoner. Kagotsurube (The Courtesan) and Tsubosaka-Dera (Miracle at Tsubosaka) are representatives of this group of plays. The domestic drama is essentially a realistic story. Nevertheless, it is not infrequent that plays of this type have scenes where the acting and staging become unrealistic, with emphasis placed upon such superficial aspects as elocution and splendid colors rather than upon internal elements like the logical consistency of the plot (Bowers, 330).
In terms of origin, kabuki plays can be classified into the three groups. The first is plays adapted from noh and kyogen dramas. A substantial number of comic dance plays were adapted from kyogen, such as Migawari Zazen. Dance plays of a more serious nature, such as Kanjincho and Musume Dojoji, were adapted from regular noh plays. These are characterized by exceeding grace and dignity, reflective of the noble atmosphere of their origins. The stage setting for many of these plays was adapted directly from the noh theatre. It consists of only a panel background showing an aged pine tree and two side wings with pictures of bamboo groves.
Plays adapted from the puppet theatre are the second category of origin for kabuki. In these plays a large part of the text is derived almost verbatim from their originals. They are still performed in a unique style unique to the puppet theatre. A singer and his accompanist sit at the right of the stage on a podium, in full view of the audience, as in the puppet theatre. But the actors, with narratives and descriptive passages left to the singer speak the actual lines. In the puppet theatre, the entire text is recited and sung by the singer. Among the representative plays of this group are Chushingura and Tsubosaka-Dera.
Lastly plays intended for kabuki make up the final category. These plays were written and produced exclusively for the kabuki theatre. Among them are a considerable number of excellent dramatic works such as Kagotsurube.
Kabuki theatres in Japan today are built, without exception, in Western style, with respect to their building and staging facilities and accoutrements. They have retained, however, some of the significant features of the traditional kabuki theatre, such as the hanamichi and the mawari-butai. The Hanamichi, or flower-walk ramp, is a passageway connecting the left side of the stage with the back of the hall, through the spectators’ seats at about head level of the audience. It provides a way for the actors’ entrances and exits, in addition to the passages available at both wings of the stage. The hanamichi, however, serves not only as a passageway, but constitutes a part of the stage. While making their entrance or exit via this ramp, the actors very often give one of the most important scenes of their performance. The Mawari-butai, or revolving stage was first invented in Japan nearly 300 years ago. This device was later introduced abroad. It makes rapid changes of scene possible without interrupting the sequence of the plot. The proscenium of the kabuki stage is lower and much wider than that of American and European theatre. The stage has the appearance of a long rectangle instead of the nearly square form of theatres elsewhere. The curtain in the kabuki theatres consists of red-brown, black, and green cotton stripes, and is not raised as in the Western theatres, but drawn aside.
The most distinguishing feature of kabuki as a theatrical art in comparison with other dramatic forms is perhaps that it places primary emphasis upon the actor (Hsu, 121). Thus the writers attached to the various kabuki theatres supplied the vast majority of the classical kabuki plays. Those writers were fully aware of the characteristic strengths and weaknesses of the individual actors as well as their dramatic taste in performance, and they took unusual pains to write plays capable of bringing out the superior talent of these actors. Not infrequently, actors, regarding the plays only as means of expression for them to star in, temperamentally altered the lines and the plots.
Yet, in the last analysis, it is to the actor that kabuki’s chief greatness is due. Since the dramatic art of kabuki is based on its special formula of representation, every kabuki actor is required to have a fundamental preparatory training. This in turn makes it almost compulsory that a person who aspires to be a kabuki actor start his training from childhood. He must be thoroughly trained in many branches of artistic culture. Since kabuki is a kind of musical drama, both Japanese dancing and music are integral parts of such training.
It is noteworthy that much of the dramatic technique in a kabuki performance is not what the contemporary actors have acquired by themselves, but is the basis of accumulated efforts contributed by their ancestors for many generations back, and handed down to them by the principle of family inheritance. Hence, there are today families of kabuki actors that go back as far as seventeen generations (Mackerras, 145). For one thing, under the feudalistic social system of the Edo period, the adoration of family lineage was almost an unwritten law. For another, the very nature of the kabuki art with its vast requirements of training and experience made such a family system ideal. This system, still fairly rigidly observed today, is perhaps more important than generally considered, for it has made possible to a great extent the preservation of the kabuki art.
There was a time when it was customary for an actor to play only the role in which he excelled. This stimulated an exclusive study of the character of definition of various types of men and women. Today, such specialization of action is much less practiced, because the actors generally quite versatile. There is an exception, however, in the onnagata. The secret of the onnagata’s beauty as presented on the stage lies perhaps in the fact that it is a feminine beauty which has been created not naturally but artificially through the eyes of men objectively looking at the behavior and psychology of the opposite sex (Bowers, 320). In feudal times, kabuki actors, while popular among the general masses, held a very low social status. Today, however, their status has risen to such an extent that some of the distinguished actors have been elected to membership in the Academy of Art of Japan, the highest possible honor to be conferred on an artist.
Every kabuki actor has a special house identification, called yago, in addition to his regular name. One of the traditional functions of these special names is quite unique. Enthusiastic members of the audience cheer their favorite actor upon his entrance or at certain timely moments during his performance by calling out his house name.
In a kabuki performance, certain persons appear on the stage who are not actors. Especially during the early moments following the opening of the curtain, the audience will notice several strange looking figures, clad and hooded all in black, taking their places immediately behind the actors. Known as kurogo (man in black), they handle properties on the stage while the curtain is open and serve also as prompters. They are not characters in the play and the audience is supposed to disregard them.
“A review of theatrical history of the world shows that an ancient dramatic art, once its form has been stabilized in a near perfect state, has been capable of surviving the test of time even when its literary elements were no longer contemporary.” (Hsu, 123) The truth of this statement is born out by the present state of kabuki. It does not depict contemporary life in Japan, a country whose whole civilization has undergone a great degree of Westernization, yet it enjoys wide popularity. A principal reason for this lies in the fact that it is now a crystallized form. Kabuki has thus retained, and seems destined to retain, a place in the nation’s pride and affection.
1. Bowers, Faubion. Theatre in the East. New York. Grove Press, Inc., 1993
2. Hsu, Tao-Ching. The Japanese Conception of the Theatre. Seattle. University of Washington Press, 1985.
3. Mackerras, Colin. The Japanese Theatre in Modern Times. Amherst. University of Massachusetts Press, 1975.