Welcome to Kabuki

The year was 1603. By an historical quirk, on the very same calendar day (March 24*) that Queen Elizabeth I died and King James VI of Scotland ascended to the English throne, Japan’s Tokugawa Ieyasu received the title of shogun from the Emperor after his crushing victory on the battlefield three years earlier, marking the start of an unprecedented period of political stability in Japan known as the Edo Era. In that same year, while Shakespeare was penning Othello, Cervantes was working on Don Quixote and England’s first permanent settlement in the Americas was still four years in the future, a woman named O-Kuni danced on the shores of the Kamo River in Kyoto and inadvertently planted the seeds for Kabuki theater.

O-Kuni was a miko (priestess) who was performing to solicit contributions for Izumo Shrine, today still one of the nation’s most sacred sites. She attracted attention by dressing as a man in outlandish wear in various skits, including a Catholic foreigner, complete with rosary and crucifix, and, most notoriously, as a samurai on a lusty visit to the pleasure quarters (with ladies played by cross-dressed men). She was known for her unrestrained swagger and self-consciously offbeat manner – that is, she “kabuku-ed” or behaved in bold unconventional style, throwing in a healthy dose of sex appeal for good measure. Her performance was a sensation, and such “kabuki” pieces soon swept the nation.

O-Kuni’s dance revolution and Ieyasu’s rise to power were not unrelated. Theater to that point, such as the venerable masked Noh drama, was reserved for the nobility. It was O-Kuni’s good fortune to come along at a time when the working class, freed from the anxiety of persistent wars and political upheaval, wanted entertainment of its own and had the economic means to pay for it. O-Kuni’s innovations led to Japan’s first theatrical shows to play regularly to a paying public. These were decidedly performer-driven productions centered on dance with no literary pretensions. In other words, Kabuki developed as the common man’s theater.

The performances soon became primarily female affairs offering bawdy and lavish entertainment, often little more than a front for brothels to advertise their wares. This aroused the ire of the government, which also grew wary of the extravagance of the productions, repeated fights among fans over the performers, and the potentially dangerous mixture of the shogunate’s rigid social classes in the theaters. The government made several attempts to ban females from the stage, the first as early as 1608, before stepping in definitively in 1629. Kabuki’s popularity hardly missed a beat as boys and adolescent men, already active to an extent, stepped into the brink playing both male and female roles. However, prostitution and spectator brawls remained a problem, leading authorities to ban this as well in 1652. Thereafter, only adult men were allowed to take the stage, even for female roles. This effectively eliminated sexual innuendo as a key attraction. It was from this time that Kabuki began to develop as a true art form.

In the early days, audiences in the military stronghold of Edo (current-day Tokyo) favored impossible superheroes, over-the-top stories, and exaggerated makeup, costumes and sets, whereas shows in the merchant town of Osaka tended to focus on commoners in doomed love affairs, financial trouble or other domestic issues closer to the audience’s real experience. A particularly important contribution to the latter came from the region’s Bunraku puppet theater, which enjoyed a brief but intense period of popularity from the late 17th century with the emergence of the famed playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon. The necessity of having to entertain through drama and characterization rather than spectacle and feted actors gave rise to shows of greater depth, enhanced by some of the first stage portrayals of commoners and daily life. Chikamatsu drew many of his ideas from the latest news and scandals, often coming up with shows within weeks of the actual event with names and stories tweaked for dramatic effect. Kabuki quickly followed suit, adapting many of the Bunraku shows directly to the live stage, but remained eclipsed in popularity by the puppets until the mid-1800s, by which time it had been utterly transformed. The majority of today’s standard Kabuki repertoire has its roots in Bunraku, including the three great masterpieces of the Kabuki stage (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers, Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy, Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees), and even plays subsequently written directly for the stage reflect the greater complexity inherited from the puppet years.

Kabuki remained a thorn in the side of the authorities, which ranked actors literally as “non-human” and theaters along with brothels as “evil places”. When one of the ladies-in-waiting of the shogun’s mother was found to have attended Kabuki and taken tea with the actors, the shogun permanently shut down the playhouse, placed severe restrictions on other theaters, and imprisoned, banished or executed over 1,000 people. In general, ostentation was discouraged – one major Edo actor was exiled to a small island simply for his flamboyance – and topical stories were highly restricted, though writers got around this by simply changing the time period and altering the names slightly. Nevertheless, Kabuki was far too popular at that point to be squelched completely, and new plays, writers and stars continued to emerge. In one of the paradoxes of the age, actors were at the bottom of the social scale in legal terms but simultaneously rich, celebrated and highly influential in fashion and social trends.

Tastes in period pieces and domestic dramas gradually shifted to shows encompassing both aspects, featuring convoluted spectacles with head-spinning character developments and interlocking stories lasting the entire day. Producers ensured that audiences got their money’s worth not only with lavish costumes, action and live music but technical innovations such as revolving stages, flying, trap doors, collapsing buildings, waterfalls and lifts that could elevate entire sets, all of which remain in use today. One notable development was the hanamichi platform extending from the stage to the back of the theater, bringing actors directly into the audience for dramatic exits and entrances. The acting was distinguished by highly stylized movements and gestures that have been passed down within each acting family over the generations, so that performance styles today are broadly in line with those of centuries past.

Kabuki changed with the shifting power structure in society as the nominally powerful but poor warrior class became increasingly dependent on the wealthy lower classes. Stories in the early 19th century degenerated into tales of fallen samurai and dissolute priests dealing with ghosts, rape, incest and murder, frequently tied in with erotic love affairs. Subsequent decades saw a rage for plays rendered in poetic style about petty thieves and others from the lower ranks of society.

With the fall of the military government and introduction of parliamentary democracy after American intervention later in the century, the tides turned again, this time toward a more Western-inspired realism. Many of the experiments, such as true-to-life historic dramas and the use of actresses, proved short-lived as audiences stayed away, but others, such as dance pieces inspired by the refined Noh theater, have been enduring successes.

The spirit of innovation in Kabuki has continued in succeeding years with texts and interpretations based on modern works and ideas, even as the old classics continue to thrive. Traditional ghost tales and period plays were reworked into psychological dramas, for instance, and the actor Senjaku II (current Sakata Tojuro IV) in 1953 famously transformed a suffering courtesan in the long forgotten Love Suicide at Sonezaki into a more dynamic woman more suited to modern sensibilities through his performance style. In the 1980s, Ennosuke III (current En’o II) achieved widespread acclaim and huge popularity with his “Super Kabuki” plays using modern lighting and sound technology in service of epic stories based on the Chinese classics and Japanese folk tales (expanded more recently by his successor Ennosuke IV to embrace a popular manga comic series).

Overseas performances have also thrived since a successful tour of the Soviet Union in 1928, which paved the way for scores of tours that have now reached every continent. There have been Kabuki versions of works by Western artists like O. Henry, Verdi and Shakespeare, such as a highly praised production of Twelfth Night by renowned director Yukio Ninagawa that traveled to London.

Kabuki in its first 400 years has managed deftly to walk the line between its status as a part of the nation’s cultural heritage and entertainment for the masses. Equivalent in a sense to the American musical, it still flourishes as a living, breathing art form.

by Gary Perlman

  • * British dates at that time were still based on the Julian calendar, so the queen’s death by today’s measure would actually be April 3. But I like the coincidence anyway.