Kabuki (meaning “sing dance performer”) is a popular form of Japanese traditional theatre. From its raunchy origins, it is an art form developed for and by the common people. This contrasts it with Noh, Japan’s other dominant type of theatre, which has always appealed to an educated minority.
Kabuki was invented by prostitutes. In 1603, a Kyoto woman called Okuni began performing sensual dances on the dry river bed. The provocative performances of Okuni and her troupe rapidly attracted a large audience, and after the show, the resourceful women made themselves available to the men who could afford them.
When this caught the attention of the authorities in 1629, women were banned from the stage. Even today, women do not act in kabuki. However, Okuni is fondly remembered, and a statue of her was recently erected near the river in Kyoto’s Pontocho district.
Young men took over the female roles (onnagata), but the bawdiness remained, along with the prostitution. Performances became increasingly rowdy, with occasional outbreaks of violence in the crowd, leading to another government clampdown. A more sophisticated, highly stylized form of kabuki was spawned, borrowing heavily from Noh theatre.
Kabuki has a number of distinctive elements, notably the “mie”. This is an exaggerated pose held by an actor as he enters the stage, which establishes his character’s personality. These traits are also be expressed in the actors’ elaborate costumes and startling make-up.
The stories usually revolve around well-known historical events and moral dilemmas. Lines are recited in monotone, in old-fashioned Japanese which is difficult for most audience members to understand. This makes music, staging and atmosphere very important.
Technology and staging tricks are used heavily, including trap doors, revolving stages, and the hanamichi (“flowery path”), which allows actors to move into the audience. Scenery changes are often made mid-scene by “invisible” stagehands dressed entirely in black.