9 Kabuki

Justin Hunter

Japan has a number of traditional art forms each with cultural significance and long histories. There are two main branches of theatrical performances in traditional Japanese culture divided not in context of stories or style, but in intended audiences. Before the modernization of Japan, which began in the early twentieth century, Japan was divided into strict caste systems. The largest divide in the caste system were elites and commoners. Elites were highly educated, literate, and enjoyed refined highly complex artforms. Commoners were less commonly educated, mostly understood literature by oral tradition, and enjoyed artforms that reflected daily lives depicted in fantasy.

Today Kabuki Theater is enjoyed by anyone who attends a performance, but the audience was always intended to be the common everyday people of Japan, not elites. This artform can be highly literary using references to commonly known stories and legends in the Japanese folkloric reading of their history, mythos, and daily lives.

The tradition developed in the early 1600s CE as regional, low budget plays for outdoor stages. These early plays were less sophisticated than what we know today, but the stories developed at this time can still be seen on the Kabuki stage now. While the stories often depict the lives of everyday people, the lives shown on the stage interact with various layers of the supernatural from gods, demons, ghosts, and anthropomorphised animals.

As the tradition developed, the staging, costuming, and storytelling codified through a sophisticated, yet still approachable, form of theatrical performance. There are two styles common in Japan. Full productions are the most common for theatres with large troupes of performers, elaborate staging and period architecture, complex stage tricks, and major story plots. The second, and less common, form, are solo and chamber dances based on full-production performances. These solo and chamber “recitals” feature individual performers rather than using full staging and plot development.

The following example is of the latter form featuring a specific role type in the kabuki tradition called an “onnagata.” These solo onnagata pieces often include off-stage musicians and singers accompanying the silent dancer.

ONNAGATA – female role type, traditionally performed by men

Onnagata characters can be of any age, but most often the most celebrated performers exclusively play beautiful, delicate, and young characters. The following clip is of the most famous onnagata performers named Bando Tamasaburo V. He is a hereditary actor in the kabuki theatre having trained all his life to continue a tradition passed down from his father, grandfather, and more.

Title: Yokihi
Artist: Bando Tamasaburo
Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LMW8E-5Ugso
Year: 2006
Language: Japanese (narrated in English)
Origin: Japan
Description: A descriptive video of Tamasaburo in a solo performance.

The larger tradition in this theatre form includes fully staged, elaborate productions with full troupes of performers. Kabuki theatre is known for the exaggerated costumes and makeup, especially of supernatural characters. The following video is a short documentary on kabuki showing several of the elements that make the tradition special.

Note that the detail in costuming and makeup, especially the theatrical stance called “mie” [pronounced mee-eh]. This stylized pose is always present in kabuki and establishes the character’s role in the story. If you are a fan of Japanese manga or anime, the mie is also used as a similar device in those genres.

Title: Kabuki Theatre
Artist: UNESCO
Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=67-bgSFJiKc&t=117s
Year: 2009
Language: Japanese (narrated in English)
Origin: Japan
Description:
1:24 “mie” explained

There are numerous instruments used in kabuki productions. Depending on the staging decisions of the director and the tradition of a particular play, the ensemble of musicians can be fully visible on stage, tucked out of sight, or on the stage but behind the scenery. There is really no standard for the use of instruments, but there are three typical categories of music in kabuki: geza, shoso-ongagku, and ki/tsuke. Geza music provides sound effects for the play. These can include sounds of waves stylized on a drum, or the rumbling of thunder. Shoso-ongaku is used as accompaniment to the dancing and acting on stage. These musicians may provide the voice of the actors, in the case of solo dances, or as background music for the actors to sing and dance along. Finally, the ki and tsuke sound effects are standard in kabuki. A set of wooden blocks are used to add piercing percussive pulses to demonstrate action on the stage, often the running of a character. This sound is called “ki.” The “tsuke” sound is a louder sound produced by the same instrument when they are slammed on the floor of the stage. Again, a sound effect to demonstrate action.

Further reading and watching:

Begin Japanology Kabuki (NHK Documentary). 2018 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3xbHMTzw4YI

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Music in World Cultures by Justin Hunter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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