When it comes to outstanding thespian arts, Japan suffers no dearth. Conspicuous among its stage crafts is the dance-based masked drama of noh, which has been captivating audiences since its heyday in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries—though some observers might note that it need never fear accusations of being too fast paced. Similarly recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage is bunraku, which, as one of the world’s most sophisticated forms of puppet theater, is characterized by exquisitely expressive performances—once the audience has learned to concentrate on the puppets and not on the puppeteers who also appear on stage. But for sheer all-round exuberance, theatrical dynamism and engaging bravado, there is nothing quite to match the larger-than-life form that goes by the name of “kabuki.”
Kabuki, too, has joined the UNESCO cultural ranks, but in sharp contrast to the stoic noh of the nobility that preceded it, kabuki developed as a popular theater of the townspeople, with emotionally charged plots and ostentatious costumes and acting. Although kabuki is one of the world’s few remaining all-male theatrical traditions, its roots are traced to a woman named Izumo no Okuni.
Okuni is said to have come from Izumo-jinja shrine in today’s Shimane Prefecture to Kyoto in around 1603 to perform religious dances and gather donations for the shrine. Okuni soon developed a unique dance style, performing with a group of young women and men wearing outlandish costumes. Okuni danced male roles and men danced female roles in a choreography often ripe with sexual innuendo. The word “kabuki” comes from the verb kabuku, which means to lean in a certain direction, and kabukimono was used to describe highly individualistic people who dressed and acted differently from others. Because of the strange costumes and reversed-gender roles, Okuni’s performances came to be known as kabuki dance. Within a few years, a sponsor built a small theater for Okuni on the banks of the Kamo-gawa river in Kyoto. As her performances grew in popularity, musical accompaniment was added, first with a drum and then the flute and three-stringed banjo-like shamisen.
Okuni’s fame quickly spread throughout the country, and her success brought imitators. Most of the new theater groups were, however, sponsored by brothels as a front for prostitution. This gave kabuki a bad name and eventually led in 1629 to women being banned from performing in theaters. In response, kabuki theaters switched to boy actors for the female roles. Before long, however, a similar ban was placed on boy actors for the same reasons of immorality.
Many of the plays in the traditional kabuki repertoire today date back to a golden age of Japanese culture known as the Genroku period (1688–1704). This period saw the emergence of Danjuro I, an actor of such fame and influence that he was in effect kabuki’s first superstar. Danjuro introduced a style of acting called aragoto (rough-style acting), in which strong, moral characters battle against the forces of evil. To create these almost superhuman characters, Danjuro developed the striking style of makeup employed in kabuki today. He also originated the dramatic mie poses, which punctuate climactic moments in a scene. Often these poses involve crossing the eyes, a convention that can be seen in the colorful ukiyo-e wood-block prints of kabuki actors from the late eighteenth century.
Times are now good for kabuki, but that was not always the case. In the decades after the Second World War, kabuki slid into decline as other forms of entertainment caught the public’s fickle fancy. One actor who worked to regain the audience and breathe new life into the art was Ennosuke Ichikawa. Recognizing that many Japanese in the 1970s viewed kabuki as dull, he created a novel, spectacular form of kabuki based on exciting stories and called it “Super Kabuki.” With this formula, Ennosuke became immensely popular and brought about the kabuki revival in the eighties.
Kabuki is now in an age of renewed popularity as a fresh generation of stars has taken over the leading roles. And no doubt Okuni would be rather pleased to see that the art she forged on a Kyoto riverbank should still be thriving half a millennium later.
David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.