Overview of Kabuki

One of the three major classical theaters of Japan, with noh drama and bunraku puppet theater. Unlike noh drama, which is solemn and ritualized, kabuki is designed to entertain an audience with dramatic, often spectacular, effects.

A kabuki play opens to the rapid clapping of wooden clappers as the traditional stage curtain, in black, green, and persimmon vertical stripes, is drawn open. Plays are performed using a combination of dramatic dialogue and dance, and accompanied by drums, flutes, stringed instuments called shamisen, and chanting. The kind of musical accompaniment changes according to the play.

The actors wear dramatic costumes, whose style depends on the type of play - historical play (jidaimono), or the dramatization of a topical event (sewamono). The costumes of sewamono plays are in the fashion of the Edo period (1600-1868), when kabuki originally flourished.

No women take part in traditional kabuki. Women were banned at an early stage of kabuki's development because an important side business of the onna (women's) kabuki troupes was prostitution, and men assumed the female roles. The art of female impersonation (onnagata) was developed into a theatrical role requiring years of training. Common underlying themes of kabuki plays reflect the prevailing influence of Buddhist and Confucian thought in Edo-period society and include retributive justice, the pathos of the impermanence of all things, filial piety, and the conflict between love and duty (giri-ninjo).

Kabuki began in the early 17th century and it rose to the peak of its popularity in the late 17th century owing to the talents of outstanding playwrights such as Chikamatsu Monzaemon and star actors such as Ichikawa Danjuro I, who created the aragoto (rough business) style of acting, with heroes displaying superhuman powers. Kabuki's popularity waned at the begining of the 18th century due to the rising influence of bunraku puppet theater. It rose again in the second half of the 18th century, but half the plays performed today are still adaptations of plays for the puppet theater.

Kabuki is mainly carried on by families of actors, but the National Theater in Tokyo also has a school for training young performers outside this framework.

The majority of kabuki performances today still rely largely on a core of classic Edo-period plays and use traditional costumes and conventions. However, there is also a new generation of actors attempting to update plays and to attract modern audiences with exciting stage techniques.

The average length of a performance is five hours, including intermissions. The larger theaters such as the Kabukiza and National Theater in Tokyo provide earphone guides in English.

Kabuki Menu