Japanese theater is quite diverse, with a rich history that spans the greater part of a millennium. The traditional schools of theater are known as noh, bunraku, kyogen, and kabuki, respectively; two schools of the modern era are known as Takarazuka and Broadway. Noh theater, originating in the 14th century, is a highly regulated art that utilizes dance, masks and ancient Japanese. Bunraku is puppet theater originating in 17th century Osaka, which utilizes puppeteers, chanters, shamisen (three-stringed lute) musicians, and even taiko drums. Kyogen performances consist of short comedic plays usually performed during intermissions of the more serious noh plays.
On the modern side of the spectrum, Takarazuka is an all-female troupe that puts on performances divided betweens dramatic musical and Las-Vegas style revues. Japanese Broadway is in all respects quite similar to its original American counterpart, save for the casting and localization differences.
For now, we’ll focus on kabuki theater, as its avant-garde stylings and flamboyant performance have earned it notable popularity among members of the international community. Like to its theatrical counterparts, kabuki’s origin is quite intriguing as well.
A Brief History of Kabuki Theater
The three syllables that make up the word “kabuki” (歌舞伎), mean “music”, “dance”, and “acting”, respectively. The whole word itself comes from an archaic verb kabuki, which means “to incline”, and references the actors' flamboyant clothes and actions. Since the kabuki’s founding, spectators were well aware that this new type of theater would be a strong deviation from noh traditions.
Legend says that kabuki was created by a Kyoto priestess named Okuni, during the year 1600. Originally it consisted of erotic dances, acrobatic acts and short plays, largely performed by women. It quickly gained popularity, and Okuni was asked to perform in front of the Tokugawa shogunate, located in Edo (present-day Tokyo).
However, Edo was home to Yoshiwara, the legendary red-light district. Due to the fact that kabuki largely served as an additional attraction to those looking for lascivious affairs, the concerned populace began to heavily criticize the presence of kabuki. The fact that many kabuki actresses also worked at teahouses, which doubled as brothels, didn’t help matters either. As a result, the shogunate banned female performers from kabuki in 1629, which gave way to male performers as seen today.
After the announcement of the ban, kabuki experienced a Golden Age from 1603-1868. The relative peace compared to the tumultuous Sengoku period (also known as the Warring States period, 1467-1603) allowed for the theater to flourish, further developing Japanese popular culture. Starting around 1868, during the Meiji Restoration, kabuki suddenly began to decline in popularity—an example of the push for Western modernization—and so the tradition faded with time.
However, in post-World War II Japan, with the advocacy of the Showa Emperor, kabuki experienced a great revival, as a means to preserve traditional culture. Though still cherished, many spectators, even native Japanese people, do not always understand the plot. To increase accessibility, earphone guides are often provided now.
Kabuki Today and How to Get There
There are four kabuki theaters in Tokyo today—for those interested in some high end shopping after your show, Kabuki-za and Shinbashi Enbujō are highly recommended—they are both located in Ginza, which is one of Tokyo’s many answers to New York’s Fifth Avenue. Regardless of the theater, the customs for attending the play are generally the same.
While at first glance, all kabuki plays may seem similar due to their over-the-top pageantry, there are actually many different styles to appreciate, such as the aragoto, or “wild stuff”, mostly used by masculine heroes, wagoto-style for the more gentle type, or the flowing fight scenes known as tachimawari.
Kabuki, unlike other forms of theater, can be a day-long affair, seeing as it’s made up of several acts. Fortunately, there are single-act tickets available. Those tickets are only available on the day of the show however—so buy them quickly!
Similar to earphone guides for the locals, English-language services are available as well. Not only do they provide real-time subtitles, but the background of the play is explained as well.
Audience feedback is also a huge part of the communal atmosphere of kabuki. Some attendees might shout and applaud in approval at seemingly inopportune moments. Don’t be startled! It’s all part of the fun!
The concession stands at kabuki theaters put many others to shame—bento (boxed lunches) and Japanese sake are available to your liking during the intermission and can be consumed right in your seat. Enjoy yourself! Don’t forget to pick up some gorgeous souvenirs such as decorative fans and stationery once your experience has concluded.
Though kabuki has had a controversial history with rises and falls in popularity, its avant-garde tradition and energetic spirit has survived over the past several centuries to become an invaluable part of Japanese traditional culture, and we hope you'll have an opportunity to experience it for yourself during your next visit to Japan!