Kabuki

 

 

 

The earliest reference to Kabuki dates to 1603 and a written record concerning a group of dancers led by a woman named Okuni. Okuni was probably a former temple dancer and possibly a prostitute. She and her group gave performances on a makeshift Noh stage set up on the dry bed of the Kamo River in Kyoto. Her dances, which did away with masks and were far livelier than anything seen in Noh, seem to have been an original mixture of folk dance and a type of religious dance called "nenbutsu odori".

 

Okuni's Kabuki continued in this form for some years, becoming popular not only with the common people but also among the samurai and the feudal lords. Unfortunately, Kabuki also came increasingly under the scrutiny of the authorities, who regarded it as a disruptive influence. Eventually, in 1629, the Shogunate used the ever-present overtones of prostitution as an excuse to ban women from the stage on grounds of immorality. This ban lasted until the fall of the Shogun and restoration of the emperor in 1868. Young dancing boys known as "wakashu" continued to perform the Kabuki dances, however. Though the boys, like the women, used the stage primarily to advertise their charms, they added acrobatics to the performances, and these are still an important feature of Kabuki. The boys were subjected to numerous rules, such as one requiring them to shave their forelocks, the presence of which was considered erotic in adult males. Although homosexuality was common, particularly among the upper classes, prostitution, both female and male, was not officially tolerated. In 1652, again on grounds of immorality, the young boys were also banned from the stage.

 

The new Kabuki repertoire also came under the influence of the older and traditional Noh dramas and Kyogen comedies as well as developing together with the puppet theater. The art of puppetry reached an artistic peak with the opening of Takemoto Gidayu's puppet theater in 1685. The combination of the so-called gidayu style of chanting or singing and Chikamatsu Monzaemon's plays became so popular that puppet dramas were quickly adapted by Kabuki actors. The two arts, although competing for the public's patronage, became very similar. In time the meaning of the word Kabuki changed and it came to be written with three characters: ka, meaning "song" and implying all music; bu, meaning "dance"; and ki, meaning "art or skill." Thereafter, Kabuki developed greatly as an art.

 

What is the secret of Kabuki? Why does it still speak to us who live in a world so unlike that which it portrays on the stage? Kabuki is often described as "The Resplendent Theater of Japan" or "Grand Kabuki", inviting comparison with Western opera. While it is true that the costumes and sets of some Kabuki plays, although by no means all, are really coloful and spectacular, these and the wild antics alone will not sustain the interest of the non-Japanese-speaking foreigner for hours on end.

 

Kabuki is not difficult to understand. But it is, or can be, highly stylized, with its own rules and conventions. When a few of these conventions become clear, however, Kabuki can be great fun.

 

Music and dance are the most important elements of kabuki, as can be seen in the earliest mention of Kabuki, "kabuki odori" (Kabuki dances). Traditional Japanese dance, known as buyo, is fundamental to all kabuki performance.

 

In 1887, Emperor Meiji became Japan's first emperor to attend a Kabuki performance.

 

The above text is reprinted from Kabuki: A Pocket Guide by Ronald Cavaye Copyright(c)1993 Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc. By permission of Tuttle Publishing, www.tuttlepublishing.com

 

Kabuki is a popular dramatic art form that has been a favorite among the Japanese people since the seventeenth century. It is today more popular than either noh or bunraku, two classical dramatic forms from which it borrows heavily. Because of its assimilation of various aspects of the other dramatic art froms, kabuki might well be called a summarization of traditional Japanese theatrical art.

 

If you would like to know more about the Kabuki dancing, music or stage make-up, Click here or send e-mail to Kabuki Academy.

 

The video of our Kabuki Academy is also available with $20 plus postage/handling. This video is introducing not only dancing and shamisen music but also the stage make-up, kimono dressing and the history of the Kabuki as well. One hour program of this video was televised on the "Majestic Performance Hour" in Washington.

 

You can also visit a real Kabuki-za Theater in Tokyo, Japan.
Click Here

 

 

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