Hey guys, how are you today? Welcome to another online Japanese lesson from Bondlingo. Strap yourselves in for a history lesson as today we are going to be looking at the ancient performance art of Kabuki. 

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Kabuki: What is it exactly?

If you are someone who likes Japanese culture, then  you have probably come across something called, “Kabuki”. What is it exactly? Join us in this blog to explore what kabuki is and why it plays such a huge role in Japanese culture.

Kabuki: What is it exactly?
Kabuki: What is it exactly?

Kabuki (歌舞伎)

I’m pretty sure that almost anyone who is interested in Japan has an inkling of what Kabuki is. As a student of Japanese, we know that you can usually have an idea about the meaning of a word by looking at their kanji characters. The kanji for kabuki has been altered a few times throughout the years but has been settled with the 3 main kanji characters that we use today. In modern Japanese, the three main characters are ka(歌) ,meaning “song”; bu(舞), “dance”; and ki(伎), “skill”. Based on the kanji alone, we know that Kabuki is related to some form of entertainment where singing and dancing skills are involved.

Kabuki (歌舞伎)
Kabuki (歌舞伎)

Kabuki: An ancient performance

Based on its kanji, we already know that Kabuki involves singing and dancing… but what exactly is it? Kabuki itself has been around since the 1600s–making it one of the richest and most beloved art forms in Japan. For hundreds of years, Kabuki has been one of the most major and world renowned forms of theater in Japan. It combines different forms of visual and performing arts–dancing, singing, acting, live music being played, make-up, elaborate costumes, and beautiful stage art to name a few–making a stage show that is both a drama and a form of performance art.

Kabuki’s history started in the 1600’s when a Miko (巫女: shrine maiden) started performing a new style of dance drama with a group of female dancers on a makeshift stage in Kyoto. This eventually caught on and eventually, rival groups of performers started doing it as well becoming popular enough to be invited to perform at the Imperial Palace–kick-starting Kabukis popularity. Much appeal of Kabuki in the Edo period was due to the suggestive themes of the performances and the fact that most performers were involved in sex work. This made kabuki a common form of entertainment in the red light districts of Japan.

Kabuki: An ancient performance
Kabuki: An ancient performance

It gathered numerous viewers from different social classes which, along with its suggestive content, garnered numerous critics from all over Japan. Kabuki went through numerous changes throughout the years, adapting and changing according to trends and historical events, eventually evolving into the modern day Kabuki that is widely known both locally and internationally today. It has been named as a UNESCO Cultural Heritage and is internationally recognized as one of Japan’s three major classical theaters along with Noh(能:dance drama) and Bunraku(文楽: puppet theater).

Elements that make Kabuki

There are different factors that create a performance like Kabuki. The first thing people see is the stage which consists of Seri(迫: trap doors), Mawari-butai (廻り舞台: revolving stages) and a hanamichi(花道: flower path)–a pathway that extends from the stage to the audience. This is all used to set the scene and to make it easier (and more dramatic) for performers to enter or leave a scene. Kabuki usually has constant scenery changes done with the help of Hiki Dōgu (small wagon stage) and acrobatic stunts called Chūnori (riding in mid-air/acrobatic stunts) using wires attached to the performers costumes– all very modern sounding but has been used in Kabuki performances since the 19th century. You will also be able to spot the green, red, and black joshiki maku (stage curtains) that have been used on Kabuki stages since the Edo period. Finally, the ambience of the entire show will be aided by  live music accompaniment played using traditional Japanese instruments.

Elements that make Kabuki
Elements that make Kabuki

When going to a Kabuki performance, expect to see an amazing show of showmanship using elaborate movements and even more elaborate Japanese! The Japanese used in these performances are very old-fashioned and outdated that even local Japanese people don’t understand them–exactly why the performers use elaborate movements, stage art, and make-up as it helps relay the story. Fear not though, some theaters offer headsets that relay the story in English for our non native speaking viewers.

The plot of stories dramaticized in Kabuki are usually based on historical events or social dramas so it would probably be in your best interest to do some research on what you’re about to watch to fully immerse yourself in the story! Expect the performers to wear elaborate wigs, dramatic make-up and impeccable clothes while performing–all part of the huge performance that is the Kabuki.

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Where and when can I watch Kabuki?

There’s the occasional YouTube video or maybe even a documentary about Kabuki but is that really enough? It will give you a good idea on what to expect when watching Kabuki but it sure doesn’t beat the real deal. Watching it in real life is a different experience as it’s easier to digest all the visual and auditory sensations that you get from the show. There is also the experience of seeing the different props and mechanisms used on the stage–something you can’t spot when watching a video! 

It is a tradition for the Japanese people to watch it either at the end of the year or in early spring, so if you want a kabuki experience with the locals, we highly recommend arranging a day during these periods to experience this wonderful show for yourself! Of course, the best place to watch Kabuki is in Japan. For year-end performances, the best place to go to would be Minamiza, the traditional kabuki theater in Kyoto. There is also the Kabukiza Theater in Ginza, Tokyo–they hold kabuki performances nearly every month!

Nowadays, kabuki plays can be easily enjoyed at theaters with Western style seats. It can be expensive as a ticket usually costs around 2,000 yen for a single act or can go up to 25,000 yen for an entire segment which also changes depending on the seat quality. A day’s performance is divided into 2 or 3 segments (morning/early afternoons and evenings), and each segment that can last up to 4 hours is divided into different acts. Tickets are usually sold per segment and in some cases they are also sold per act. What are you waiting for? Save that money and go see a Kabuki play in Japan–we promise you won’t regret it!

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Learn Japanese Online with BondLingo

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