The Origins of Kabuki Theater

01
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Introduction to Kabuki

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Kabuki company of Ebizo Ichikawa XI. GanMed64 on Flickr.com

Kabuki theater is a type of dance-drama from Japan. Originally developed during the Tokugawa era, its story-lines depict life under shogunal rule, or the deeds of famous historical figures.

Today, kabuki is considered one of the classical art forms, giving it a reputation for sophistication and formality. However, it's roots are anything but high-brow... 

02
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Origins of Kabuki

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Scene from a Soga Brothers story by artist Utagawa Toyokuni. Library of Congress Prints and Photos Collection

In 1604, a ceremonial dancer from the Izumo shrine named O Kuni gave a performance in the dry bed of Kyoto's Kamo River. Her dance was based on Buddhist ceremony, but she improvised, and added flute and drum music.

Soon, O Kuni developed a following of male and female students, who formed the first kabuki company. By the time of her death, just six years after her first performance, a number of different kabuki troupes were active. They built stages on the riverbed, added shamisen music to the performances, and attracted large audiences.

Most of the kabuki performers were women, and many of them also worked as prostitutes.  The plays served as a form of advertisement for their services, and audience members could then partake of their wares. The art form became known as onna kabuki, or "women's kabuki."  In better social circles, the performers were dismissed as "riverbed prostitutes."

Kabuki soon spread to other cities, including the capital at Edo (Tokyo), where it was confined to the red-light district of Yoshiwara. Audiences could refresh themselves during the all-day performances by visiting nearby tea-houses.

03
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Women Banned from Kabuki

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Male kabuki actor in a female role. Quim Llenas / Getty Images

In 1629, the Tokugawa government decided that kabuki was a bad influence on society, so it banned women from the stage. Theater troupes adjusted by having the prettiest young men play the female roles, in what became known as yaro kabuki or "young men's kabuki." These pretty boy actors were known as onnagata, or "female-role actors."

This change did not have the effect the government had intended, however. The young men also sold sexual services to audience members, both male and female. In fact, the wakashu actors proved just as popular as the female kabuki performers had been.

In 1652, the shogun banned young men from the stage as well. It decreed that all kabuki actors henceforth would be mature men, serious about their art, and with their hair shaved off in the front to render them less attractive.

04
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Kabuki Theater Matures

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Elaborate wisteria-tree set, kabuki theater. Bruno Vincent / Getty Images

With women and attractive young men barred from the stage, kabuki troupes had to get serious about their craft in order to command an audience. Soon, kabuki developed longer, more engrossing plays divided into acts. Around 1680, dedicated playwrights began writing for kabuki; plays previously had been made up by the actors.

The actors also began to take the art seriously, devising different acting styles. Kabuki masters would create a signature style, which they then passed on to a promising student who would take on the master's stage name. The above photo, for example, shows a play performed by the troupe of Ebizo Ichikawa XI - the eleventh actor in an illustrious line.

In addition to the writing and acting, stage sets, costumes, and make-up also became more elaborate during the Genroku era (1688 - 1703). The set shown above features a beautiful wisteria tree, which is echoed in the actor's props.

Kabuki troupes had to work hard to please their audiences. If the spectators didn't like what they saw on-stage, they would pick up their seat cushions and hurl them at the actors.

05
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Kabuki and the Ninja

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Kabuki set with a black background, ideal for a ninja attack!. Kazunori Nagashima / Getty Images

With the more elaborate stage sets, kabuki needed stagehands to do changes between scenes. The stagehands dressed all in black so that they would blend into the background, and the audience went along with the illusion. 

A brilliant playwright had the idea, however, of having a stagehand suddenly pull a dagger and stab one of the actors. He wasn't really a stagehand, after all - he was a ninja in disguise! The shock proved so effective that a number of kabuki plays incorporated the stagehand-as-ninja-assassin trick. 

Interestingly, this is where the popular culture idea that ninjas wore black, pajama-like garb comes from.  Those outfits would never do for real spies - their targets in the castles and armies of Japan would have spotted them immediately. But black pajamas are the perfect disguise for kabuki ninjas, pretending to be innocent stagehands.

06
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Kabuki and the Samurai

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Kabuki actor from the Ichikawa Ennosuke company. Quim Llenas / Getty Images

The highest class of feudal Japanese society, the samurai, was officially barred from attending kabuki plays by shogunal decree. However, many samurai sought all kinds of distraction and entertainment in the ukiyo, or Floating World, including kabuki performances.  They would even resort to elaborate disguises so that they could sneak into the theaters unrecognized.

The Tokugawa government was not pleased with this breakdown of samurai discipline, or with the challenge to the class structure. When fire destroyed Edo's red-light district in 1841, an official named Mizuno Echizen no Kami tried to have kabuki outlawed entirely as moral threat and a possible source for the fire. Although the shogun did not issue a complete ban, his government did take the opportunity to banish the kabuki theaters from the center of the capital. They were forced to move to the northern suburb of Asakusa, an inconvenient location far from the bustle of the city. 

07
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Kabuki and the Meiji Restoration

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Kabuki actors c. 1900 - the Tokugawa shoguns were gone, but the odd hairstyles lived on. Buyenlarge / Getty Images

In 1868, the Tokugawa shogun fell and the Meiji Emperor took real power over Japan in the Meiji Restoration. This revolution proved a greater threat to kabuki than any of the shoguns' edicts had been. Suddenly, Japan was flooded with new and foreign ideas, including new art forms.  If not for the efforts of some of its brightest stars like Ichikawa Danjuro IX and Onoe Kikugoro V, kabuki could have vanished under the wave of modernization.

Instead, its star writers and performers adapted kabuki to modern themes and incorporated foreign influences. They also began the process of gentrifying kabuki, a task made easier by the abolition of the feudal class structure.

By 1887, kabuki was respectable enough that the Meiji Emperor himself underwrote a performance. 

08
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Kabuki in the 20th Century and Beyond

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Ornate kabuki theater in the Ginza District of Tokyo. kobakou on Flickr.com

Meiji trends in kabuki continued into the early 20th century, but late in the Taisho period (1912 - 1926), another cataclysmic event put the theater tradition in peril.  Tokyo's Great Earthquake of 1923, and the fires that spread in its wake, destroyed all of the traditional kabuki theaters, as well as the props, set pieces, and costumes inside.

When kabuki rebuilt after the earthquake, it was an entirely different institution.  A family called the Otani brothers bought up all of the troupes and established a monopoly, which controls kabuki to this day.  They incorporated as a limited stock company in late 1923.

During World War II, kabuki theater took on a nationalistic and jingoistic tone. As the war drew to a close, Allied firebombing of Tokyo burned down the theater buildings once more.  The American command banned kabuki briefly during the occupation of Japan, because of its close association with imperial aggression. It seemed as if kabuki would disappear for good this time.

Once more, kabuki rose from the ashes like a phoenix. As always before, it rose in a new form.  Since the 1950s, kabuki has become a form of luxury entertainment rather than the equivalent of a family trip to the movies. Today, kabuki's primary audience is tourists - both foreign tourists and Japanese visitors to Tokyo from other regions.