Kabuki (歌舞伎) is a classical Japanese dance-drama. Kabuki theatre is known for the stylization of its drama and for the elaborate make-up worn by some of its performers.
The individual kanji, from left to right, mean sing (歌), dance (舞), and skill (伎). Kabuki is therefore sometimes translated as “the art of singing and dancing”. These are, however, ateji characters which do not reflect actual etymology. The kanji of ‘skill’ generally refers to a performer in kabuki theatre. Since the word kabuki is believed to derive from the verb kabuku, meaning “to lean” or “to be out of the ordinary”, kabuki can be interpreted as “avant-garde” or “bizarre” theatre. The expression kabukimono (歌舞伎者) referred originally to those who were bizarrely dressed and swaggered on a street.
Kabuki became a common form of entertainment in the ukiyo, or Yoshiwara, the registered red-light district in Edo. A diverse crowd gathered under one roof, something that happened nowhere else in the city. Kabuki theaters were a place to see and be seen as they featured the latest fashion trends and current events. The stage provided good entertainment with exciting new music, patterns, clothing, and famous actors. Performances went from morning until sunset. The teahouses surrounding or connected to the theater provided meals, refreshments, and good company. The area around the theatres was lush with shops selling kabuki souvenirs. Kabuki, in a sense, initiated pop culture in Japan.
The shogunate was never partial to kabuki and all the mischief it brought, particularly the variety of the social classes which mixed at kabuki performances. Women’s kabuki, called onna-kabuki, was banned in 1629 for being too erotic. Following onna-kabuki, young boys performed in wakashū-kabuki, but since they too were eligible for prostitution, the shogun government soon banned wakashū-kabuki as well. Kabuki switched to adult male actors, called yaro-kabuki, in the mid-1600s. Male actors played both female and male characters. The theatre remained popular, and remained a focus of urban lifestyle until modern times. Although kabuki was performed all over ukiyo and other portions for the country, the Nakamura-za, Ichimura-za and Kawarazaki-za theatres became the top theatres in ukiyo, where some of the most successful kabuki performances were and still are held.
1629–1673: Transition to yarō-kabuki
The modern all-male kabuki, known as yarō-kabuki (young man kabuki), was established during these decades. After women were banned from performing, cross-dressed male actors, known as onnagata (“female-role”) or oyama, took over. Young (adolescent) men were preferred for women’s roles due to their less masculine appearance and the higher pitch of their voices compared to adult men. In addition, wakashū (adolescent male) roles, played by young men often selected for attractiveness, became common, and were often presented in an erotic context. Along with the change in the performer’s gender came a change in the emphasis of the performance: increased stress was placed on drama rather than dance. Performances were equally ribald, and the male actors too were available for prostitution (to both female and male customers). Audiences frequently became rowdy, and brawls occasionally broke out, sometimes over the favors of a particularly handsome young actor, leading the shogunate to ban first onnagata and then wakashū roles. Both bans were rescinded by 1652.
1673–1841: Golden age
During the Genroku era, kabuki thrived. The structure of a kabuki play was formalized during this period, as were many elements of style. Conventional character types were established. Kabuki theater and ningyō jōruri, the elaborate form of puppet theater that later came to be known as bunraku, became closely associated with each other, and each has since influenced the other’s development. The famous playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon, one of the first professional kabuki playwrights, produced several influential works, though the piece usually acknowledged as his most significant, Sonezaki Shinjū (The Love Suicides at Sonezaki), was originally written for bunraku. Like many bunraku plays, it was adapted for kabuki, and it spawned many imitators—in fact, it and similar plays reportedly caused so many real-life “copycat” suicides that the government banned shinju mono (plays about lovers’ double suicides) in 1723. Ichikawa Danjūrō I also lived during this time; he is credited with the development of mie poses and mask-like kumadori make-up.
1842–1868: Saruwaka-chō kabuki
In the 1840s, fires started terrorizing Edo due to repeated drought. Kabuki theatres, traditionally made of wood, were constantly burning down, forcing their relocation within the ukiyo. When the area that housed the Nakamura-za was completely destroyed in 1841, the shogun refused to allow the theatre to rebuild, saying that it was against fire code. The shogunate did not welcome the mixing and trading that occurred between town merchants and actors, artists, and prostitutes. The shogunate took advantage of the fire crisis in 1842 to force the Nakamura-za, Ichimura-za, and Kawarazaki-za out of the city limits and into Asakusa, a northern suburb of Edo. Actors, stagehands, and others associated with the performances were forced out as well. Those in areas and lifestyles centered around the theatres also migrated, but the inconvenience of the new location reduced attendance. These factors, along with strict regulations, pushed much of kabuki “underground” in Edo, with performances changing locations to avoid the authorities.
The theatres’ new location was called Saruwaka-chō, or Saruwaka-machi. The last thirty years of the Tokugawa shogunate’s rule is often referred to as the Saruwaka-machi period. This period produced some of the gaudiest kabuki in Japanese history. The Saruwaka-machi became the new theatre district for the Nakamura-za, Ichimura-za and Kawarazaki-za theatres. The district was located on the main street of Asakusa, which ran through the middle of the small city. The street was renamed after Saruwaka Kanzaburo, who initiated Edo kabuki in the Nakamura Theatre in 1624.
European artists began noticing Japanese theatrical performances and artwork, and many artists (for example, Claude Monet) were inspired by Japanese wood block prints. This Western interest prompted Japanese artists to increase their depictions of daily life including theatres, brothels, main streets and so on. One artist in particular, Utagawa Hiroshige, did a series of prints based on Saruwaka from the Saruwaka-machi period in Asakusa.
The relocation diminished the tradition’s most abundant inspiration for costuming, make-up, and story line. Ichikawa Kodanji IV was one of the most active and successful actors during the Saruwaka-machi period. Deemed unattractive, he mainly performed buyō, or dancing, in dramas written by Kawatake Mokuami, who also wrote during the Meiji period to follow. Kawatake Mokuami commonly wrote plays that depicted the common lives of the people of Edo. He introduced shichigo-cho (seven-and-five syllable meter) dialogue and music such as kiyomoto. His kabuki performances became quite popular once the Saruwaka-machi period ended and theatre returned to Edo; many of his works are still performed.
In 1868, the Tokugawa shogunate fell apart. Emperor Meiji was restored to power and moved from Kyoto to the new capital of Edo, or Tokyo, beginning the Meiji period. Kabuki returned to the ukiyo of Edo. Kabuki became more radical in the Meiji period, and modern styles emerged. New playwrights created new genres and twists on traditional stories.
Kabuki after the Meiji period
Beginning in 1868 enormous cultural changes, such as the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, the elimination of the samurai class, and the opening of Japan to the West, helped to spark kabuki’s re-emergence. As the culture struggled to adapt to the influx of foreign ideas and influence, actors strove to increase the reputation of kabuki among the upper classes and to adapt the traditional styles to modern tastes. They ultimately proved successful in this regard—on 21 April 1887, the Meiji Emperor sponsored a performance.
After World War II, the occupying forces briefly banned kabuki, which had strongly supported Japan’s war since 1931; however, by 1947 the ban had been rescinded.
The immediate post–World War II era was a difficult time for kabuki. Besides the war’s physical devastation, many rejected the styles and thoughts of the past, kabuki among them. Director Tetsuji Takechi’s popular and innovative productions of kabuki classics at this time are credited with bringing about a rebirth of interest in kabuki in the Kansai region. Of the many popular young stars who performed with the Takechi Kabuki, Nakamura Ganjiro III (b. 1931) was the leading figure. He was first known as Nakamura Senjaku, and this period in Osaka kabuki became known as the “Age of Senjaku” in his honor.
Today, kabuki is the most popular of the traditional styles of Japanese drama—and its star actors often appear in television or film roles. For example, the well-known onnagata Bandō Tamasaburō V has appeared in several (non-kabuki) plays and movies, often in a female role. Kabuki appears in works of Japanese popular culture such as anime. In addition to the handful of major theatres in Tokyo and Kyoto, there are many smaller theatres in Osaka and throughout the countryside. The Ōshika Kabuki troupe, based in Ōshika, Nagano Prefecture, is one example.
Some local kabuki troupes today use female actors in onnagata roles. The Ichikawa Shōjo Kabuki Gekidan, an all-female troupe, debuted in 1953 to significant acclaim but failed to start a new trend.
The introduction of earphone guides in 1975, including an English version in 1982, helped broaden the art’s appeal. As a result, in 1991 the Kabuki-za, one of Tokyo’s most well-known kabuki theaters, began year-round performances and, in 2005, began marketing kabuki cinema films. Kabuki troupes regularly tour Asia, Europe and America, and there have been several kabuki-themed productions of canonical Western plays such as those of Shakespeare. Western playwrights and novelists have experimented with kabuki themes, an example of which is Gerald Vizenor’s Hiroshima Bugi (2004). Writer Yukio Mishima pioneered and popularized the use of kabuki in modern settings and revived other traditional arts, such as Noh, adapting them to modern contexts. There have even been kabuki troupes established in countries outside Japan. For instance, in Australia, the Za Kabuki troupe at the Australian National University has performed a kabuki drama each year since 1976, the longest regular kabuki performance outside Japan.
In November 2002 a statue was erected in honor of kabuki’s founder Okuni and to commemorate 400 years of kabuki’s existence. Diagonally across from the Minami-za, the last remaining kabuki theater in Kyoto, it stands at the east end of a bridge (Shijō Ōhashi) crossing the Kamo River in Kyoto.
Kabuki was inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists in 2005.
Elements of kabuki
The kabuki stage features a projection called a hanamichi (花道, “flower path”), a walkway which extends into the audience and via which dramatic entrances and exits are made. Okuni also performed on a hanamichi stage with her entourage. The stage is used not only as a walkway or path to get to and from the main stage, but important scenes are also played on the stage. Kabuki stages and theaters have steadily become more technologically sophisticated, and innovations including revolving stages and trap doors were introduced during the 18th century. A driving force has been the desire to manifest one frequent theme of kabuki theater, that of the sudden, dramatic revelation or transformation. A number of stage tricks, including actors’ rapid appearance and disappearance, employ these innovations. The term keren (外連), often translated playing to the gallery, is sometimes used as a catch-all for these tricks. Hanamichi and several innovations including revolving stage, seri and chunori have all contributed to kabuki play. Hanamichi creates depth and both seri and chunori provide a vertical dimension.
Mawari-butai (revolving stage) developed in the Kyōhō era (1716–1735). The trick was originally accomplished by the on-stage pushing of a round, wheeled platform. Later a circular platform was embedded in the stage with wheels beneath it facilitating movement. The kuraten (“darkened revolve”) technique involves lowering the stage lights during this transition. More commonly the lights are left on for akaten (“lighted revolve”), sometimes simultaneously performing the transitioning scenes for dramatic effect. This stage was first built in Japan in the early eighteenth century.
Seri refers to the stage “traps” that have been commonly employed in kabuki since the middle of the 18th century. These traps raise and lower actors or sets to the stage. Seridashi or seriage refers to trap(s) moving upward and serisage or serioroshi to traps descending. This technique is often used to lift an entire scene at once.
Chūnori (riding in mid-air) is a technique, which appeared toward the middle of the 19th century, by which an actor’s costume is attached to wires and he is made to “fly” over the stage and/or certain parts of the auditorium. This is similar to the wire trick in the stage musical Peter Pan, in which Peter launches himself into the air. It is still one of the most popular keren (visual tricks) in kabuki today; major kabuki theaters, such as the National Theatre, Kabuki-za and Minami-za, are all equipped with chūnori installations.
Scenery changes are sometimes made mid-scene, while the actors remain on stage and the curtain stays open. This is sometimes accomplished by using a Hiki Dōgu, or small wagon stage. This technique originated at the beginning of the 18th century, where scenery or actors move on or off stage on a wheeled platform. Also common are stagehands rushing onto the stage adding and removing props, backdrops and other scenery; these kuroko (黒子) are always dressed entirely in black and are traditionally considered invisible. Stagehands also assist in a variety of quick costume changes known as hayagawari (quick change technique). When a character’s true nature is suddenly revealed, the devices of hikinuki and bukkaeri are often used. This involves layering one costume over another and having a stagehand pull the outer one off in front of the audience.
The curtain that shields the stage before the performance and during the breaks is in the traditional colours of black, red and green, in various order, or white instead of green, vertical stripes. The curtain consists of one piece and is pulled back to one side by a staff member by hand.
An additional outer curtain called doncho was not introduced until the Meiji era following the introduction of western influence. These are more ornate in their appearance and are woven. They depict the season in which the performance is taking place, often designed by renowned Nihonga artists.
The three main categories of kabuki play are jidai-mono (時代物, historical, or pre-Sengoku period stories), sewa-mono (世話物, domestic, or post-Sengoku stories) and shosagoto (所作事, dance pieces).
Jidaimono, or history plays, were set within the context of major events in Japanese history. Strict censorship laws during the Edo period prohibited the representation of contemporary events and particularly prohibited criticising the shogunate or casting it in a bad light, although enforcement varied greatly over the years. Many shows were set in the context of the Genpei War of the 1180s, the Nanboku-chō Wars of the 1330s, or other historical events. Frustrating the censors, many shows used these historical settings as metaphors for contemporary events. Kanadehon Chūshingura, one of the most famous plays in the kabuki repertoire, serves as an excellent example; it is ostensibly set in the 1330s, though it actually depicts the contemporary (18th century) affair of the revenge of the 47 Ronin.
Unlike jidaimono which generally focused upon the samurai class, sewamono focused primarily upon commoners, namely townspeople and peasants. Often referred to as “domestic plays” in English, sewamono generally related to themes of family drama and romance. Some of the most famous sewamono are the love suicide plays, adapted from works by the bunraku playwright Chikamatsu; these center on romantic couples who cannot be together in life due to various circumstances and who therefore decide to be together in death instead. Many if not most sewamono contain significant elements of this theme of societal pressures and limitations.
Important elements of kabuki include the mie (見得), in which the actor holds a picturesque pose to establish his character. At this point his house name (yagō, 屋号) is sometimes heard in loud shout (kakegoe, 掛け声) from an expert audience member, serving both to express and enhance the audience’s appreciation of the actor’s achievement. An even greater compliment can be paid by shouting the name of the actor’s father.
The main actor has to convey a wide variety of emotions between a fallen, drunkard person and someone who in reality is quite different since he is only faking his weakness, for example in the character of Yuranosuke in Chūshingura. This is called hara-gei or “belly acting”, which means he has to perform from within to change characters. It is technically difficult to perform and takes a long time to learn, but once mastered the audience takes up on the actor’s emotion.
Emotions are also expressed through the colours of the costumes, a key element in kabuki. Gaudy and strong colours can convey foolish or joyful emotions, whereas severe or muted colours convey seriousness and focus.
Keshō, kabuki makeup, provides an element of style easily recognizable even by those unfamiliar with the art form. Rice powder is used to create the white oshiroi base for the characteristic stage makeup, and kumadori enhances or exaggerates facial lines to produce dramatic animal or supernatural masks. The color of the kumadori is an expression of the character’s nature: red lines are used to indicate passion, heroism, righteousness, and other positive traits; blue or black, villainy, jealousy, and other negative traits; green, the supernatural; and purple, nobility.
Kabuki, like other traditional forms of drama in Japan and other cultures, was (and sometimes still is) performed in full-day programs. Rather than attending for 2–5 hours, as one might do in a modern Western-style theater, audiences “escape” from the day-to-day world, devoting a full day to entertainment. Though some individual plays, particularly the historical jidaimono, might last an entire day, most were shorter and sequenced with other plays in order to produce a full-day program.
The structure of the full-day program, like the structure of the plays themselves, was derived largely from the conventions of bunraku and Noh, conventions which also appear in other traditional Japanese arts. Chief among these is the concept of jo-ha-kyū (序破急), which states that dramatic pacing should start slow, speed up, and end quickly. The concept, elaborated on at length by master Noh playwright Zeami, governs not only the actions of the actors, but also the structure of the play as well as the structure of scenes and plays within a day-long program.
Nearly every full-length play occupies five acts. The first corresponds to jo, an auspicious and slow opening which introduces the audience to the characters and the plot. The next three acts correspond to ha, speeding events up, culminating almost always in a great moment of drama or tragedy in the third act and possibly a battle in the second and/or fourth acts. The final act, corresponding to kyu, is almost always short, providing a quick and satisfying conclusion.
While many plays were originally written for kabuki, many others were taken from jōruri plays, Noh plays, folklore, or other performing traditions such as the oral tradition of the Tale of the Heike. While jōruri plays tend to have serious, emotionally dramatic, and organized plots, plays written specifically for kabuki generally have looser, sillier plots. One of the crucial differences in the philosophy of the two forms is that jōruri focuses primarily on the story and on the chanter who recites it, while kabuki focuses more on the actors. A jōruri play may sacrifice the details of sets, puppets, or action in favor of the chanter, while kabuki is known to sacrifice drama and even the plot to highlight an actor’s talents. It was not uncommon in kabuki to insert or remove individual scenes from a day’s schedule in order to cater to the talents or desires of an individual actor—scenes he was famed for, or that featured him, would be inserted into a program without regard to plot continuity.
Kabuki traditions in Edo and in Kamigata (the Kyoto-Osaka region) were quite different. Through most of the Edo period, kabuki in Edo was defined by extravagance and bombast, as exemplified by stark makeup patterns, flashy costumes, fancy keren (stage tricks), and bold mie (poses). Kamigata kabuki, meanwhile, was much calmer and focused on naturalism and realism in acting. Only towards the end of the Edo period in the 19th century did the two regions adopt one another’s styles to any significant degree. For a long time, actors from one region often failed to adjust to the styles of the other region and were unsuccessful in their performance tours of that region.
- Kanadehon Chūshingura (Treasury of Loyal Retainers) is the famous story of the Forty-seven Ronin, led by Oishi Kuranosuke, who track down their enemy and exact revenge upon him before committing seppuku as required by their code of honor upon the death of their lord, Lord Takuminokami of the Asano clan.
- Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura (Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees) follows Minamoto no Yoshitsune as he flees from agents of his brother Yoritomo. Three Taira clan generals supposed killed in the Genpei War figure prominently, as their deaths ensure a complete end to the war and the arrival of peace, as does a kitsune named Genkurō.
- Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami (Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy) is based on the life of famed scholar Sugawara no Michizane (845–903), who is exiled from Kyoto, and upon his death causes a number of calamities in the capital. He is then deified, as Tenjin, kami (divine spirit) of scholarship, and worshipped in order to propitiate his angry spirit.
Actors form schools or are associated with a particular theatre. Every actor has a stage name, which is different from the name they were born with. These stagenames, most often those of the actor’s father, grandfather, or teacher, are passed down between generations of actors’ lineages, and hold great honor and importance. Many names are associated with certain roles or acting styles, and the new possessor of each name must live up to these expectations; there is the feeling almost of the actor not only taking a name, but embodying the spirit, style, or skill of each actor to previously hold that name. Many actors will go through at least three names over the course of their career.
The shūmei (襲名, lit. name succession) are grand naming ceremonies held in Kabuki theatre in front of the audience. Most often, a number of actors will participate in a single ceremony, taking on new stage-names. Their participation in a shūmei represent their passage into a new chapter of their performing career.
Keren (外連（ケレン）, lit. “outside party”) are stagecraft tricks used in Japanese kabuki theater, making use of trapdoors, revolving stages, and other equipment.
Often translated as “playing to the gallery,” many drama enthusiasts consider these sorts of adaptations to be demeaning to the art of kabuki. According to one scholar, “Rapid ‘trick’ appearances and disappearances of the actor are relatively few and are held in low esteem by the Kabuki connoisseur, who refers to them as keren (playing to the gallery)”
Primary forms of Keren
- Chūnori (宙乗り, literally “mid-air riding”)
- Makes use of strings to make an actor fly out over the audience, often up into the third floor of the theater. For obvious reasons, this would come into use when portraying various sorts of flying creatures such as ghosts, spirits, or the bird-like tengu. Ichikawa Ennosuke III is often called “the king of chūnori“; he performed it for the 5,000th time in 2000, playing the role of Guan Yu.
- Hayagawari (早替り, literally “quick change”)
- Is used to effect quick changes of costume for an actor while he remains on stage. Sometimes this will be done with strings which pull off or pull apart a top layer of costume to reveal another costume underneath. In a technique called hikinuki (引抜), the outermost layer is held on with only a few threads; stage assistants called kuroko appear on stage and pull these threads, allowing this outer costume layer to come off quite quickly and easily. This might also be accomplished even more simply by having the actor pull his top layer off or apart himself. Hayagawari is used for a number of characters who remove disguises to reveal their true identity, and for hengemono, dances in which a single actor plays multiple roles.
- Honmizu (本水)
- Refers to a number of different special effects involving water.
- Seri (迫)
- Refers to the stage traps that have been commonly employed in kabuki since the middle of the eighteenth century. These traps raise and lower actors or sets to the stage. Seridashi or seriage refers to the traps moving upward and serisage or serioroshi when they are being lowered. This technique is often used for dramatic effect of having an entire scene rise up to appear onstage.
- Yatai kuzushi (屋台崩し, literally “pulling down a festival float”)
- Refers to the dramatic destruction of on-stage edifices.
Kumadori (隈取) is stage makeup worn by kabuki actors, particularly when performing in the bold and bombastic aragoto style. Kumadori makeup generally consists of brightly colored stripes or patterns over a white foundation, the colors and patterns symbolizing aspects of the actor’s character. Though kumadori was originated and developed extensively by members of the Ichikawa Danjūrō line of actors, some conventions are creations of the Onoe Kikugorō line.
- Bright red stripes indicate a powerful hero role. The most famous of these roles, and the one which has come to stereotypically represent kabuki in the West, is the hero of Shibaraku. Red symbolizes virtue and power.
- Villains are often depicted with a design of black beard, purple veins, and dark blue antler-like eyebrows.
- Blue makeup can represent a ghost, spirit, or other magical creature, depending on the patterns. Kitsune such as Genkurō in Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura wear blue makeup. Blue represents negative emotions such as jealousy or fear; ghosts in traditional Japanese drama are often trapped by their attachment to such emotions.
- Greys and browns can be used sometimes, particularly when representing animals, oni (demons), yōkai (monsters), or anything else inhuman. One example is the tsuchigumo (ground spider) fought by Minamoto no Raikō.
The term also applies to a painting method in which two brushes are used simultaneously, one for the color and the other used to create shading or other details.
An impression of a kabuki actor’s face make-up, preserved on a piece of cloth, is known as an oshiguma.
The mie pose (見え or 見得, mie, pronounced ‘mee-eh’), a powerful and emotional pose struck by an actor, who then freezes for a moment, is a distinctive element of aragoto Kabuki performance. Mie means ‘appearance’ or ‘visible’ in Japanese, and one of the primary purposes of this convention is to draw attention to a particularly important or powerful portion of the performance. It is meant to show a character’s emotions at their peak, and can often be a very powerful pose. The actor’s eyes are opened as wide as possible; if the character is meant to seem agitated or angry, the actor will cross his eyes. In Japanese, the mie pose is said to be “cut” by the actor (見得を切る, mie wo kiru). Audience members will shout out (kakegoe) words of praise and the actor’s name at specific times before and after the pose is struck.
The practice of mie is said to have originated with Ichikawa Danjūrō I in the Genroku era, along with the aragoto style itself. There are a great many mie, each of which has a name describing it, and many of which are associated with particular lines of actors.
In the Genroku mie, one of the most famous or well-known, the actor’s right hand is held flat, perpendicular to the ground, while his left hand is pointed upwards, elbow bent. At the same time, the actor stamps the floor powerfully with his left foot. This mie is most strongly associated with the character Kamakura Gongorō Kagemasa, the hero of the play Shibaraku, and is said to have been invented by Ichikawa Danjūrō I.
Two mie cut by the priest Narukami, in Narukami Fudō Kitayama Zakura, are the “post-wrapping pose” (柱巻きの見得, Hashimaki no mie), in which the actor wraps his arms and legs around a post, column, or long weapon such as a naginata, and the Fudō no mie (不動の見得), which is meant to resemble the Buddhist figure Fudō Myoō, is a very strong pose, meant to evoke anger and power.
In Kanjinchō, the monk Benkei cuts the Fudō no mie while holding a scroll (the play’s titular “subscription list” or kanjinchō) in one hand and Buddhist prayer beads in the other. Another pose taken by Benkei in this play is the so-called “rock-throwing pose” (石投げの見得, Ishinage no mie), which is meant to look like its namesake.
The term tenchi no mie (天地の見得), or “heaven and earth pose,” is used when two actors, one low on the stage and one high above, on a rooftop or other set-piece, strike a pose simultaneously.
Kuroko (黒子 “black person”/”black clothes”) are stagehands in traditional Japanese theatre, who dress all in black.
In kabuki, the kuroko serve many of the same purposes as running crew. They move scenery and props on stage, aiding in scene changes and costume changes. They will also often play the role of animals, will-o-the-wisps, or other roles which are played not by an actor in full costume, but by holding a prop. Kuroko wear all black, head to toe, in order to imply that they are invisible and not part of the action onstage.
The convention of wearing black to imply that the wearer is invisible on stage is a central element in bunraku puppet theatre as well. Kuroko will wear white or blue in order to blend in with the background in a scene set, for example, in a snowstorm, or at sea, in which case they are referred to as “Yukigo” (雪子 snow person) or “Namigo” (波子 wave person) respectively. As this convention was extended to kabuki actors depicting stealthy ninja, historian Stephen Turnbull suggested that the stereotypical image of a ninja dressed all in black derived from kabuki. Real ninja, living prior to the advent of kabuki might have dressed in this way occasionally for night work, but certainly wouldn’t have worn black at all times.
In Noh theatre, a kōken, wearing black but no mask, serves much the same purpose.
National Theatre of Japan
The National Theatre of Japan (国立劇場 Kokuritsu Gekijō) is a complex consisting of three halls in two buildings in Hayabusa-chō, a neighborhood in Chiyoda, Tokyo, Japan. The Japan Arts Council, an Independent Administrative Institution of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, operates the National Theatre. It primarily stages performances of traditional Japanese performing arts.
The main building has two halls. The Large Theatre hosts performances of kabuki and Buyō as well as stage plays. The Small Hall specializes in bunraku, Japanese music, smaller buyō productions, gagaku, shōmyō, and folk theatre. In a separate building, the Engei Hall stages rakugo and manzai performances.
Each year in April, the awards ceremony for the Japan Prize takes place in the National Theatre. Attendees include the Emperor and Empress, the Prime Minister, the President of the House of Councillors, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Kabuki-za (歌舞伎座) in Ginza is the principal theater in Tokyo for the traditional kabuki drama form.
The Kabuki-za was originally opened by a Meiji era journalist, Fukuchi Gen’ichirō. Fukuchi wrote kabuki dramas in which Ichikawa Danjūrō IX and others starred; upon Danjūrō’s death in 1903, Fukuchi retired from the management of the theater. The theater is now run by the Shochiku Corporation which took over in 1914.
The original Kabuki-za was a wooden structure, built in 1889 on land which had been either the Tokyo residence of the Hosokawa clan of Kumamoto, or that of Matsudaira clan of Izu.
The building was destroyed on October 30, 1921, by an electrical fire. The reconstruction, which commenced in 1922, was designed to “be fireproof, yet carry traditional Japanese architectural styles”, while using Western building materials and lighting equipment. Reconstruction had not been completed when it again burned down during the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake. Rebuilding was finally completed in 1924.
The theater was destroyed once again by Allied bombing during World War II. It was restored in 1950 preserving the style of 1924 reconstruction, and was until recently one of Tokyo’s more dramatic and traditional buildings.
The 1950 structure was demolished in the spring of 2010, and rebuilt over the ensuing three years. Reasons cited for the reconstruction include concerns over the building’s ability to survive earthquakes, as well as accessibility issues. A series of farewell performances, entitled Kabuki-za Sayonara Kōen (歌舞伎座さよなら公演 “Kabuki-za Farewell Performances”) were held from January through April 2010, after which kabuki performances took place at the nearby Shinbashi Enbujō and elsewhere until the opening of the new theatre complex, which took place on March 28, 2013.
Minami-za (南座 Minami-za) is the primary kabuki theatre in Kyoto, Japan. It was founded in 1610 as Shijō Minami-za. The current building with 1,086 seats was built in 1929.
Minami-za is one of the earliest of the seven officially licensed Kabuki theaters built in the early Edo period (1615-1623) in the Shijo Kawara area in Kyoto, even before Tokyo and Osaka.
The current Minami-za theater was built in 1929 in the architectural style of the Momoyama period, with a gabled roof and a traditional turret marking the official approval of the government. In 1991, after the end of the Showa period, the interior was drastically refurbished and modern stage mechanism was installed.
In 1996, Minami-za was registered as a Japanese Tangible Cultural Property in respects to its historical architectural value in connection to the city of Kyoto.
The stage employs unique stagecraft tricks used in Japanese Kabuki theater such as Hanamichi (runway stage), Seri (trap-door lift stage mechanism), and Mawari-butai (revolving stage), all of which were invented in playhouses during Edo period.
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