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Kabuki: A Classical theater



One of the three major classical theaters of Japan, together with the No and the bunraku puppet theater.

Kabuki began in the early 17th century as a kind of variety show performed by troupes of itinerant entertainers. By the Genroku era (1688?1704), it had achieved its first flowering as a mature theater, and it continued, through much of the Edo period (1600?1868), to be the most popular form of stage entertainment. Kabuki reached its artistic pinnacle with the brilliant plays of Tsuruya Namboku IV (1755?1829; see Tsuruya Namboku) and Kawatake Mokuami (1816?93). Through a magnificent blend of playacting, dance, and music, kabuki today offers an extraordinary spectacle combining form, color, and sound and is recognized as one of the world's great theatrical traditions.

Origin of Kabuki
The creation of kabuki is ascribed to Okuni, a female attendant at the Izumo Shrine, who, documents record, led her company of mostly women in a light theatrical performance featuring dancing and comic sketches on the dry bed of the river Kamogawa in Kyoto in 1603. Her troupe gained nationwide recognition and her dramas?and later the genre itself?became identified as “kabuki,” a term connoting its “out-of-the-ordinary” and “shocking” character.

The strong attraction of onna (women's) kabuki, which Okuni had popularized, was largely due to its sensual dances and erotic scenes. Because fights frequently broke out among the spectators over these entertainers, who also practiced prostitution, in 1629 the Tokugawa shogunate (1603?1867) banned women from appearing in kabuki performances. Thereafter, wakashu (young men's) kabuki achieved a striking success, but, as in the case of onna kabuki, the authorities strongly disapproved of the shows, which continued to be the cause of public disturbances because the adolescent actors also sold their favors.

Kabuki after 1652
In 1652 wakashu kabuki was forbidden, and the shogunate required that kabuki performances undergo a basic reform to be allowed to continue. In short, kabuki was required to be based on kyogen, farces staged between No plays that used the spoken language of the time but whose style of acting was highly formalized. The performers of yaro (men's) kabuki, who now began to replace the younger males, were compelled to shave off their forelocks, as was the custom at the time for men, to signify that they had come of age. They also had to make representations to the authorities that their performances did not rely on the provocative display of their bodies and that they were serious artists who would not engage in prostitution.

In the 1660s a broad platform, the forerunner of the hanamichi in use today, extending from the main stage to the center of the auditorium, was introduced to provide an auxiliary stage on which performers could make entrances and exits. In 1664 two theaters located in Osaka and Edo (now Tokyo) introduced the draw curtain, which brought unlimited theatrical possibilities to the previously curtainless stage by permitting the lengthening of plays through the presentation of a series of scenes and providing the freedom to effect complicated scene changes unobtrusively. In the meantime the roles played by the onnagata (female impersonator) gradually increased in importance; mastery of them came to require many years of training. By the mid-17th century, the major cities, Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo, were permitted to build permanent kabuki playhouses.

During its formative years important elements from other theatrical forms?particularly kyogen, No, and the puppet theater - were introduced. The strongest single influence came from kyogen, which, by government fiat, had served as a model for reorganizing the basic structure of the kabuki theater. By introducing the dialogue, acting techniques, and realism of kyogen, kabuki developed from a variety show featuring dance and music into a new form of drama. The kabuki stage was originally derived from the No stage, although later modified by the addition of the draw curtain and the hanamichi in the 17th century and the abandonment of the distinctive roof in the 18th century. Many No plays were also adapted for performance as kabuki. The simple texts borrowed from No, kyogen, and early joruri (narratives recited during bunraku puppet plays) were gradually supplanted by works written for the kabuki stage. The plots became longer and more involved, the number of roles increased, and their staging became more complicated. By 1673, Ichikawa Danjuro I (1660?1704; see Ichikawa Danjuro) had made his debut on the stage of the Nakamuraza in Edo. He created the aragoto (“rough-business”) plays, which featured courageous heros who displayed superhuman powers in overcoming evildoers. Danjuro I's portrayal of these bold, masculine characters defined and established a taste for these plays among the townspeople of Edo.

Genroku Era Kabuki
By the beginning of the Genroku era in 1688 there had developed three distinct types of kabuki performance: jidai-mono (historical plays), often with elaborate sets and a large cast; sewa-mono (domestic plays), which generally portrayed the lives of the townspeople and which, in comparison to jidai-mono, were presented in a realistic manner; and shosagoto (dance pieces), consisting of dance performances and pantomime. In the Kyoto-Osaka (Kamigata) area, Sakata Tojuro I (1647?1709), whose realistic style of acting was called wagoto, was enormously popular for his portrayal of romantic young men, and his contemporary Yoshizawa Ayame I (1673?1729) consolidated the role of the onnagata and established its importance in the kabuki tradition. For a period of some 10 years until about 1703, when he returned to the puppet theater, Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653?1724) wrote a number of kabuki plays, many of them for Tojuro I, which gained public recognition for the craft of the playwright. The commanding stage presence and powerful acting of Danjuro I made him the premier kabuki performer in Edo, and as a playwright, under the name Mimasuya Hyogo, he was once considered the rival of the great Chikamatsu.

Kabuki and the Puppet Theater
The spectacular success of kabuki in the Kyoto-Osaka area during the late 17th century was followed by a period of diminished popularity due to the flourishing of the bunraku puppet theater. In the years following the departure of Chikamatsu, maruhon-mono (kabuki adaptations of puppet plays) were staged in an attempt to draw back the spectators who were now flocking to the puppet theater. The musical and narrative accompaniment of the puppet plays was transported to kabuki performances, and even stage techniques of bunraku, such as the distinctive movement of the manipulated dolls, were imitated by kabuki actors. Chikamatsu's Kokusen'ya kassen (1715), an early example of the maruhon-mono, enjoyed tremendous success in both the Kamigata area and in Edo when it was performed soon after its presentation as a puppet play. The works of later writers which are considered masterpieces in both theaters include: Sugawara denju tenarai kagami (1746), Yoshitsune sembon-zakura (1747), and Kanadehon chushingura (1748). In Edo, despite the growing popularity of the bunraku theater, kabuki remained in the ascendancy due to the undiminished power of the Ichikawa Danjuro family of actors and the regional preference for the aragoto style of performance, which was not suited for the puppet stage. Nevertheless the tight logical structure of the puppet plays and their realistic character portrayal eventually influenced the Edo kabuki theater. After enjoying immense success during the first half of the 18th century, the puppet theater rapidly declined in the Kamigata area, and kabuki recaptured the support of the townspeople. Today, half of the plays presented on the kabuki stage are adaptations of bunraku plays.

After the mid-17th century, the cultural center of Japan gradually shifted from the Kamigata region to Edo. During this transitional period, one of the more notable Kamigata playwrights was Namiki Shozo I (1730?73; see Namiki Shozo), best known as the inventor of the revolving stage (mawaributai). It was a pupil of Shozo I, the dramatist Namiki Gohei I (1747?1808; see Namiki Gohei), along with Sakurada Jisuke I (1734?1806; see Sakurada Jisuke), who was instrumental in transmitting the social realism traditionally associated with the sewa-mono (domestic plays) of the Kyoto-Osaka area to Edo. Their plays laid the foundation for the development of the realistic kizewa-mono (“bare” domestic plays) written by Tsuruya Namboku IV, Segawa Joko III (1806?81; see Segawa Joko), and Kawatake Mokuami.

Kabuki Music and Dance
During the 18th century, the rise of the Tokiwazu (see Tokiwazu-bushi) and Tomimoto schools of narrative and music and the Edo school of nagauta (songs accompanying dances, sung to the music of the shamisen) enriched kabuki performances. In the early 19th century, the Kiyomoto (see Kiyomoto-bushi) school flourished at the expense of the Tomimoto school, which rapidly declined. The first half of the 19th century was the golden age of kabuki music and was accompanied by the spectacular growth of the dance-oriented dramas, shosagoto.

Late-Edo- and Meiji-Period Kabuki?After the death of Namboku IV in 1829, kabuki did not produce any prominent playwrights until the mid-1850s, when Joko III and Mokuami began to write for the theater. Their early successes, embellishments on the genre kizewa-mono?the masterpiece of which had been Tokaido Yotsuya kaidan (1825) by Namboku IV?intermingled brutality, eroticism, and macabre humor and introduced characters from the underworld. Mokuami created the shiranami-mono (thief plays), which had robbers, murderers, confidence men, and cunningly vicious women in the leading roles.

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 marked the collapse of the social order ruled by the samurai, whose loss of status was symbolized by a ban on the wearing of swords and by government discouragement of the continued wearing of topknots. During the early years of the Meiji period Mokuami developed the zangiri-mono (“cropped-hair” plays), which introduced soldiers dressed in Western-style uniforms and onnagata characters wearing Western dresses. These dramas were little more than caricatures of modern life and failed to draw audiences. Actors such as Ichikawa Danjuro IX (1838?1903) and Onoe Kikugoro V (1844?1903; see Onoe Kikugoro) urged the preservation of classical kabuki, and in the later years of their careers agitated for the continued staging of the great plays of the kabuki tradition and trained a younger generation of actors in the art that they would inherit.

The immediate successors of Kikugoro V and Danjuro IX, including Kikugoro VI (1885?1949), Matsumoto Koshiro VII (1870?1949; see Matsumoto Koshiro), and Nakamura Kichiemon I (1886?1954; see Nakamura Kichiemon), also worked to maintain the spirit and integrity of traditional kabuki. However, they also experimented with plays by writers who were not professionally affiliated with the kabuki theater and who wrote plays in the modern vernacular, freely incorporating elements that they had learned from the Western dramatic tradition, such as graphic realism and the detailed character study. Among writers associated with this shin kabuki (new kabuki) movement were Okamoto Kido (1872?1939), Mayama Seika (1878?1948), Hasegawa Shin (1884?1963), and Kubota Mantaro (1889?1963).

Post-World War II Kabuki
In the postwar era the popularity of kabuki has been maintained and the great plays of the Edo period, as well as a number of the modern classics, continue to be performed in Tokyo at the Kabukiza and the National Theater. However, offerings have become considerably shortened and, particularly at the Kabukiza, limited for the most part to favorite acts and scenes presented together with a dance piece. The National Theater continues to present full-length plays. The average length of a kabuki performance is about five hours, including intermissions. The roles once played by the great postwar actors Morita Kan'ya XIV (1907?75; see Morita Kan'ya), Ichikawa Danjuro XI (1909?65), Nakamura Kanzaburo XVII (1910?88; see Nakamura Kanzaburo), Onoe Shoroku II (1913?89; see Onoe Shoroku), Onoe Baiko VII (1915?95; see Onoe Baiko), and Nakamura Utaemon VI (b 1917; see Nakamura Utaemon) are now performed by younger actors, such as Ichikawa Ennosuke II (b 1939; see Ichikawa Ennosuke), Matsumoto Koshiro IX (b 1942), Nakamura Kichiemon II (b 1944), Bando Tamasaburo V (b 1950), Kataoka Nizaemon XV (b 1944), and Nakamura Kankuro (b 1955). Dramas in which Tamasaburo V appears in the role of the onnagata and Nizaemon XV that of the leading man, or tachiyaku, are always well attended. Performances by kabuki actors in other theatrical genres and the broadcasting of kabuki on television have served to increase popular interest in the tradition. The adaptation for new-style theater (shingeki) and the avant-garde theater of kabuki plays by Tsuruya Namboku offers further evidence that the kabuki tradition continues to play a vital role in modern Japanese theater.

(Source:Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan )



Vital Japan | GEO Global Updated Sept. 12,2007

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