Invitation to Kabuki - Guidance for Kabuki appreciation
Kabuki means
1. Public entertainment with wide maguchi (range) 2. Public entertainment pursuing stylized expression
2. Public entertainment pursuing stylized expression
The distinctive feature of Kabuki expression is that it does not tend toward realism like that of modern plays. Kabuki has developed in the direction of stylized performances, persistently pursuing on-stage expression that goes beyond mere realism.
Existence of Onnagata
Due to historical circumstances, male actors play all female roles in Kabuki. Both the female roles and the actors who play them are called Onnagata. At the same time, male roles and the actors who play male roles are called Tachiyaku. [Historically, Tachiyaku meant the male roles portraying good men, in conflict with Katakiyaku, the male roles portraying bad men, but at present, generally speaking, Tachiyaku broadly refers to all male roles.]
Onnagata do not just use costumes and makeup to achieve realistic expression of females. For instance, an Onnagata showing a woman who is walking gives a "female-like expression" by toeing in and keeping his knees together while he walks. The Onnagata on stage also expresses the sloping shoulders of females by pulling his shoulder blades downward and together. These on-stage acting techniques of the male Onnagata actors are designed to give impressions of females that appear more realistically feminine than if the actors actually copied the movements of real women.
Development of Yakugara (role types)
"The characters appearing on the Kabuki stage are stereotyped and are played according to various conditions such as their ages, occupations and roles in each story. This stereotypical classification is called Yakugara. Yakugara types are roughly divided into Onnagata, Tachiyaku and the Katakiyaku (bad guy) roles. Each of these categories has become subdivided with the passage of time.
Yakugara (role types) have been subdivided to achieve stylized expression of roles.
Onnagata can be subclassified into Katahazushi, for the roles of okujochu (high-ranking ladies-in-waiting) from samurai families, Akahime (young princess) roles, Sewa-nyobo roles of wives diligently taking care of their husbands, and Fukeoyama roles depicting elderly woman.
Yakugara (role types) of Tachiyaku, the roles depicting good males, include Aragoto or Aragotoshi, violent and stirring characters, Wagoto or Wagotoshi who are gentle and graceful, Jitsugoto or Jitsugotoshi, men who are suffering in tragic situations, Dokegata, comedy roles, and Wakashugata, boys' roles.
Katakiyaku can be classified into high-ranking Kugeaku (villainous noblemen), Iroaku (handsome bad men), Kunikuzushi (evil men with large-scale plans to take over a country), and the realistic and coldhearted Jitsuaku.
Stereotypical makeup and costumes are designed to clearly express each of these Yakugara, and, just as for the acting of Onnagata, mentioned above, artful acting techniques have been established to achieve stylized expression of these Yakugara.
Techniques for making scenes believable
The pursuit of stylized expression in Kabuki involves more than the expressions by the dramatis personae. Dramatic techniques have been developed to make scenes more impressive.
In the 'Inasegawa seizoroi' scene of "Aoto zoshi hana no nishikie" [common name "Shiranami gonin otoko"], 5 thieves holding umbrellas on which "shiranami" is written in large characters, are chased by torite (policemen) and appear on stage. Shiranami means "thieves." Why would thieves being chased brandish umbrellas showing that they are thieves? This is a showy and colorful highlight scene in which the thieves portrayed by 5 actors, meet. The umbrellas with "shiranami" written on them are used as props for emphasis in this colorful and showy scene.

This is one example of the expression of role types and scenes. The individual elements of costumes, makeup, stage setting, and sound effects were developed in Kabuki with the emphasis on achieving convincing expressions. These expression methods were repeatedly used for similar roles and similar scenes, and consequently the stylized expression peculiar to Kabuki was established.