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Kabuki for BeginnersKabuki for Beginners

Evolution

Originators The writers who created the characters

There are many plays in which popular characters appear. The scripts of these productions were created by writers affiliated with theatres, who made use of the individual personalities of the actors who performed there.

A popular actor in Edo who created the aragoto style and wrote scripts

Ichikawa Danjuro I

“Ichikawa Danjuro no Takenuki Goro zu”
Artist: Torii Kiyomasu
Tokyo National Museum collection
Image: TNM Image Archives

Kabuki matured as theatrical entertainment during the second half of the 17th century and the early 18th century. Ichikawa Danjuro I was a representative actor in Edo Kabuki (the style of Kabuki that was performed in Edo, modern-day Tokyo); he also wrote his own scripts under the name Mimasuya Hyogo, and established the strong and dynamic aragoto style of Kabuki. Thanks to its wild performances and costumes, this style became so popular it was almost a religion, and gave birth to characters who are heroes of justice, striking down villains with superhuman strength.

“Ichikawa Danjuro no Takenuki Goro zu”
Artist: Torii Kiyomasu
Tokyo National Museum collection
Image: TNM Image Archives

A popular actor in Kyoto and Osaka who polished his performances and perfected the wagoto style

Sakata Tojuro I

“Yarozeki Zumo”
Tokyo Metropolitan Central Library Kaga Bunko collection (加6013-2/加06013-002)

The second half of the 17th century and the early 18th century saw the popularity of aragoto style in Edo. Kyoto and Osaka, which were at the heart of culture and the arts, preferred the elegant and refined wagoto style of Kabuki. Through realistic and subtle performance, Sakata Tojuro I perfected the character of the ladies’ man who, for one reason or another, has fallen into poverty despite his high station in life. His skill lay in polishing a soft and natural performance style and expression through his lines.

“Yarozeki Zumo”
Tokyo Metropolitan Central Library Kaga Bunko collection (加6013-2/加06013-002)

A popular actor who worked with Sakata Tojuro I and established the art of the onnagata

Yoshizawa Ayame I

“Yarozeki Zumo”
Tokyo Metropolitan Central Library Kaga Bunko collection (加6013-1/加06013-001)

Yoshizawa Ayame I often performed opposite Sakata Tojuro I as his partner, and established the art of the onnagata (a male actor playing a female role) in wagoto style productions. He perfected the character of the keisei, a high-class courtesan who is very graceful, educated, and beautiful. He thought that it was important to try to live and behave as a woman in his everyday life so he could perform women’s roles in a natural and realistic manner; this attitude truly demonstrated the attention he gave to his work, not just to the audience, but to the extent that it left an impression on the actors who shared the stage with him.

『野郎関相撲』
東京都立中央図書館加賀文庫所蔵(加6013-1/加06013-001)

A writer who created many masterpieces in both Kabuki and Ningyo-joruri

Chikamatsu Monzaemon

“Naniwa Miyage”
National Theatre collection

Chikamatsu Monzaemon did not work as an actor; he was the first writer who specialized in writing scripts. He wrote many Kabuki scripts for Sakata Tojuro I, and supported him in establishing wagoto style characters. His “Sonezaki Shinju” (The Love Suicides at Sonezaki) was staged a month after a real case of double suicide, and became a big hit; after this, he devoted himself to writing for Ningyo-joruri (Japanese puppet theatre), and he left behind many masterpieces, both jidai-mono (works that are set before the Edo period (1603-1868)) and sewa-mono (works that include events from the Edo period; contemporary dramas of the time). Many of these works were also adapted for Kabuki and became popular plays.

“Naniwa Miyage”
National Theatre collection

A writer who portrayed the realities of society in an exciting manner through bizarre expression

Tsuruya Namboku IV

“Ichimuraza Sangai no zu”
National Theatre collection (NA0072126000)

The first half of the 19th century saw the culture of the townspeople flourish, especially in Edo, but people’s morals had lapsed and crime was rampant. Tsuruya Namboku IV was a writer who established the kizewa genre, which realistically portrayed the people living in the lower levels of society. His complex stories, filled with the uncanny, crime, laughter, and seduction were performed with original ideas, including quick costume changes and stage settings that used abundant tricks, and surprised his audiences. He created numerous characters that leave lasting impressions, including a variety of villains, ghosts, and monsters.

“Ichimuraza Sangai no zu”
National Theatre collection (NA0072126000)

A writer who portrayed the common people on beautiful stages that entertain visually and aurally

Kawatake Mokuami

“Haiyu Gakuya no Sugatami”
National Theatre collection (NA071280)

Kawatake Mokuami is a playwright who continued writing throughout the late Edo period and the Meiji period (the mid- and late 19th century), creating about 360 works that reflected this rapidly changing time. His characters of thieves and scoundrels, speaking their lines in a wonderful flowing rhythm with picturesque, balanced stage sets and subtle music in the background, were very popular with contemporary audiences. He created works in a wide range of genres, including plays based on Nohgaku, and these are still actively staged today.

“Haiyu Gakuya no Sugatami”
National Theatre collection (NA071280)

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