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Kabuki for BeginnersKabuki for Beginners

Frequently Asked Questions

The characters

There are people who look like ninja on the stage, who are they?

The people dressed completely in black are called kurogo. In Kabuki, there is an unspoken agreement that “black cannot be seen by the audience.” The kurogo move props on and off the stage as discreetly as possible, and help the actors with on-stage costume changes.

Are there ever any transformations?

As a production that entertains the audience, Kabuki has tricks for split-second costume changes. These are used when, for example, a character that has been hiding their true nature reveals themselves. By changing their costume, the actor expresses a change in their character.

Can you tell me the productions in which female characters have active roles?

There are many of these. There are three famous works in which princess roles play key parts: “Honcho Nijushiko” (The Japanese Twenty-Four Paragons of Filial Piety), “Gion Sairei Shinkoki” (The Gion Festival and the Chronicle of Nobunaga), and “Kamakura Sandaiki” (Three Generations of Kamakura Shogun).
We should also add “Kagamiyama Kokyo no Nishikie” (Mt. Kagamiyama and a Brocade of Feminine Virtue), “Sukeroku Yukari no Edozakura” (Sukeroku, the Hero of Edo), and “Meiboku Sendai Hagi” (Troubles in the Date Clan). “Kyoganoko Musume Dojoji” (The Girl at Dojoji Temple) is a representative dance work.

Do actors ever play multiple characters in one production?

Actors sometimes play two or more characters in a single production during performances of Kabuki. There are productions known as “Osome no Nanayaku” (The Seven Roles of Osome) that are must-sees for fans, in which one actor plays several different roles, similar to Frank Morgan in The Wizard of Oz.

The costumes, wigs, and makeup

How many types of wig are there?

There are around 1,000 types of wig for tachiyaku (male roles), and around 400 for onnagata (female roles). The wig used will depend on the age, status, and occupation of the stock character.

Who does the makeup?

The actors (apart from those playing child roles) do their own makeup while looking into a mirror. They select the tools that they find easy to use, and come up with ways to do their makeup to suit the character that they are playing.

Have the costumes always been gorgeous?

Kabuki has delighted the eyes of audiences with gorgeous costumes since the Edo period (1603-1868). During this period, famous actors were responsible for making their own costumes, and as a result they would compete with each other to be just that little bit more showy, creating extravagant clothing.

Are new costumes created each time?

Since the same productions are often staged in Kabuki, and the costumes for each work are set, new costumes are generally not made each time there is a performance. Currently, the costumes are stored at a costume company and hired by the theatre for each performance. However, new costumes are made for new works or plays that have been revived after a long gap.

The stage

What is the long, corridor-like thing among the seats for the audience?

This is called the hanamichi. It becomes many different places depending on the scene. For example, in a scene set within a room it is a corridor, and in a scene set outside it is a road. Performance skills that use the hanamichi, which is closer to the audience than the stage, are unique to Kabuki and leave a strong impression on the audience.

I can hear music during performances, but where is it being played?

The music is played live in a black room with bamboo blinds, located on the stage right. On the stage left, there is a room with blinds where takemoto narration is performed.

Can you tell me about the three-color curtain that is unique to Kabuki?

This is called the joshiki-maku. Joshiki means “something that is always used,” so a joshiki-maku is a curtain (maku) that is always used. It is opened from the stage right to the stage left when a production begins.

Watching Kabuki

Who can call out (kakegoe) during performances?

Fundamentally, anyone can call out, but the timing of these shouts is very difficult. As a result, it is best done after you really understand that work and know when you should call out. The people shouting “____ya” are calling the names of the performers’ acting-houses (yago), which are determined by the family with which the performer is affiliated.

Can I enjoy Kabuki theatre, even though it’s my first time?

When it comes to Kabuki, there are no rules that say “you must watch it like this.” There are many ways to view this theatre art, such as watching your favorite actor or enjoying the gorgeous costumes and scenery. The National Theatre holds Kabuki Appreciation Classes (Performances for beginners)¬¬¬, which are made up of an explanatory part and a part in which participants view a program. They also put together programs for beginners, parents and children, and international visitors.

Where can I see Kabuki?

The following are the main theatres and locations that regularly stage Kabuki:
- The National Theatre - Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
- Kabukiza Theatre - Chuo-ku, Tokyo
- Shinbashi Enbujo - Chuo-ku, Tokyo
- Osaka Shochikuza - Chuo-ku, Osaka City, Osaka Prefecture
- Kyoto Minamiza - Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture
- Misonoza - Naka-ku, Nagoya City, Aichi Prefecture

Other

How do we know the faces and performance skills of actors who worked over 200 years ago?

The Yakusha Hyobanki (“Commentary on Actors”) in which people wrote about the appearance and skills of actors, and publications in which actors themselves talked about performance techniques came out in large numbers from around the middle of the 17th century. We can learn about the famous actors of each era and their performance skills from these documents.

What kind of people watched Kabuki in the past?

Mainly commoners. In the past, there weren’t any movie theatres or theme parks like there are today. The main pleasures of the commoners of the Edo period (1603-1868) were Kabuki, sumo wrestling, flower viewing, and visiting shrines and temples. Among these, Kabuki was very popular in large cities such as Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and Osaka, and was staged almost all year round.

Is there a specific calligraphy style used for Kabuki?

The characters used in titles and on signboards are known as kantei style characters, and this writing style is said to have begun in the second half of the 18th century. The characters are written without any large gaps, using brush movements that go inwards, hoping that this will bring people into the theatre so there are no gaps in the audience seating.

A nimaime = a handsome man. What does this mean?

The word nimaime (二枚目) is written with characters meaning “the second board,” and is used to refer to a beautiful young man. This word comes from a time when theatres were decorated with signboards with actors’ names written on them, and the names of the actors who specialized in the wagoto (soft) style roles of beautiful young men were written on the second board along.

Is it true that there are boxed lunches connected to Kabuki?

The term maku no uchi bento (“Boxed lunch between curtains,” a lunchbox containing rice and several side dishes) began in Kabuki theatre. The phrase maku no uchi (“between curtains”) refers to the interval between acts. In the theatre, the boxed lunches with a variety of side dishes that were eaten during this interval were called maku no uchi bento, and people started using this term in everyday life.

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