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Kabuki for BeginnersKabuki for Beginners

Prints of Actors

Fans and media

Kabuki was one of the greatest pleasures of the people of the Edo period (1603–1868). Their enjoyment, support, and reviews through various forms of media made Kabuki became even more exciting, and also influenced it.

Kabuki and lifestyles

Kabuki was more than simply a form of entertainment to be viewed; the elements that make up Kabuki—the stories performed, the characters who appeared on-stage, the actors and their acting houses—were familiar to people as fun things that brought color to their lives. Trends were born from among these, one after another, based on the costumes worn by actors, their hairstyles, and accessories. Both men and women pursued these trends, which became established as standard patterns and designs. In addition, people often enjoyed the seasonal sights presented in plays, such as seasonal festivals, special events, and foods, in their everyday lives. Of these, the kaomise performances, which introduced the actors associated with theatres, were a familiar sight to the people living in large cities, especially Edo (modern-day Tokyo), Kyoto, and Osaka. These took place in November, and were known as “Theatre-land’s New Year.”

The second woman from the right, holding out a plate to sell the first bonito of the season, wears a kimono patterned with the ”Ju no Jiebi” crest of Ichikawa Ebizo
Artist: Utagawa Toyokuni III
Tokyo Metropolitan Central Library collection (07661-C2)

The second woman from the right, holding out a plate to sell the first bonito of the season, wears a kimono patterned with the ”Ju no Jiebi” crest of Ichikawa Ebizo
Artist: Utagawa Toyokuni III
Tokyo Metropolitan Central Library collection (07661-C2)

Audiences and the Yakusha Hyobanki

The popularity of Kabuki was first supported by affection and respect for the actors that performed in plays rather than by its entertainment as theatrical performance. While audiences’ patronage supported their favorite actors, they also had discerning eyes regarding their art. Starting from the mid-17th century, a booklet called Yakusha Hyobanki (“Commentary on Actors”) was issued every year for over 200 years, although its form did change during this time. This publication summarized evaluations of the actors, rather than offering criticism of plays. The Yakusha Hyobanki developed its criticism in the format of imaginary conversations between multiple people with different levels of education and different interests, such as the migosha who can spot good and bad techniques and the shibaizuki, who is a wildly enthusiastic fan, presenting actor rankings for each stock character by writing “The best of the best,” “The best,” and “Good” in fine white print or similar.

Yakusha Hyobanki (“Commentary on Actors”) published in 1740
National Diet Library collection (京-397)

Yakusha Hyobanki (“Commentary on Actors”) published in 1740
National Diet Library collection (京-397)

Performances and rankings

Actors from the Edo period made yearly contracts with theatres, and the theatres put on performances of Kabuki in competition with each other. Printed sheets known as banzuke, created for publicity, included the details of the staging of each performance. Many different types of banzuke were created, including banzuke displaying the acting cast for that year, and tsuji banzuke that were similar to posters or leaflets, which might have been put up on street corners or distributed. There were also yakuwari banzuke, akin to pamphlets listing the cast of a play, which heightened fans’ expectations. After a performance had started, theatres also sold ehon banzuke, booklet similar to programs for the performance, which introduced the key scenes in a play through illustrations.

A tsuji banzuke for the first performance of “Sannin Kichisa Kuruwa no Hatsugai” in 1860
The Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, Waseda University collection (ロ22-00019-031)

A tsuji banzuke for the first performance of “Sannin Kichisa Kuruwa no Hatsugai” in 1860
The Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, Waseda University collection (ロ22-00019-031)

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