INVITATION TO KABUKI Guide to Japanese Traditional Performing Arts KabukiINVITATION TO KABUKI Guide to Japanese Traditional Performing Arts Kabuki

Characters and Actors

Expressions of the Actors

In the world of Kabuki, artistic skills conveyed from parent to child or from master to disciple, and individual acting families cultivate their own distinctive artistic skills. In the same way, outstanding actors pass down the plays and roles in which they excel from generation to generation. Audiences enjoy the charms embodied by specific families and individual actors more than the content of the stories. Playwrights also make their efforts into creation to maximize the distinctive qualities of certain actors.

Stage names, Stage family names and Crests

“Otowaya Shiire Shingata”
National Theatre collection (NA091350)

“Naritaya Shiire Shingata”
National Theatre collection (NA091340)

The majority of actor stage names have been passed down over generations. Such names are known as myoseki (stage names), and performing techniques, showpiece roles are inherited along with these names.

The process of acquiring a stage names is known as shumei (taking over a professional name), and the official presentations of the steps involved are major milestones in Kabuki performance schemes. In cases of particularly renowned stage names, several different names are taken in sequence over an extended period before the professional name is assumed in full. For example, in a process that is common today, the professional name of Ichikawa Danjuro was passed down through the names of Icihkawa Shinnosuke and Ichikawa Ebizo.

Within the family lines of actors, yago (stage family names) such as “Naritaya” for the family of Ichikawa Danjuro or “Otowaya” for the family of Onoe Kikugoro have also been handed down over the generations. This is because actors during the Edo Period were not permitted to assume actual last names, and adopted the stage family names instead. During a Kabuki performance, the great majority of spirited calls and cheers from the seats consist of such family name.

Meanwhile, much like normal families in Japan, actor clans also honor designs family crests, which are widely incorporated into costumes to symbolize the family lines. Moreover, the favorite patterns of individual actors are also routinely passed down separately from the family crests, and are known as “actor crests” or “actor patterns.” Actors financed most Edo Period costumes themselves, and these costumes, props and other settings featured their family or actor crests to generate greater audience recognition for the acting families and individual actors on stage. This also led to the use of colors and patterns that popular actors favored in tenugui towels, yukata informal cotton kimonos and other items that became trendy among common folk fond of Kabuki.

Colored woodblock prints portraying the generations of actors who took on the name Ichikawa Danjuro

“Kokon Haiyu Nigaodaizen”
National Theatre collection (0010437, 0010438, 0010439)

Ichikawa Kodanji IV (center) wears a costume decorated with his acting family crest—three stacked square wooden measuring boxes— and in colors of yellowish-brown used by his family

“Nakamuraza Kotobuki Hiro no Zu”
National Theatre collection (NA030900)

“Otowaya Shiire Shingata”
National Theatre collection (NA091350)

“Naritaya Shiire Shingata”
National Theatre collection (NA091340)

Colored woodblock prints portraying the generations of actors who took on the name Ichikawa Danjuro

“Kokon Haiyu Nigaodaizen”
National Theatre collection (0010437, 0010438, 0010439)

Ichikawa Kodanji IV (center) wears a costume decorated with his acting family crest—three stacked square wooden measuring boxes— and in colors of yellowish-brown used by his family

“Nakamuraza Kotobuki Hiro no Zu”
National Theatre collection (NA030900)

Family Arts

Ichikawa Danjuro VII [Ichikawa Ebizo V at the time] performing in the role of Benkei in “Kanjincho”, one of the “Kabuki-Juhachiban”

“Kanjincho”
National Theatre collection (NA031600)

Specialized acting techniques and styles passed down through the generations of actor family lines for particular plays and roles are known as ie-no-gei (family arts). Leading examples include the aragoto (exaggerated style) roles of the Ichikawa Danjuro family, the sewa-mono (contemporary domestic plays) and ghost story plays of the Onoe Kikugoro family, and others. The “Kabuki-Juhachiban” (Eighteen Kabuki Pieces) or “Shin Kabuki-Juhachiban” (Eighteen New Kabuki Pieces) of the Ichikawa Danjuro family, the “Shinko Engeki Jisshu” (Ten Plays Old and New) of the Onoe Kikugoro family and other performance collections have been selected by actors as their own family arts’ series of plays.

Ichikawa Danjuro VII [Ichikawa Ebizo V at the time] performing in the role of Benkei in “Kanjincho”, one of the “Kabuki-Juhachiban”

“Kanjincho”
National Theatre collection (NA031600)

Acting styles

In theatre, even when portraying the same role in the same play, it makes perfect sense for an actor to use his own patterns, acting style and other touches. In Kabuki, however, several specified styles are applied to such acting methods, and are known collectively as kata (style). Among the various kata handed down through family lines or master-disciple relationships, the actors playing the leading roles largely determine the matter of what styles are used in performances. Even for the same scenes in the same plays, major variations in the staging effects reflect such kata.

Main characterGonta

Piece this appear in | The “Sushiya” (The sushi shop) scene from “Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura” (Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees)

Acting style of Kamigata (Kyoto and Osaka)

“Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura” ‘Shimoichimura Tsurubesushiya’ scene
National Theatre (Y_E0100014000092)

“Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura” is a Kabuki play derived from a Ningyo-joruri (Japanese puppet theatre) popular in the Kamigata area (present-day Osaka and Kyoto). True to the original work’s regional setting—in a mountainous area of Yamato-no-kuni (present-day Nara Prefecture)—Gonta is portrayed as a backwoods hoodlum. His movements, costume and other aspects are graphically presented in a rustic style, and he also speaks in the Kamigata regional dialect.

“Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura” ‘Shimoichimura Tsurubesushiya’ scene
National Theatre (Y_E0100014000092)

Acting style of Edo

“Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura” ‘Shimoichimura Tsurubesushiya’ scene
National Theatre (Y_E0100226056022)

The conventional approach is for Gonta to be portrayed as a person born and raised in Edo (present-day Tokyo), and in the “Otowaya” kata of the Onoe Kikugoro family. He speaks in the dialect of Edo, with his movements, costume and all other elements embellished with a distinctive urban flavor. Although this interpretation fails to reflect the story’s original setting, this type of kata was adopted with the goal of portraying a character easier for Edo audiences to identify with.

“Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura” ‘Shimoichimura Tsurubesushiya’ scene
National Theatre (Y_E0100226056022)