Becoming familiar with the characters
The people that appear in Kabuki are grouped into several categories such as age, occupation and role in the story, and the acting techniques, costumes, wigs, makeup and other aspects are also categorized. This grouping method known as yakugara (character) consists mainly of onnagata female roles, tachiyaku virtuous male roles, and katakiyaku villain roles.
The young female onnagata characters include the akahime elegant princess and machimusume courageous town girl, while the elderly female onnagata characters include the katahazushi resilient maid of a samurai household and sewa-nyobo wife who diligently cares for her husband.
Among the tachiyaku characters are the wild yet heroic aragoto and contrastingly gentle and graceful wagoto, as well as the jitsugoto reflective man in the prime of his life. Villainous katakiyaku include the jitsuaku supervillain plotting a rebellion, iroaku handsome bad guy, and kugeaku evil noble. Other yakugara include the dokegata comedian that makes the audience laugh, and wakashugata pretty young boy.
The clothing, hairstyles, speaking styles and other aspects of people in the Edo Period differed according to various factors, such as their social status, occupation, and age. This made it easier to categorize yakugara by their costumes, wigs, movements and other performance elements.
Thanks to this approach, the audience is generally able to grasp the basic features of the characters on stage, even when viewing a Kabuki play for the first time; this allows them to enjoy Kabuki with the reassurance of being familiar with the characters.
Jidai-mono (historical plays) depict the olden times of the samurai and Imperial Court, which are quite unconnected to Edo period audiences; so the costumes worn by the warriors, nobles and other characters are quite exaggerated and stylized. Among them, the costumes for aragoto, kugeaku and other clear-cut characters have become particularly overstated and stylized so that they can be recognized at a glance.
In many cases though, the costumes of jidai-mono roles do not always reflect the clothing of the eras being depicted. One such example is in “Imoseyama Onna Teikin” (Husband and Wife Mountains: An Exemplary Tale of Womanly Virtue), which is set in an era over a thousand years before the production was first staged. In this play, most characters wear costumes based on Edo period clothing. This approach of featuring costumes from the actual era in which the play was staged was used to make it easier to understand the personalities of the people that appear in the play.
Meanwhile, the costumes of roles in sewa-mono (contemporary plays reflecting the lives of the audience at that time) are relatively close to the actual clothes worn by people then. As a result, the characters and personalities of the roles are largely expressed through the colors, patterns, styling and other features of the costumes.
The wigs worn in Kabuki plays normally have four elements: bin (hair on both sides of the face), tabo (hair on the back of the head), mage (sections of hair bound into a topknot or bun) and maegami (forelocks). The characters and personalities of the roles in Kabuki plays are expressed through changing and combining these wig elements.
For much the same reasons as those for costumes, the level of exaggeration and stylization of Kabuki wigs have become more pronounced in jidai-mono roles.
About 1,000 types of wigs are used in tachiyaku, and around 400 wigs are worn in onnagata. There are a greater number of wigs used in tachiyaku due to the more complex settings of the characters and personalities of the roles.
Kabuki props are largely classified into two categories: honmono everyday items, and koshiraemono items that are crafted to be shown and used effectively on stage. Koshiraemono clearly convey the characters and personalities of the roles that use them, and so they are generally more effective on stage than honmono.