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


A classical performing art that remains fresh

Kabuki incorporates the atmosphere of each era into its traditions that have been carried on through the years, while also continually creating new and original expressive styles.

Meaning of the term “Kabuki”

Around the beginning of the Edo era (start of the 17th century), people who acted oddly while dressed in strange and showy clothing and hairstyles started to gain the public’s attention. They were referred to as kabukimono, which means people who do completely new and bizarre things.

nenbutsu-odori, which is a Buddhist incantation of chanting, drumming and dancing for the repose of deceased people’s souls, and other such dances became popular around this time. Okuni - a woman who referred to herself as a miko shrine maiden from Izumo Taisha shrine in Shimane - became extremely popular for her original dancing style, which incorporated the unique and avant-garde customs of the kabukimono. This style of dancing known as kabuki-odori is said to be the start of Kabuki, which has continued to the present day.

All male performers

“Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami” ‘Kawachi no Kuni Domyoji’ scene
National Theatre (Y_E0100112000171)

Kabuki was not just about dancing – it also included elements of theatre and music, which made it popular among people. However, Kabuki became almost too popular and the officials began to regulate it, such as by banning women from performing. When young boys were also prohibited from performing Kabuki, a new type of Kabuki emerged that featured only adult male performers.

This is why men also perform the roles of women in Kabuki plays.

This restriction of having only male actors led to the creation of new expressive styles for female roles in Kabuki. In addition to coming up with costumes, makeup and other clever ways to portray women, the actors also invented movements for expressing the female image that included walking in a pigeon-toed style with both knees turned inwards, sloping the shoulders by lowering the shoulder blades, and moving with gentle and emotive feminine gestures. By earnestly practicing these movements every day and perfecting them, they developed the on-stage image of women portrayed by onnagata (female roles).

“Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami” ‘Kawachi no Kuni Domyoji’ scene
National Theatre (Y_E0100112000171)

Diverse repertoire of plays

There are around 400 Kabuki plays that are still being performed today.

They are mainly divided into two types: jidai-mono (historical plays) historical plays about events and people from before the Edo period, and sewa-mono (contemporary, domestic plays) contemporary plays that deal with the loves, lives and humanity of ordinary people in the Edo period.

These plays comprise of not only those created especially for Kabuki, but also numerous plays from Noh, Kyogen and other art forms established in previous eras, as well as Ningyo-joruri (Japanese puppet theatre) and other performing arts developed in the same period, many of which have been adapted into plays for the Kabuki stage. These works have exceptional dramatic elements, and they form a key part of the Kabuki repertoire.

Some Kabuki plays also originated from the storytelling arts of rakugo, kodan, novels and other such culture, which have both influenced and been influenced by Kabuki. The plays performed during the Edo period were developed by playwrights and actors who created works exclusively for Kabuki. Although from the middle of the Meiji period (end of the 19th century) onwards, dramas written by playwrights and writers who weren’t directly connected to Kabuki also began to be performed.