Around the time when the lengthy warring period was finally coming to an end (late 16th century), the common people of Japan started to create a succession of new performing arts. One of these arts that became quite popular was the furyu-odori, in which people wearing various costumes dance together in a circle.
Then around the beginning of the Edo period (start of 17th century), the kabuki-odori performed by Okuni - a woman who referred to herself as a shrine maiden from Izumo Taisha shrine in Shimane - became extremely popular in the imperial capital of Kyoto. Kabuki-odori was a dance that came into style at the time, incorporating the costumes and movements of the kabukimono who dressed in strange-looking costumes and moved in an odd way. This performing art used song and dance to play out scenes where female actors dressed as men visited teahouses and frolicked with the women there. People became crazy about this performance, and the audience included not only commonfolk but also even samurai warriors and nobility.
From onna-kabuki to wakashu-kabuki
Once the kabuki-odori started becoming popular, groups of female performers mimicking this original dance style began to appear one after the other. This onna-kabuki (women’s Kabuki) also used a new instrument known as the shamisen (Japanese three-stringed guitar) in the performances, which became popular not only in Kyoto but also in Edo (present-day Tokyo), Osaka and other regions across Japan.
Onna-kabuki became so popular that oftentimes fights would break out between people in the audience. This led the shogunate and feudal domain to enforce stricter regulations on the performances, and eventually ban onna-kabuki for the reason of it corrupting public morals.
Subsequently, wakashu-kabuki (young men’s Kabuki), which was also being performed at the time, started to gain popularity. Although this type of Kabuki was distinctive for its acrobatic-style movements and clown-like roles, which were not seen in onna-kabuki, basically the performances still promoted the alluring looks of the young male performers. So the officials also cracked down on wakashu-kabuki, and finally banned it.
Development of yaro-kabuki
After wakashu-kabuki was officially banned, Kabuki actors started searching for a new performance style using adult men. This led to the development of yaro-kabuki (male’s Kabuki), which was performed by men with a hairstyle of shaved forelocks to indicate their coming of age. The actual performances also evolved from being singing and dancing reviews to multi-layered dramatic stories, which required even more skilled performers than previously.
The role of onnagata actors, in which men performed on stage dressed as women, which began around the time of the wakashu-kabuki, become more established. Moreover, as plots became more elaborate, several types of leading roles came to be established, amidst the diversification of roles including both young and older women onnagata roles, as well as honourable and dishonourable male roles, and comical roles to soften the atmosphere. This is how Kabuki started to become more dramatic, and develop into a performing art.