Kabuki audiences in the Edo Period (17th to 19th century) greatly enjoyed the performances and appeal of individual actors. Since these actors signed contracts with theatres each year, the playwrights called kyogen-sakusha attached to individual theatres wrote stories with roles designed to showcase the specific skills and characteristics of each actor. The playwrights also assisted with the direction and supported the performances in other ways.
In the days of Kabuki was established, actors also worked as playwrights. At times, a single playwright would write an entire play. As the plays became longer and more complex, a shared production system was adopted. Under that approach, tatesakusha (leading playwrights) would develop the main ideas and other playwrights would handle various writing duties.
As the Edo Period came to a close, Japanese society was becoming more Westernized and modern. From the beginning of the 20th century, playing dramas written by playwrights with no direct ties to this performing art gradually increase.
Building the Concept
During the Edo Period, Kabuki playwrights worked to encourage audiences to enjoy their longer and more complex plays. It became a general method to base the tales on performing arts, literature, oral traditions and plots that people were already familiar with. This basic frame of work was known as the sekai (world). Many of the stories had recognizable themes, included historical plays such as the “Heike Monogatari” (The Tale of the Heike), “Soga Monogatari” and “Taiheiki”, love stories such as ‘Osome/Hisamatsu' and ‘Seigen/Sakurahime', and numerous other subjects.
Shuko refers to the plots, based on the sekai frame, adapted through various approaches and other ingenious touches. First determining their sekai, playwrights would then incorporate mention of robberies, murders, dishonesty, double suicide and other incidents known to the audiences of the time. They also created stories by weaving into their sekai the unfoldment with the plot devices such as mistaken impression, substitution, mistaken identity, or stereotyped scenes such as the separation and others.
Developing the Drama
This approach to producing plays increased because of a ban on the use of incidents occurring in modern times in performing arts and literature. Within that trend, sometimes the sekai of new Kabuki plays produced were based on popular works. One example was “Kanadehon Chushingura” (The Treasury of 47 Loyal Retainers), first performed as a Ningyo-joruri (Japanese puppet theatre) in the mid-18th century and also repeatedly performed as Kabuki after that. The playwright Tsuruya Namboku IV wrote the “Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan” (The Ghosts of Yotsuya) using this tale—in which retainers struggle with many difficulties and avenge their lord—as the his sekai. Adopted for the shuko plot was the story of one of the retainers, who committed robbery and murder for selfish desires. Actual topics of those modern times—a rumor that the ghost of woman appears, an incident of dead bodies of a man and a woman washing up on the shore—were also incorporated.
Interpretations and Creation
Also widely used in Kabuki works was kakikae (rewriting)—using the sekai of famous plays to the greatest possible degree while changing certain characters and stories to create new works. One example is “Yowa Nasake Ukina no Yokogushi” (Scarface Yasaburo), written by the playwright Segawa Jokou III. This is the story of a man named Yosaburo, who is cut all over his body for having an affair with his lover, Otomi.
In later years, the playwright Kawatake Mokuami produced a kakikae version of this work under the title “Musumegonomi Ukina no Yokogushi” (The Young Girl’s Favorite Comb of Scandal). In that play, while Yosaburo and Otomi have an affair as same as the former story, Otomi is the one cut up conversely. It was also popular with audiences. In this way, the title of the kakikae play was commonly used to remind audiences of the original work. The goal was to both show respect for the previous work and attract fans of the former version to the new production.
Another more complex method called naimaze (blending) appeared. This involved combining different sekai into a single play. For example, the sekai of jidai-mono (historical plays)—in which samurai avenged their lords—and the sekai of sewa-mono (contemporary domestic plays), in which murders were committed for selfish reasons, clearly differ in their themes, stories, characters and other details. However, the naimaze approach combined these different worlds. For example, creating the story for the character of a samurai seeking revenge appeared as a townsman who killed others to steal money. Linking the separate sekai of jidai-mono and sewa-mono expanded the possibilities of story significantly.