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


Classifications of Plays

Over 300 Kabuki plays are still performed today. These works may be grouped into several different types based upon their contents and its origin.

Classification by Content

Jidai-mono (historical plays)

Jidai-mono are plays based on subject matter far different from the lives of the townspeople who made up the main audience for Kabuki during the Edo Period. Such plays were based on incidents concerning samurai or court nobles society, and other happenings long before the Edo Period. Some of these plays did include Edo Period events, as well as the persons involved in them. To conceal that, however, these plays used events and names from more ancient times as a way to avoid the Tokugawa shogunate’s bans and taboos of stories about more recent incidents. These plays were also not always true to historical facts. Liberal use was made of literature based on history or legends, and then the common practice was for playwrights to creatively rewrite history.

Sewa-mono (contemporary, domestic plays)

Sewa-mono refers to contemporary plays. As different to jidai-mono, the contents were more familiar and meant to appeal to the Edo Period townspeople. In other words, sewa-mono is repertories that based on subjects and events reflecting the social conditions and customs of the common people. Usually realistic productions and acting were used to portray the conflict of love or stories of duties in common people’s everyday lives. On the other hand, true-to-life tales of common people in lower social class came to be known as kizewa-mono. Within the overall category of jidai-mono, stories of the human relations between common people that are stylized to some degree are known as jidai-sewa.

Shosagoto (Kabuki dance)

Shosagoto refers to dances or dance dramas. Kabuki developed from a style of dance, in some cases plays are created purely as dance performances. In others, the dance portions of plays are produced separately and performed as independent programs. Only the dancing of female characters was presented in the early days. From the late 18th century, however, the dances of male characters were also performed. This led to a programs in which a single actor danced several different characters. Those programs are known as henge-buyo (transformation dances).

Categories by Origin


Kabuki plays in this category were adapted from Ningyo-joruri (Japanese puppet theatre). They are also known as maruhon-mono. Stories in this style are moved along by narration known as takemoto (gidayu-bushi), and characterized by a great deal of musical and stylized acting and stage direction.


Jun-kabuki refers to works written as Kabuki productions, as opposed to those developed from other performing arts. Most of the procudtions from the Bunka and Bunsei Period (during the first half of the 19th century) written by playwrights such as the Tsuruya Namboku IV and Kawatake Mokuami belong to this category.


Shin-kabuki refers to plays written from the middle of the Meiji Period (early 20th century) onward by playwrights with no direct ties to Kabuki until that time. Works with strong literary touches and influenced by Western theatre and novels were performed with modern acting and production techniques. Kabuki plays written after World War II, meanwhile, were placed in a category separate from shin-kabuki.