[From April Issue 2013]
The newly renovated Kabukiza theatre will be reopening this April. The traditional art of kabuki has a 400 year old history. Integrating drama, dance and music, it’s possible to see the Japanese sense of beauty up on a kabuki stage expressed through things like the four seasons and gorgeous costumes. The word “kabuki” comes from “kabuku,” which means “extraordinary.”
Kabuki is unique in that roles are performed by men only. Actors playing female roles are called “onnagata,” and one of the attractions of kabuki is that they appear to be more feminine that women themselves. Kabuki plays can be roughly divided into two categories. The first is “period drama” that portrays the world of the samurai or battles. The second is “human empathy drama” that portrays the trials and tribulations of the citizens of the Edo period.
The stage itself is another attraction of kabuki. A walkway called hanamichi leads up to the stage through the audience. Actors make their entrances and exits on this. Sometimes actors will stop and perform here allowing the audience to get a look up close. Besides this other devices include a revolving stage allowing for quick scene changes and trapdoors that allow actors to make an entrance in the middle of the stage.
Some scenes in kabuki get both actors and audiences really fired up. When an actor appears on the stage or his performance reaches its climax, the audience yells out “Yamashiroya!” or “Otowaya!” These are yagou, or stage names. This custom arose because in the old days actors were not allowed to have surnames. Instead they used stage names.
Kabuki performances are generally held twice a day: once during the day and once at night. Each play lasts about three to four hours and there are intermissions between dramatic and musical scenes. Kabukiza theaters sell tickets for one act only. Headsets that provide an explanation of the play can be rented. English versions are also available for a fee.
Traditional Kabuki and the “New Movement”
The majority of kabuki actor’s names have been passed down from generation to generation. Actors acquire different stage names as they progress up the ranks, until they acquire the most elevated title of their clan. In the kabuki world, not only stage names, but also an acting style and the plays that one specializes in are inherited; it’s normal for children of actors to inherit all of this.
Last December, the 18th generation NAKAMURA Kanzaburo, who was a popular kabuki actor, and this February ICHIKAWA Danjuro, who was known for his stupendous performances, passed away. It was a great loss for those in kabuki circles.
In 1986 “super kabuki,” a form of theatre that adopted a contemporary theatrical style appeared in the traditional kabuki world. The 3rd ICHIKAWA Ennosuke (currently called Enoh) incorporated other kinds of theatrical styles such as western opera or Beijing opera into his acting style. It had a big impact on the theatrical community both in Japan and abroad. Since then performances have been held at theatres including Shimbashi Enbujo Theatre, Tokyo.