Exploring the Art of Kabuki - Japan's Theatre Performance



Early 2000s, ‘The Grudge’ and ‘The Ring’ among other horror movies was and is the most bone-chilling experience that sent shivers down people’s spines till this date. These movies are actually happen to take inspiration from the most famous Japanese ghost stories of all time called Yotsuya Kaidan. This is the most famous Kabuki plays, Japanese theare plays, that continues to inspire present day movie ideas.

Yotsuya Kaidan is a story revolving around themes of betrayal, murder and ghostly revenge, involving Oiwa, deceased wife of Tamiya Lemon, who haunts her husband into murdering Oume, the one who causes the horrific death of Oiwa.

The story was first played out in Kabuki which literally spelt the art of song and dance comprising three kanji characters, ka meaning sing, bu meaning dance and ki meaning indicating skill. Let’s take a peek into its roots.

An All-Women Group before an All-Male Group

Although today’s Kabuki actors are males, the art was originally created by a woman, Izumo no Okuni, a Shinto priestess, who organized a local group of misfits and prostitutes, all female, teaching them theater, song, and dance in the early 1600s. In humorous plays that parodied daily life, these ladies played both male and female roles.

It began to shift into a male only play when artists commenced in adultery acts with audiences leading to kabuki becoming popular in the red light districts. In response to the accompanying moral upheaval, women were completely barred from performing in 1629. Young boys initially filled these tasks, but they were also subject to adultery and were prohibited. Finally, adult men started acting, portraying both genders like their forerunners had done. At first, Kabuki was considered avant-garde and an odd, specialized sort of popular entertainment. It took years for it to develop into the well-known, formalized art form that it is today.

An Infotainment Play

The pinnacle of kabuki growth was in the 18th century, with stigma removed, recurrent character types developed, and the performance's structure was standardized. Along with noh and bunraku, it is regarded as one of the three primary classical performing arts of Japan and is listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.


The conflict between morals and human emotions is one of the most important dramatic topics in kabuki. The religious doctrines of Shinto, Buddhism, and Confucianism, emphasizing virtues like respect to one's elders and community, have a significant influence on Japanese moral values both historically and currently. The main tension in most plays is caused by emotions like love and retaliation which frequently collide with obligations to family and other responsibilities, often resulting in tragedy.

A best supporting example of this is the famous play of Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami (Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy) based on the life of Heian era (794-1185) scholar Sugawara no Michizane.

The instructive or thought-provoking aspects of kabuki dramas are occasionally present, but the whole sensory experience of watching the entire visual spectacle come to life is what is emphasized. Facets of lavish costumes and otherworldly transformations take precedence over reality and consistency.

How Tickets are Sold

Full Kabaki shows can last on for four hours or longer. They are categorized into two or three acts that take place throughout the course of the afternoon and evening. Although some theaters sometimes offer them by act, kabuki tickets are often sold by segment. Depending on the seat quality, they normally cost between 3,000 and 25,000 yen for a complete section or about 2,000 yen for a single act.

According to Statista, the Agency for Cultural Affairs in Japan proposed spending 135 billion Japanese yen overall on art and culture-related expenses for the fiscal year 2023, an increase over the previous fiscal year. The survey period's greatest planned budget was this one.

Complex Engineered Theatres

Stages in kabuki theaters are large and wrap around the audience, with side stages fostering closer relationships between the actors and audience. Mostly, the main stage is designed to be rotatable, known as mawaro butal in Japanese . Then, there is a piece of the stage called a ‘suppon’ that may lift from below the stage's surface is also present. The back of a kabuki theater is accessible through pathways that go past the spectator seating. Actors can enhance the portrayal of magic and supernatural figures by using the trapdoors that are frequently used in theaters. There are as many as 17 trap doors in some venues!

Props and Sets

For the players to perform extremely dynamic roles, they may use trap doors, lifts, and curtains. For instance, a performer might vanish from one area of the stage and appear unannouncedly in another. Or a background could rotate to reveal something entirely different on the opposite side. Additionally, supernatural figures could be dangling from wires (chunori). An on-stage performer known as a koken will show up to assist performers as they change into their costumes. The willful suspension of disbelief is made easier to maintain by wearing all black.

Music and Song Setting the Mood of the Play

Utakata, or musical compositions by musicians and singers in Kabuki set the mood of the play. The songs are performed by one or several singers, often accompanies by a shamisen player. Other instruments are used by the performers to create percussion effects and serve as stage cues for awaiting performers. In some performances, the audience may see the musicians and vocalists as they participate in or support the play. Some might be off-stage in others.

Confusion between Dancing or Acting

It can be challenging to tell whether a performer is engaged in a dance or an acting section since the Kabuki acting style is frequently quite stylized. Additionally, music isn't always played to accompany the dances. The actors express themselves on stage by moving in a manner akin to dancing. As a result, dance and dance-like moves are essential to Kabuki performances. The movements of the male and female characters are also taught to differ from one another. Men make more forceful, decisive gestures whereas women make delicate movements. The plays also include comedic acting. These actors have quick, sarcastic movements.

Costumes Exceeding Over Sixty Pounds in Weight!

Using costumes and makeup to produce the proper body shape for the character is one of kabuki's most identifiable features. Performers clad in layers of traditional Japanese attire, frequently vivid and intricate, frequently accented with genuine gold and silver, making them not only exquisite to look at but also incredibly heavy and pricey. The costumes worn by actors who play courtesans or nobility, who are frequently represented wearing elaborate attire and jewels, can weigh more than sixty pounds.

Putting on One’s Own Make-Up to Evoke Character

Kabuki makeup is unique, with actors sporting the traditional white base as well as colorful accents that emphasize a particular mood and indicate the character's placement within the narrative. In this phenomenon, which the Japanese refer to as kumadori, specific hues are used to symbolize various concepts or traits: red stands for youth, indigo for evil, and brown is used to symbolize ghosts and other supernatural things. Usually, actors use their own makeup to become their characters.

Audience Participation

Audience participation is also an element of kabuki performances! The occurrence, referred to as kakegoe, has long been a component of the art form. A guild of spectators will frequently be positioned in the crowd, shouting encouragement for the characters on stage at precisely the correct moments. This helps to energize the actors as well as the rest of the audience, resulting in an all-around fantastic performance!

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