Kabuki, a type of Japanese theater, has had the ability to take you to another world and time since the year 1600. While William Shakespeare was in his prime in England, a new type of theater was beginning in Japan. There are many different stories of its inception, but there seems to be one common theme. The most common tale was of a shrine maiden from the Izumo Shrine, Okuni, who originally performed in dried riverbeds, beginning the tradition. Since then, it has influenced different types of entertainment while remaining beautiful and unique for over 400 years. While Okuni began with just herself dancing, it quickly caught on and gained competitors. This theater was used to discreetly remark on current events, as a type of dance expression or as a way to romanticize the commoners.
The plays began with wood clappers being hit together as the traditional curtain of persimmon, black and green vertical strips, is opened. The actors wear dramatic costumes which are dependent on the type of play. The plays, on average, lasted about five hours, including intermissions. In its beginnings, Kabuki was mostly performed by women as large dance ensembles. However, most of these women were also prostitutes, and to keep the negative association with Kabuki clear and to protect the morale of the public, the government placed a ban on women partaking around 1629. Men took over all of the roles, some even specializing in playing women, called “onnagata.” While this put a damper on the spirit of the theater, it was also a blessing. This new ban placed more emphasis on skill rather than beauty and steered it more towards drama than just dance.
As the main form of entertainment for the largest amount of people, mainly the commoners, Kabuki blossomed. There was a renaissance time for the Japanese towards the end of the 17th century, and Kabuki saw the fruits of that labor. A general basis was formed during this time for Kabuki, and a strong link between it and Bunraku began to take shape. Bunraku is a type of puppet theater, and its growing popularity of the time was beginning to take the spotlight from Kabuki. The Kabuki theater performers quickly fixed this by taking plays used in Bunraku and adapting them for the stage. The actors even took on puppet-like mannerisms to make it seem like they were life-sized puppets. Even in the present day, Bunraku influences Kabuki, as around half of the plays today are based on the puppet plays.
Towards the end of the 18th century, Kabuki turned more towards realism. The cultural center and the basis of Kabuki up until this point had been Kyoto and Osaka focusing on the women and their soft nature. Now, however, the audience wanted to see the focus on Edo and the strong sense of pride that belonged to its women. Kabuki performances also became darker towards the early 19th century, as its spectators wanted lewdness and more vulgarity. For example, murder scenes were often embellished. Kabuki needed to evolve in order to keep up with the expanding world of theater. In 1868, the restrictions that the government had initially placed upon the art had been lifted. This however still left the question of how to compete with such a limited audience. Many of the actors realized that they had to expand their audience base in order to keep Kabuki alive, and managed to have a performance in front of Emperor Meiji in 1887. After this performance, Kabuki was more open for those of higher classes to enjoy. It was no longer seen as a commoner art and expanded its audience base.
However, Kabuki’s troubles were not ended at the performance for Emperor Meiji. Many of its actors were lost during World War II and censorship ran rampant during the times of occupation. There is also the present day threat bringing the competition of television and movies. While still widely known and seen, Kabuki is known as “traditional” thereby separating itself from many potential audiences who simply do not know enough about the art. Despite the odds and the competition, Kabuki still survives today; well-known actors still bring in a variety of audience members. The National Theater in Tokyo trains young aspiring actors for this type of play as well and this may lead to another adaptation onto Kabuki, as present-day actors are working on attracting modern audiences with more updated stage techniques. Kabuki has been seen as an inspiration through the ages, and will continue to remain an art.