Kabuki Theatre

Famous actor Arashi Kitsusaburo I, 1819. Print by Shoraku.
Image courtesy of Kabuki21.

Kabuki is a traditional Japanese form of theatre which mixes song, acting and dancing. In Japanese, the word "kabuki" is written today with three characters that mean "song," "dance," and either "artist," "art," or "skill." The word comes from the Japanese "kabuku," meaning "to incline," "tilt" or "lean to the side." The "tilting" is both literal and symbolic: in its origins, the subject matter of kabuki was often racy and "leaned" away from the normal, proper standards of society.

Kabuki is highly dependent on form and tradition. The result is an extraordinarily stylized, symbolic and precise form of theatre in which performance and execution are valued over originality. There is some room for diversity and interpretation, but nowhere close to that which one sees in Western drama. Every movement, sound, costume piece, line of makeup, and position on stage is full of meaning; telegraphing social status, moral fiber, power relations, and motivation.

Kabuki is mostly concerned with the demands of duty - in Japanese culture, especially during kabuki's heyday, duty was seen as the utmost driving force - but also with struggles for power and the pursuit of both love and money.

Two main categories of kabuki theatre grew out of these pursuits. First, the jidaimono, or history plays: these were characterized by its plots, dealing with feuds, battles, loyalties and betrayals, as well as its large, melodramatic style of acting called aragoto, or "rough business," with kumadori makeup style, which uses white makeup with heavy lines. (You can read about makeup techniques on our Elements of Production page.) Second, the sewamono, or domestic plays, dealt with love affairs; sewamono plays feature a more natural style of acting called wagoto, or "soft style," and also featured more naturalistic makeup. Domestic plays often include scenes of great pain: separation of families, suicides, murders of innocent children, and the like.