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A Brief History of Kabuki

 Ichikawa Danjuro IX as Kamakawa Gangoro Kagemasa in Shibaraku, 1895.
Image courtesy of Okamoto Kido Projects.

Kabuki theatre originated as an entertainment for the common people. Before the early years of Japan's Tokugawa era (1600-1868), the theatre had been a form of entertainment primarily for Japanese aristocrats, who enjoyed a stately, serene form of performance called noh. This changed once Tokugawa Ieyasu took control as Japan's shogun and unified the country. The peace that followed spurred political, social and economic change. The economy boomed, and for the first time, lower classes had money to spend on entertainment. 

In the period of relative peace and prosperity that characterized the beginning of the Tokugawa era, commoners were more easily able to enjoy the pleasures of life. In the summer, when the Kamo River in Kyoto shrank to a small stream, the dry riverbed near the Gojo Bridge became a place were so-called kawara-kojiki (or river bank beggars) arranged all kinds of entertainment. One such entertainer, as the legend goes, was a Shinto priestess named Okuni, who began to dance for passersby. Okuni's dances are heralded as the birth of kabuki, and although her performances may have had a religious origin, she had many imitators, and soon, these entertainments developed into more risque performance by prostitutes. More or less, they were a front for prostitutes to display their singing and dancing talents, but also to advertise their bodies and sexual services. At this point, kabuki was only performed by women, and it became so popular that between 1615 and 1623, numerous officially licensed theatres opened.

 Okuni in costume as a samurai

On several occasions, government officials attended the prostitutes' performances, which proved to be embarrassing for the morally rigid Tokugawa government. Fights would frequently break out over who would get to take the more popular performers home at the end of the evening. To avoid further embarrassment, the government issued an edict in 1629 barring women from all stages.

As a result, adolescent boys, who had been performing before women were banned, incorporated the women's dances into their performances. Yet these performers prostituted themselves, as well, and the government was thus forced to outlaw all kabuki performance in 1652. Only with much pleading from theatre operators were they allowed to reopen; however, all of the roles (including the female roles) were now performed by adult men. This is custom continues to this day in Japan (although the UT production uses both male and female actors). 

Governmental attempts to control kabuki did not end with the excising of women and young men from the stage. Earle Ernst traces the Confucian, conservative bakufu (or shogunate, words used to describe the form of Tokugawa military government) attempts to control the kabuki scene: since kabuki was a commercial theatre for the lower classes, they constantly had to adapt: "this requisite pattern for survival also made the kabuki a theatre lacking precise dramatic form, embodying various styles of acting, irregular, racy, violent, and, at times, sensational and cheap" (2). As Donald H. Shively writes, because actors were seen as corruptors of society, they were restricted to the theatre quarters of the city and were not allowed to fraternize with those of other professions (43). The government also attempted to control, among other things, the types of fabrics used for costumes, the realism of the sword blades, the building of the theatres, and the subversiveness of its subject matter (47-49), with varying degrees of success. Shively notes, however, the bakufu's meddling was a prime factor in the development of the form: "the bakufu must be given credit for accelerating or even causing the turn from vaudeville and burlesque toward dramatic art, from one-act dance pieces at best toward dramatically structured plays of five acts or more. The banning of women also quickened the development of makeup, costuming, and staging" (54).

By the end of the seventeenth century, as Ernst notes, Confucian ideals had overtaken not only the aristocratic classes, but the commoners (that is, those who went to kabuki) as well. Kabuki thus moved away from its origins as a racy, taboo, unsteady form of dance, and towards a formalist style of drama with a more rigid framework. Stories highlighted piety and loyalty, as well as other tenets of the Confucian philosophy.

Since the Tokugawa government had practiced a policy of sakoku, or isolation, for two hundred and fifty years, kabuki, along with other forms of Japanese art, developed with little to no international influence. This changed with the landing of Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 and the beginning of the Meiji era in 1868, in which Japan was opened to the rest of the world. Japan was quickly changing, and kabuki needed to adapt. Actor Ichikawa Danjuro IX stepped in to bridge the gap: as Zoe Kincaid wrote, "He may be regarded as the saviour of Kabuki during a period when it might have suffered shipwreck, had there not been a man of genius at the helm to guide the craft through the troubled waters." Scott notes that "he brought a new spirit to the Kabuki and did a great deal to change the social position of the actor and place the Kabuki theatre on a higher plane of respect" (40-41), while Leiter writes that Danjuro "was famous for adding psychological insight to his interpretations and injecting throbbing life into the external form" (Frozen 159).

James Brandon notes in Kabuki's Forgotten War that kabuki almost died out amidst the devastation in Japan during World War II. Yet it revived and flourished during the American occupation, when kabuki plays continued to be staged in the face of American censorship. Today, kabuki is known worldwide, thanks to tours by famous kabuki troupes to the United States and elsewhere. While the nation of Japan continues its technological evolution, its arguably most famous and most cherished cultural treasure remains, continuing to pack houses with both Japanese residents and curious tourists eager for a taste of traditional Japanese culture.