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Elements of Production

 "Shibai Ukie" ("A Scene from a Play"), Okumura Masanobu, early 1740s.

The construction of the early kabuki stage was modeled on that of the noh theatre. The main acting area, called the hon butai, was located slightly off center to the right of the audience, and was about 8 meters square. It generally had a thatched roof supported by a pillar at each corner. One of the most characteristic features of this stage is the hanamichi, or "flower path," a raised passageway leading from the left side of the stage, through the audience, to the back of the theatre. It's both an entrance way and a performance space unto itself. One of its principal functions is to highlight entrances and exits. When actors arrive or leave, they'll often stop at a point known as the seven-three, or shichi-san, so called because it's 7/10 the length of the hanamichi from the stage to the back of the theatre. (You can see an onnagata at the seven-three in the image above.) The actors will stop at this point to pose, speak or dance. Later on a trap door was added to this spot, with a lifting device, so that characters with supernatural powers could appear or disappear.

It is commonly thought that the revolving stage is a Western invention; however, it actually was born on the kabuki stage. Called the mawari butai, the revolve is sometimes used in kabuki to either change location or simply to change the audience's point of view within the same location. The effect, as Ernst notes, "is much the same as that produced by the fade-out and fade-in of film technique" (150).

Another scenic feature characteristic of kabuki is its unconventional use of curtains. They use a lot of different curtains, but arguably the most important one is a large pale blue curtain called the asagimaku. This is mostly used for an effect called the furiotoshi, or "shake down to reveal." When two wooden clappers are struck, the asagimaku instantly drops to suddenly reveal whatever is behind it. The curtain is then swept away by stage assistants, and the effect is much like a quick cut in a movie. This furiotoshi is used to create a sudden revelation to the audience, as well as a suggestion that a powerful scene is about to take place.

Stage effects
 Actor Kunitaro Sawamura II soars above the audience in this 1825 print by Yoshikuni Jukodo. Image courtesy of Waseda University.

The kabuki theatre is well-known for its use of various stage effects. Samuel L. Leiter's book Frozen Moments (see bibliography) provides an excellent chapter on spectacle in kabuki theatre; he writes that kabuki's "fondness for spectacle was combined with [its] increasing emphasis on the dramatic power of transformation, perhaps stemming from widespread beliefs in supernatural powers operating beyond the realm of the empirical world. The theatre became a Pirandellian mindgame in which nothing could be trusted to be what it appeared" (93). Leiter then goes on to describe a nineteenth-century essay called Okyogen Gakuya Honsetsu, in which the secrets of kabuki special effects were laid bare. Such techniques, Leiter is careful to note, were created in Japan, and were not influenced by similar European techniques, thanks to the lack of trade relations and communications with all but the Dutch. These techniques included "an abundance of startling new effects: legless ghosts were suspended in midair, rose from water, or slid on their bellies through lanterns; bodies continued moving after being cut in half; people metamorphosed into skeletons; giant cats, frogs, and boa constrictors breathed fire; realistic rain fell in torrents; swords pierced characters' necks; sets changed in the twinkling of an eye; living heads rolled around in flaming wheels; buildings collapsed..." (94). (For images and further description, see Leiter's book.)

In the kabuki theatre, a character's makeup is a direct indication of his or her position in society. For commoners, the face is usually done in natural browns, while females, handsome young lovers and upper class characters are done up in white, the idea being that aristocrats don't work in the fields and are therefore not exposed to the sun. Soldiers and crooks are often painted with shades of red.

 Two examples of kumadori.
Images courtesy of Inasa Puppet Festival

Then there is the kumadori, literally "shadow painting," which is associated with aragoto, or the rough style of acting. It deliberately enhances the facial muscles and thus the expressiveness of the face. The kumadori patterns, which come in a wide variety, may extend to arms and legs. Traditionally, red kumadori is associated with virtue and strength, vigor, righteousness, and passion. Blue, on the other hand, is for villains, as it's associated with fear and evil.

Like makeup, kabuki costume is also a strong indicator of a character's societal role. Throughout the long history of kabuki, costumes have become standardized for specific roles, so that the experienced theatregoer can instantly recognize a character once the actor steps onto stage. Costumes, especially for heroic characters, are extremely heavy (sometimes up to sixty pounds!), extraordinarily complicated and highly exaggerated, as can be seen in the image to the right. They consist of multiple parts and are often changed on stage in an instantaneous action known as the hiki-nuki or "pulling off." This is a visual way of expressing a character's sudden emotional or situational change: the various pieces of the costume are put together in such a way that at the appropriate moment, a stage assistant (who is on stage and accepted as a convention of kabuki theatre) can pull on a string and cause the top layers to almost literally melt away. The hiki-nuki is a crowd pleaser and often the highlight of a kabuki performance.
In this onnagata's performance, watch for the hiki-nuki (about sixteen seconds in).

Wigs are also a very important part of an actor's costume: every kabuki performer uses a wig. Wigs are extremely ornate and can weigh up to seven pounds! They are yet another indicator of a character's status, and wig changes are common indicators of those changes, as well. For example, if a kabuki play features a priest whose wig is combed back neatly, he might change into a wig with its hair standing on end when he realizes he has been betrayed.

Sound & Music

In this clip, notice how the music and sound emphasizes the action on stage.

The sonic world of kabuki is unlike anything in Western culture. Some scholars categorize it as a form of opera, except the actors don't really sing, per se. There are drums beating, stringed instruments being plucked, and singers wailing in falsetto. These musical sounds are continuous throughout the performance, and might come from various parts of the stage. At the beginning and end of a performance, the sounds, made mostly by drums and wooden clappers, have a ceremonial function. Wooden clappers are struck together to produce a clear, dry "clack." When the curtain is drawn aside, a stage assistant, who is generally visible off to the side of the stage, strikes the clappers with increasing speed. Once the curtain is fully opened, a final "clack" signals the actors to begin. Other wooden clappers are used to emphasize actions on stage, such as running, fighting, or the mie.

Other special sound effects are made by musicians who are either onstage or concealed from the audience in a small room with a window, called a geza. This group uses a variety of instruments: drums, bells, gongs, flutes, shamisen (which is a three-stringed lute-like instrument) all to create a wide range of moods and sounds.