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Kabuki Acting: Traditions & Techniques

Generations of Kabuki actors

Twelve members of the famous Ichikawa Danjuro acting family. (Click the thumbnail for a full-size image.)
Many spectators came and still come to the kabuki theatre in order to see their favorite actors. The script is generally seen simply as a vehicle for the actor to showcase his talents. Acting in the kabuki theatre was largely a family tradition and subsequent generations were virtually raised in the theatre. Fathers trained their sons, and if they had no biological sons, they would often adopt a son into the family. Some families have an acting tradition that covers many centuries. For example, one of the earliest kabuki actors took the name Ichikawa Danjuro, and over three centuries later, Ichikawa Danjuro the Twelfth is still acting in the same manner as his forefathers.

Famous onnagata Chimera Manjuro.
Image courtesy of Department of Defense Educational Activity.

is the term used to describe a male actor who plays a female role: in traditional kabuki, all of the roles are played by men. Becoming an onnagata involves a long training period and was often a way of life that continued outside of the theatre. Onnagata, of course, often couldn't rely on their physical beauty, although many of them had androgynous features. But by emphasizing and stylizing feminine movements and gestures, they are able to create a larger-than-life femininity. Onnagata speak in falsetto and they stand with the knees and back slightly bent so as to look smaller. Fingers are kept together and movements are elegant and tightly controlled. They take tiny steps with their knees pressed together and their toes pointed inward. Often the onnagata were so good at their roles that male audience members fell in love with them, and this could lead to some major quarrels. This was no small feat when we remember that many onnagata had been playing the role for many years, so it wasn't uncommon to have an onnagata in his sixties convincing the audience that he was a beautiful young maiden.

Wagoto is a term used to describe male characters played with a feminine acting style such as romantic leads. The acting style is close to that of the onnagata roles. The wagoto characters have a more narrow stance than the aragoto characters and their movement is more fluid in comparison. This acting style was popular in Osaka and Kyoto.

Aragoto translates as "rough stuff or business" and refers to the super heroes and villains in kabuki plays, such as the character Narukami. Actors playing the aragoto role wear heavily padded costumes and brightly colored face makeup. Examples of this can be found on the Elements of Production page. Aragoto characters are performed with a broad and bombastic style which was popularized in Tokyo.

An Actor's Techniques

One major difference between kabuki and much of Western theatre is that kabuki actors make less of an attempt to hide the "performance" aspect of the work. They're fully aware that they're performing, and the audience isn't there to get "lost in the moment." Everything--actors, costumes, dialogue--is larger than life. Realism is far less emphasized, the form generally favoring what is often referred to as "formalized beauty."

One example of this is the highlight of an aragato kabuki performance: the famous mie. The mie is a dramatic pose adopted by the main (oftentimes male) character during moments of emotional intensity. (The proper phrase for this action is mie o kiru, or to "cut a mie.") Announced by the beating of wooden clappers, the actor freezes in a statuesque pose and crosses one or both eyes. Often it's preceded by a head roll. The idea is to capture the highest moments of tension into one physical gesture and to more or less hold the actor and the audience in a breathless trance. After a few seconds, the actor relaxes and the play continues. A mie can be cut in various specified positions, depending on the character and the moment. When exiting, an aragoto character may perform a roppo exit, which combines several of these poses in rapid succession, before leaving the stage. 

In this clip, watch the actor prepare for and cut a mie at approximately 1:37-1:55. Also note the stage assistant (in black) who aids in the hiki-nuki and making sure the costume is just as elegantly posed as the actor!

A performance by the Chikamatsu-za troupe. Note the rhythmic dance style of the actor and the accompanying music.

Kabuki acting styles are evocative of the history of kabuki as a dance. Dancing is an essential part of kabuki, but in contrast to the noh dances, which are very deliberate and stately, most kabuki dances are closer to lively folk dances, featuring rapid energetic vertical movements and jumps. Often, Western dancers try to escape gravity, but kabuki dancers focus on the earth and use a great deal of stamping and stomping to emphasize rhythmic movement; it could be thought of as a heavier form of tap. Dance is generally an integral part of the play: for example, michiyuki, or travel dances, show tragic lovers journeying to their destiny, where they'll carry out their suicide pact.