Fall foliage at Kitain Temple in Kawagoe.
Kumadori makeup in kabuki.

A 400-year old tradition, kabuki is a Japanese performing art that is gaining worldwide attention.
Like the three kanji characters that make up the word, kabuki consists of ka (singing), bu (dancing) and ki (skill).

In addition to these three components, kabuki is characterized by unique stage sets such as a revolving platform that allows for nearly instant set changes and a runway that stretches into the audience.

Many other features such as live music using traditional instruments, stage art, lighting effects, props and costumes together create the spectacular integrated art.

Kabuki actors choreograph and direct themselves. Even though there is no singular director in kabuki, performances produce a sense of unity requiring all actors, music and lighting effects to work in harmony.

In this sense, life as a kabuki actor is a reflection of the holistic nature of the art and a practice that demands and cultivates personal discipline.

There are about 30 kabuki families comprising around 300 actors. The road to becoming a professional kabuki actor requires being born or adopted into one of these families.

Kabuki’s global appeal

Although present-day kabuki is known for its all-male casts, it was actually a woman who created it in the early 17th century.

Little is known about Izumo no Okuni, who some believe was a shrine maiden, but her unique, hypnotizing style of dance ultimately catapulted her into legend and launched the art that endures to this day.

Women initially played both female and male roles, but young boys later began learning and performing. Eventually, male actors took over and developed the art into the current form where men portray all roles regardless of gender or age.

Kabuki was registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2008. With overseas performances and increasing numbers of tourists visiting Japan, the progression of kabuki’s international recognition continues to reflect the tradition of being performed by and for everyday people. From the very beginning, kabuki was never exclusive to elite society. On the contrary, it was a symbol of the average citizen’s growing wealth during the Edo Period (1603–1868).

River boating and autumn leaves along the Nagatoro Valley on the Arakawa River.
Onnagata female roles, which represent otherworldly ideals and femininity, are played by male actors.

Actors in different roles

Regarding types of roles, onnagata are those who specialize in playing female characters. Rather than attempting to imitate real women, these characters are intended to represent an otherworldly ideal and incorporate details and actions representative of femininity.

The sharp insight of onnagata actors in portraying femininity, be it in movement or at rest, is often striking. Even the elegant fluttering of the kimono when one walks is not coincidental and requires practice.

Depending on the type of drama, actors must also play women of different archetypes and ages. This means making the slightest adjustments to things such as the speed of their movements and where to place their hands; these can transform an actor from a young princess to a middle-aged wife.

The role of kurogo (stagehand) is significant in making dramatic scene changes possible. As the name suggests, kuro (black) and go (clothes) — under an unspoken rule — dress entirely in black hoods and costume, moving on stage, facilitating swift set changes and helping actors switch costumes. Not only are they quick in movement, they work in perfect harmony with sounds and lighting, as well as the actors’ movements.

Kurogo are often disciples of experienced actors, as it is the most practical way to learn the skills of the seasoned performers.

Stories depicted in kabuki

As many as several hundred kabuki scripts remain intact today, although many more have been lost over the centuries. Most of the surviving texts fall into one of the three genres — jidaimono (historical stories), sewamono (realistic stories) and shosamono (dance pieces).

In jidaimono, actors use makeup to express particular roles and facial expressions. Bright colors and patterns in kumadori makeup differ depending on an actor’s role; for instance, red is used for heroic roles, while black and blue are used to portray villains or ghosts.

There is a wide variety of kabuki performances throughout the year. At the Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo, one can enjoy ‘‘single act seats,’’ to see just one act of a performance.

Regardless of the genre, kabuki is a fascinating art and a must-see for visitors and locals alike.

For more information, access https://www.kabukiweb.net/ .

The Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo’s Ginza district.