The suspension of disbelief required by kabuki is massive, making the possibility of a play failing to express its intended meanings always imminent. Rather than show you reality, kabuki tries to convey its most important messages in abstract and stylized portrayals of emotions, events and people — making it, as Tokyo’s National Theater of Japan describes it, a “presentational” art rather than a “representational” one. Misunderstand the meaning of kabuki’s actors and you are metaphorically left at sea.

This is most obvious in the genre’s more historical or mythical stories. There the art form’s regard for its own traditions (theater can take itself seriously, but kabuki is in a class of its own) can become so exaggerated that the merest suggestion of emotions, actions or relationships is expected to be enough to explain all. Luckily, with later plays from the Edo Period (1603-1867), this seems less important, as works from this time are more likely to be told in easily digestible sizes and to be about characters and situations that are simpler for modern audiences to relate to. Often, the plays feel like contemporary soap operas or sitcoms — combining the light touch of humor with the heavy tragedy of human misunderstandings, and imparting a ready moral.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.