The media frenzy over kabuki star Ichikawa Ebizo’s drunken midnight brawl in Tokyo last month may be a testament to how, 400 years after its birth, the genre remains a highly popular form of entertainment integral to Japanese culture.

Despite Japan’s radical transition from an isolated, feudal nation to a developed industrial democracy, kabuki has managed to successfully cultivate new fans and become the most popular form of traditional dance and drama.

Below are questions and answers regarding kabuki.

What are the origins of the term?

Kabuki is derived from the term “kabuku,” meaning “to slant” or “to sway,” that was used in the late 16th and early 17th centuries to describe “kabuki-mono,” or people who were out of the ordinary and preferred to dress in extravagant attire.

While the kanji for kabuki were slightly altered several times in its early years, it eventually settled on the present three characters that, when defined individually, represent singing, dancing and skill.

What is the history of kabuki?

The origins of kabuki can be traced back to 1603, when Izumono Okuni, supposedly a “miko,” or female shaman, of Izumo Taisha, a Shinto shrine in what is now Shimane Prefecture that is reputed to be the oldest in Japan, began an original dance performance in Kyoto that soon became hugely popular and spawned many imitators.

But the “okuni”-style female kabuki troupes and “wakashu” kabuki, another style popular at the time that featured young boys, were both banned in the mid-17th century by the Tokugawa shogunate for their eroticism and the fact that many of the actors also served as prostitutes.

The bans led to the formation of “yaro” kabuki, all-male troupes in which actors also played female roles and which became the basis for modern-day kabuki, according to the book “Omoshiroi Hodo Yoku Wakaru Kabuki” (“An Easy Guide to Kabuki”) by Sho Munakata.

The Genroku Period (1688-1704) in the mid-Edo Period is considered kabuki’s golden age, when its structure and various styles were determined and when kabuki, which initially had a stronger base in Kamigata, or what is now roughly the Kinki region, also became popular in the capital, Edo.

Kabuki continued to flourish through the Edo Period and the Meiji Era, spawning countless original acts and “families” of actors that continue to perform to this day.

What are some prominent kabuki plays?

Kabuki plays can broadly be divided into two main categories, the “jidai-mono” (historical stories) and the “sewa-mono” (domestic stories).

Since the shogunate censored the representation of contemporary events or any criticism of its rule, the jidai-mono plays were often based on historical events from the 12th to 14th centuries, sometimes using them to depict contemporary events.

Popular themes included the Gempei War of the late 12th century and the Nanboku-cho Wars of the 14th century. Famous jidai-mono plays include “Yoshitsune Senbonzakura” (“Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees”), which premiered in 1748 and depicts Genji warlord Minamoto no Yoshitsune’s journey across Japan in pursuit of three warlords of the rival Heike clan.

Sewa-mono plays meanwhile depict the lifestyles of common townspeople and peasants and include stories of romance, love-suicides such as the popular “Sonezaki Shinju” written by the great Chikamatsu Monzaemon, and even ghost stories, including the famous “Tokaido Yotsuyakaidan” by master playwright Tsuruya Namboku.

According to a survey taken by the Yomiuri Shimbun in 2008, the three most popular kabuki plays are “Kanjincho” (“The Subscription List”), another story based on the Gempei Wars and that features the well-known characters Yoshitsune and Benkei, “Yoshitsune Senbonzakura,” and “Kyoganoko Musume Dojoji,” a kabuki dance piece based on the noh play of the same title.

Noh, a classical form of drama, predates kabuki and has been performed since the 14th century. Like kabuki, a typical noh performance lasts a whole day but is interspersed with short farcical sketches called “kyogen.”

Who are some famous kabuki actors?

Throughout the centuries, kabuki has given rise to various household names that actors have passed on from generation to generation.

For example, Ichikawa Danjuro, the father of Ebizo who took over the stage name in 1985, is the 12th in line to assume the prestigious name that dates back to Ichikawa Danjuro I.

According to the book “Heisei no Kabuki” (“Kabuki in the Heisei Era”) by Akira Nohara, Danjuro was one of the earliest kabuki actors to pioneer the valiant “aragoto” style of acting that has since been closely associated with his name and Edo-style kabuki, in contrast to the elegant “waji”-style performances that were popular in the Kinki region.

Other famous contemporary names include Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII, Onoe Kikugoro VII and Matsumoto Koshiro IX, all well-known kabuki actors who also perform in contemporary drama, cinema, and other stage performances.

How has kabuki flourished in modern times?

Shochiku Co., founded by brothers Matsujiro Shirai and Takejiro Otani in 1895, has been solely responsible for managing and promoting kabuki performances over the past century.

While Shochiku is also known as a movie production company that has made films by well-known directors, including Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, it has continued to place its main emphasis on kabuki, directly managing venues like the Kabukiza in Chuo Ward, Tokyo, which is currently undergoing reconstruction and is set to reopen in 2013. Shochiku’s other kabuki theaters include the Shinbashi Enbujo in Tokyo, the Minami-za in Kyoto and Osaka’s Shochiku-za.

Taisuke Agata, head of public relations at Shochiku, said no written contracts exist between the company and kabuki actors, but said it has become an unspoken rule that Shochiku is the company responsible for staging kabuki performances.

“It’s a very peculiar world — we don’t exchange any written contracts with our actors, but it’s been naturally considered our job when it came to managing kabuki performances,” he said.

Agata said that while the popularity of kabuki waned during and after the war, when the Kabukiza was destroyed by U.S. bombing raids, it gradually regained its prominence in the following years.

The late Emperor Hirohito and Empress, posthumously named Showa, visited the newly built Kabukiza in 1953, and the first kabuki performances in the United States were held for 54 days in 1960, expanding kabuki’s presence overseas.

Agata said that the introduction of earphone guides in 1975 was also a landmark event, proving immensely popular with viewers unaccustomed to kabuki’s unique style, plots and world view. The English version was introduced in 1982.

The Kabukiza began hosting year-round performances from 1991 thanks to kabuki’s increasing popularity, and Agata said he believes kabuki’s popularity has hit an all-time high in recent years with an estimated fan base of 3 million.

Shochiku also premiered its “cinema kabuki” films in 2005, which allow customers to view performances in movie theaters, and in May opened its official English-language kabuki website, where visitors can learn about kabuki and book tickets online.

Agata recommended that beginners start by simply going to experience a performance, stressing that even without prior knowledge, kabuki can be enjoyed for its vibrant performances and music, dramatic plots, and colorful costumes and stage sets.

“I recommend people to relax and casually enjoy a kabuki performance — it’s not highbrow, just pure entertainment,” he said.

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