-1The Resilience Of Tradition When examining theatre and the various forms it has been subject to over the course of human history, it would be difficult not to mention the work and art of the Japanese theatre. Japan’s stylized kabuki form is a timeless practice in the theatre that began in the early 17th century and continue still today. This ability to preserve a form of theatre for hundreds of years, definitely highlights Japan as a unique locale for theatre. Although, when looking at all the elements that surround and make up kabuki theatre, it is rather easy to understand why the form sill exists and is appreciated today.
And through investigating the history of kabuki theatre, we can discover why it is as relevant today as 400 years ago. The specifics around the origins of kabuki theatre are a little muddled, but there is enough information to know that it arose indirectly from a female performer. Around 1603 Okuni began to give public performances in Kyoto. The performances consisted of short plays punctuated with dance. 1 When kabuki theatre was developing amidst the Edo Era, discrepancies between the upper class and the lower class were more strictly observed than at any other point in Japanese history.
At that point though it was more so the merchants who developed the kabuki theatre. Although they were gaining power economically, they still retained their lower social status. They essentially used kabuki as an artistic median to articulate their thoughts and feelings under the existing conditions. Therefore, one of the underlying themes of the kabuki works is about the struggle between humanity and the feudal system. It can mainly be attributed to this humanist trait of the style and work, as to why it gained a most favorable response from the majority of people back then and why it remains an appreciated form today.
Its worth mentioning that before the kabuki form was adopted into a full-fledged theatrical style, it actually began to take shape as a somewhat sexual show since it featured only women. It wasn’t until 1629, when the Shogunate had decided there were tones of prostitution in the work that women were banned from performing in the theatre. 2 In fact something that became a trademark of kabuki theatre would arise from this. Onnagata. Onnagata were male actors who played all the female roles. Since the society already accepted kabuki, male actors easily took charge as performers of these works .
On the other hand, the ban on female actresses stayed in effect for the next 250 years. From that point on kabuki brought to perfection the onnagata and what’s more, the art of the onnagata had become such an important part of the kabuki that if they were to suddenly lose it, the form would be missing its unique characteristics. Another element that makes kabuki theatre so accessible is how it borrowed a lot from other forms that were currently being explored in Japan. When it started at the beginning of the 17th century, the kabuki form combined parts from all the preceding theatre styles in Japan.
Amongst some of the arts which kabuki had drawn from, were the noh drama and the kyogen play. The kyogen plays are the comic interludes presented between the noh performances. A third performance style from which the kabuki had borrowed certain aspects was the bunraku. Bunraku were essentially puppet plays. The progression of bunraku roughly mirrored the development of earlier kabuki. With kabuki work, the central focus had always been found on the actor as opposed to any other element of the work, like the thematic elements of the writing or the writing itself.
It was due to this lack of literary appreciation that some of the better writers of the 17th century left kabuki and instead turned to bunraku, where the mastery of their writing flourished and could be much more easily witnessed. In turn there was a length of time when the puppet theatre became more popular than the kabuki theatre. To deal with this decline of interest in kabuki work, the kabuki artists simply adopted almost all of the puppet plays. Hence, when looking at kabuki work today, its important to take note that over half of their plays come from a bunraku background. To further understand kabuki work it is necessary to examine the collection of kabuki plays that have been amassed over the last few centuries. Approximately 300 plays exist in the conventional kabuki stock. There is a series of plays in the collection dubbed shosa-goto (dance-drama), which is essentially and practically entirely dance. In this dance-drama, the actors will dance to a full accompaniment of music, which would be vocal and instrumental. A lot of plays tell an entire story, while others are barely more than incomplete dance pieces.
Of course, many of them have some origin or basis in the noh drama and/or the kyogen plays. The rest of kabuki plays can be divided into two separate classifications, based on dramatic persona and theme. Historical dramas and domestic dramas. The historical dramas, also known as jidai mono’s, show facts of history or exaggerated tales of warriors and nobles. Most of them are intense tragedies with brief comic relief. Some texts are inspired by the puppet plays and require the hero to make tremendous sacrifices. In fact, looking at the play Chushingura, which tells the well-known story of the forty-seven knights.
They took revenge on those that forced their master to kill himself and in turn they committed suicide. A classic tale of tremendous sacrifice. Then there are domestic dramas (sewa mono). These works typically portray the lives of the lower class, as the focus is really placed upon the commoner. A domestic drama typically strives to be a realistic story. Yet, it isn’t uncommon that a play like this would have element that become unrealistic, with the stress placed on those elements. 4 When it comes to the origin of kabuki plays, they fall into three categories. The first one being plays adapted from noh and kyogen works.
Many comedic dance plays were actually adapted from the kyogen. On the other hand more serious dance plays were inspired by some noh works. The actually scene design for a lot of these plays were taken directly from the noh stage. The second category for the origin of kabuki plays would be plays that were adapted from the bunraku theatre. When adapting these works, they actually kept a majority of the original text intact. In terms of performance, the singer and their accompanist would sit at the right of the stage on a raised platform, to be plainly visible to the whole audience.
Although similar to the actual puppet theatre performance, the way the lines are divided and performed is what separates a kabuki performance of a bunraku play. Again, Chushingura is a good example of this type of adapted work. The final category is simply the plays that were intended for kabuki work. Works like these were made exclusively for the kabuki theatre, such as Kagotsurube. The kabuki theatres housed in Japan today were built in a Western style, in terms of the staging facilities.
They do keep some of the more important features of the traditional kabuki theatre, like the hanamichi and the revolving stage. Hanimichi (flower-walk ramp) is this raised gangway that connects the stage to the back of the theatre. It was obviously used for entrances and exits, and also to get to the two wings of the stage. At the same time it wasn’t merely a passageway, but served as an extension of the stage. It was during these entrances and exits that on the ramp that the actors might give some of the more significant speeches in the work.
Then there was the revolving stage. A simple yet effective device for the theatre, as it did scene changes rapidly alternating the scene without really stopping the flow of the work on stage. Something else worth noting, is that the proscenium of the stage is lower and quite a bit wider than that of Western theatre. The stage looks more like a rectangle than a square, as it was as wide as the whole auditorium. 5 Perhaps the most distinctive thing about kabuki work is that it put the central emphasis and focus on the actor.
Therefore it only made sense that writers that worked with the kabuki theatres contributed to the majority of kabuki plays. These writers knew the actors and their abilities and even their preference in terms of performance, so they went through an inordinate amount of trouble to write plays that tailored to their work. Despite the actors’ interesting nature, it is almost entirely due to the actors’ success with kabuki work that it achieved such acclaim. “The Kabuki, like the Chinese theatre, lays great stress upon the virtuosity of the actor. He supplies the motive for the whole drama.
He must play to an audience which knows the rules of the game and which is primarily interested in a the way he recreates a stage character in a traditionally accepted mould. ” 6 Since kabuki is so steeped in a particular form of presentation, each actor must go through some sort of fundamental training program. Typically this means that an aspiring kabuki actor would start training at a very early age. They were required to be very well versed in various aspects of Japanese culture and since kabuki is in many ways a musical form, dancing and musical training were of the utmost importance in their preparation.