Kabuki: All there is to know about the traditional Japanese dance-drama

Kabuki is a traditional Japanese popular drama with singing and dancing that is performed in a highly stylized manner. This Japanese art is a rich blend of music, dance, mime and spectacular staging and costuming. Kabuki has been a major theatrical form in Japan for almost four centuries, dating right back to the early 17th century. The term Kabuki originally suggested the unorthodox and shocking character of this art form. In modern Japanese, the word is written in three characters, with each syllable translating to ‘song’, ‘dance’ and ‘skill’. Let’s delve into the rich past of this traditional Japanese art form and what makes it so unique.

A step back in time

Kabuki originates back to the early 1600s when a woman named Izumo no Okuni began performing a special new style of dance that she had created. This Japanese play caught on almost instantly. Japanese women began learning Kabuki dances and performing them for audiences, these dances had a very suggestive nature and in 1629 the government banned women from performing them. From this period, men took over the dance. These new male dancers were typically young and were referred to as ‘wakashu’. Once more, in 1652, the government banned young males from dancing as it became common for brawls to break out at performances.

Kabuki made its return during the ‘Golden Age’ which lasted from 1673 to 1841. The dances began to have a more formal structure and lasted all day from sunrise to sunset. Despite Kabuki theatres growing in popularity, just as Kabuki reached its peak, many of the theatres were destroyed during World War II, with forces banning the play. This ban lasted until 1947, however, after the war, Japan tried to rebuild and reestablish itself with the people of Japan rejecting some traditional ways, and so the art of Kabuki was almost abandoned. Just as Kabuki faded out of society, a director began to produce plays that revitalised Kabuki, bringing it into modern popularity.

A token from the audience

Kabuki plays are traditionally interactive with constant interplay taking place between actors and spectators of the theatre. Actors frequently interrupted the play to address the crowd and who responded with praise for the actors and plenty of applause. Many audience members would also call out the names of their favourite actors of the plays during the course of the performance. These performances often incorporated traditional Japanese themes and customs that reflected the four seasons, they also selected material based on both modern and historical events.

As Kabuki plays ran from sunrise to sunset, many spectators often attended for only a single play or scene, meaning the theatres were a constant hustle and bustle of audience members coming and going. At mealtimes, food and refreshments would be served to the viewers, usually from surrounding teahouses. The areas around the Kabuki theatres were filled with shops selling souvenirs with this art form becoming a true piece of Japanese entertainment.

Anatomy of the art form

When it comes to Kabuki stage sets, showmanship doesn’t fall short. Dynamic stage sets such as revolving platforms and trapdoors allowed for the all-important scene and set changes as well as the appearance and disappearance of actors throughout the plot. Many Kabuki stages have a footbridge, referred to as ‘hanamich’, that leads through to the audience, allowing for a dramatic entrance or exit.

The stage’s ambience will often be complemented by live music, performed using traditional instruments. Music was used to set the mood of the play and was also used to emphasize important points in each play. Music was also used to direct the actors who were trained to take their cues based on the music rather than stage directions.

Most Kabuki theatre plots were typically focused on important events in Japanese history, other plots also consisted of warm-hearted dramas, moral conflicts, love stories and tales of tragedy. Strict censorship was put in place to make sure the plays did not become critical of the government. To enhance the enjoyment of the traditional Kabuki, it is common to read a little about the story before attending.

Kabuki theatres relied heavily on the stages, plots and music in their performances and depicted a wide variety of themes and genres. With its roots tracing back to the Edo Period, this Japanese art form is an intrinsic part of Japanese culture. At Atelier Japan, we strive to keep Japanese culture and ancient techniques alive with our range of handcrafted tea, silverware, pottery, jewellery and fans that are handcrafted by Japanese artisans. Explore more of our collections below for handcrafted Japanese products that tell their own story.