Kabuki Drama
Kabuki Drama
Written by
Shutaro Miyake
Published by
Copyright 1953, fourth edition
Total 133 pages

Kabuki is a Japanese theatrical art based on song and dance. Developed to capture popular appeal, it is a feast for the senses in which male actors portray a wide range of characters with symbolic expressions and lively dance. Types of kabuki plays include “aragoto” (drama on “masculine” themes), “jidaimono” (historical plays), “sewamono” (plays on everyday themes from Osaka), and “kizewamono” (similar to sewamono but coming from Tokyo), and dance pieces. The eighteen plays which were most successful on the Edo stage are known as “Kabuki Juhachiban” (Eighteen Best Plays).

Please enjoy these excerpts from “Kabuki Drama”

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Origins of Kabuki

The Kabuki was first created by an actress by the name of Okuni who lived in Izumo about four centuries ago. In its original form the Kabuki was not a play, but a type of primitive dance called Nembutsu Odori, or “prayer dance.”

Shortly afterward, the drama was monopolized by male actors, and features of the Noh, a classical play of music and dance, were incorporated into the Kabuki. The present stage of development has been attained through the efforts of male players alone. The earliest period of the Kabuki, when it consisted of dancing only by female players, was of short duration. After the cast came to be made up entirely by male players, the Kabuki play was designed to tell a story and it was enriched in its contents. The foundation of the present-day Kabuki was thus laid in those early days.

Because of the all-male cast the best-looking actors naturally come to take the roles of female characters. Such actors are called onnagata, or oyama. This art of female impersonation by men has made remarkable progress during the past three centuries. Onnagata are trained for their work from early childhood. Before the Meiji Restoration (1868), onnagata, dressed in female costume oif the stage as well as on and every effort was made by them to be like a woman in everyday life. The result was a marked advance in the art of impersonation making it possible for trained actors to represent women of all sorts and conditions on the stage. This is one of the most conspicuous features of the Kabuki play.

A spirited lion (center) sports with the butterflies

A spirited lion (center) sports with the butterflies, flitting about among the peony flowers—a performance that typifies the symbolism of Kabuki art. This manly dance of the lion played in the second scene of Kagami Jishi " (see P. 116) contrasts greatly with the graceful dancing of the pretty maiden acted by the same actor in the first scene.

The corridor into the audience, or “Hanamichi”

Hanamichi, or “flower way,” is a passage leading to the stage through the left section of the theater. There is diverse opinion as to the history of the hanamichi, and no detailed account of it can be given here. Suffice it to say that the hanamichi has been in use for about two centuries. The passage of the actors on to the stage over the hanamichi is called de (advance) and the passage back from the stage to the exit screened with a small curtain termed agemaku, is called hikkomi (withdrawal). The use of the hanamichi is considered very important and productive of histrionic effect.

Players on the passage to the stage

Players on the passage to the stage

The hanamichi is sometimes doubled to enhance the spectacular effect and maintain closer contact with the audience. The auxiliary passage, kari- hanamichi (“provisional flower way”), runs parallel on the opposite side of the main passage, and it is narrower than the hanamichi by about one-third.

The ki and the mie

In the Kabuki, ki or wooden clappers invariably accompany the pulling on and off of the curtain. Ki or hyoshigi are a pair of square-shaped sticks made of hard kashi wood. The clapper is about three inches thick and about a foot long. The hyoshigi are clapped by a kyogenkata, who is a sort of assistant to the stage manager. The peculiar, sharp sounds of the hyoshigi, like the sound of the bell or the gong of the Western plays, are used to punctuate the beginning, close, or intervals of a play. Simple as it may seem, considerable skill is really required for the proper operation of the hyoshigi.

The Eighteen Best Plays

Reproduction of the color print by Toyokuni Utagaivo the first (1769- 1825), owned by the Theatrical Arts Museum at Waseda University

As already mentioned, the eighteen masterpieces selected from the plays of Kabuki origin staged since the birth of the Kabuki about two centuries and a half ago are collectively styled “Kabuki Juhachiban.” These eighteen were the repertoire of the nine generations of the illustrious Ichikawas from the first Danjur5 of the Genroku period (1688—1703) to the ninth in the Meiji era. The plays have been the monopoly of the Ichikawas, and even now the rights of printing and staging them are in the hands of the present representive of the family. About ten out of the eighteen are now staged, the rest having died a natural death. The following seven are considered by general consent to be of greatest merit:—“Sukeroku” (The Love of Sukeroku, an Edo Beau), “Kanjinchd” (A Faithful Retainer), “Shiba- raku” (Stop a Minute!), “Yanone” (The Arrow-head), “Kenuki” (Hair Tweezers), “Narukami” (Thunder), and “Kamahige” (Shaving with a Large Sickle).
Of these seven, “Sukeroku” and “Kanjincho” are the most distinguished, being the best of the plays of Kabuki origin. All the plays of the “Kabuki Juhachiban” are characterized by the spirit of hero-worship, and are labelled Aragoto, or plays of masculine character, and are theatrical products peculiar to Edo.

Symbolism in kabuki

As has repeatedly been stated, realism and rationalism must not be sought in a Kabuki play, which is not a play to be heard, but rather a sort of revue to please the eye. In revues, however, reality and truth are not lost sight of by their writers in their work of presenting the beautiful. Though there are some exceptions, the contrary method is used by the Kabuki dramatist. He aims at the beautiful presentation of the unreal and the unnatural. This point is dwelt on at some length in the following paragraphs.
There is a well-known play named “Suzugamori,” (At Suzugamori), which belongs to the Kizewamono class. In this play one sees at the opening, when the curtain is drawn off, a black curtain in the background. This kuromaku, as the black curtain is called in the language of the Kabuki stage, symbolizes the darkness of night. The suggestion of a black night is what it is intended to convey, and it is needless for the spectator to inquire whether it is a rice-field or a hill that is hidden. In the same scene there is at the right and left a sort of two fold screen called yabudatami made of bamboo and bamboo twigs. This represents a bamboo grove. Sometimes a sea is symbolized by a board on which are painted waves—technically called namiita.
It will be seen that, in stage scenery as in other features, the Kabuki play is essentially symbolic in technique. It is important that the audience should be prepared to adjust their minds to symbolic representation.

It is related of the fifth Danjuro Ichikawa, one of Japan's stage stars who lived in Edo more than one hundred years ago, that when taking a meal on the stage he never used real boiled rice, but instead had some white cotton in the bowl, which he manipulated so skilfully that the audience was deceived. This shows what his idea of art was like. The art of Kabuki consists not in making the real look real, but in making the unreal look real. From this it may be argued that symbolistic representation is the soul of Kabuki.
Let us take up the case of the mie already explained. The straining of the eyes and a steady gaze which make up the pose of mie may seem unnatural, but this is the Kabuki way of emphasizing the senses of excitement,sorrow, and emotion.

Players on the passage to the stage

In the appreciation of the Kabuki, therefore, one must be richly endowed with imagination; otherwise one will fail to understand the symbolic and impressionistic expression of the Kabuki. One must also be a person of great sensibility, who is capable of perceiving beauty in the apparent grotesqueness and cruelty of a kubijikken or who discovers a dramatic element in harakiri. Only with such imagination and such sensibility can one penetrate into a feeling intricate but common to all humanity roughly represented by a mie, a pose reinforced by the sound of wooden clappers.