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kabuki - Literally, from Middle Chinese, 'song (ka) dance (bu) art (ki)'. The Japanese 'art of singing and dancing'.

Kabuki is one of a few forms of traditional Japanese theatre. It was created by a young shrinemaiden named Okuni around 1603 AD, and was soon brought to the dry riverbeds surrounding the old Japanese capital of Kyoto. Kabuki was originally performed solely by women and Okuni led ensembles performing stylised dances. As the demand for kabuki performances rose, rival companies formed, much like many theatrical groups can exist within a single city.

Modern Conventions

Despite its origins as a form of dance for women only, kabuki is performed almost solely by men. Early in its history, kabuki was an art form rife with scandal. As men began joining kabuki troupes, male audience members also began to find themselves taken with their favourite female performers. Many women within kabuki became prostitutes in an effort to supplement their income. In 1629 AD, the government issued a blanket ban on women performing in kabuki in an effort to bring about some moral cleansing. As in Shakespearean theatre, their roles were taken over by pre-pubescent boys. Unfortunately, further scandal forced the government to ban young boys from participating after 1658 AD.

After this second ban, the roles of women needed to take a serious change. Rather than rely on voice and the outward feminine appearance of older boys, grown men known as onnagata studied the behaviour and psychology of women and applied their knowledge to the roles. This extended study created a remarkably realistic feminine beauty, based the talent of the actor behind the role. It is widely accepted that the onnagata were responsible for the perfection of kabuki and when the bans were lifted in 1880 AD, women barely had any place in kabuki. The onnagata essentially took their place, but female performers seem to be as common as male performers in the modern era.

Original Conventions

Stagehands, or koken, unlike in Western theatre, are not relegated to the wings and times when the stage is dark. Instead, the koken are visible for most of show, wearing entirely black clothing and black hoods. The koken have very important duties, from straightening wigs, costumes and set-pieces to helping actors perform complete costume changes onstage, to creating special and supernatural effects.

Despite the role of the koken, playwrights could not always write the scripts they'd have liked to. Kabuki scripts are, effectively, written for the performers. It is certainly not unheard of for a performer to change the script mid-show if he is unhappy with some lines and believes the audience might prefer some different ones. Further, there are no directors in kabuki. Blocking and characterisation is left entirely to the performers.

Many kabuki scripts are based on scripts from another form of traditional Japanese theatre, bunraku. Bunraku is a form of puppet theatre that rivalled kabuki as the popular form of theatre in Japan. In order to win back their audience, many kabuki playwrights adapted bunraku scripts for the kabuki stage. As a result, the koken occasionally need to create a puppet monster onstage.

Additionally, many scripts were written centuries ago, during kabuki's heyday. Kabuki is thick with tradition and many performers come from a sort of kabuki family - the father teaches his roles to his sons, who teach the roles to their sons. There are some roles that have been 'in the family' for 17 generations!

Costumes and Make-up

The costumes and make-up used in kabuki performances are widely known as the most extravagant in theatre. Intense colours are prominent. Onnagata use a white base called oshiroi that changes intensity depending on role, followed by bright reds and blues (mehari), the choice of which is equally dependent on role. Characters high on the social ladder wear an intensely white oshiroi, while commoners' oshiroi is closer to a dull grey. Red mehari indicates goodness, passion and superhuman powers, while blue mehari indicates jealousy and fear.

Like the make-up, kabuki costumes are very vivid. The colours are almost always intense, offering the audience an incredible visual spectacle. This is traditionally an extraordinarily intricate element of kabuki - for a long time, it was forbidden for anyone to wear the clothing of the ruling class if they, themselves, were not a part of it. As such, costumes indicating the aristocracy were designed to be as lavish as possible, with designs carefully embroidered. This level of detail also allows for a high degree of subtlety to be woven into the costumes - a flash of red under a kimono typically indicates a courtesan.

Stage Plans

A kabuki stage bears some similarities to a Western stage, but is certainly not identical. There are three notable differences, two of which often catch Western visitors off-guard.

The first such difference is the size of the stage itself. Most Western stages are almost square-shaped, while a kabuki stage is more of a shallow rectangle. At first glance, this may appear to restrict the actors' motion, but this isn't the entire stage.

The hanamichi creates an effect similar to theatre in the round - it brings the performer closer to the audience and allows him to be surrounded. It is, quite simply, a long catwalk at the audience's head level, extending from the edge of the proscenium to the back of the house. The hanamichi is often used for entrances and exits and performers typically deliver their most important lines from it.

The mawari butai is the element that Western visitors would most like be familiar with and was not an original part of kabuki. This revolving stage simplified the koken's job and allows for impressive, virtually instantaneous scene changes.

Popular Playwrights

Only two kabuki playwrights remain popular to this day, for the sole reason that they wrote most of the plays currently available. Chikamatsu Monzaemon was probably kabuki's first professional playwright and is known today as the Shakespeare of kabuki. Chikamatsu wrote hundreds of scripts for kabuki before switching over to bunraku. Kawatake Mokuami also wrote a great number of scripts but is, unfortunately, less well-known and very little information survives regarding his scripts.

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