The paradox of Japan's Kabuki theater resides in its origin: a woman originated this exclusively male art. A shrine maiden by the name of Okuni developed an unprecedented style of dance that eventually gave rise to Kabuki. Although women were allowed... [more]
The paradox of Japan's Kabuki theater resides in its origin: a woman originated this exclusively male art. A shrine maiden by the name of Okuni developed an unprecedented style of dance that eventually gave rise to Kabuki. Although women were allowed to participate in Kabuki during the first few years of its existence, in 1629 they were prohibited from performing it. Men, known as onnagata, came to play all women's roles, and established Kabuki's defining characteristic.
Although Kabuki has incorporated many narrative aspects of the older Noh theater, it maintains a distinct identity of its own. Whereas Noh is associated with Japan's upper class, the history of Kabuki is strongly rooted in the people of towns and villages. Narratives often revolve around historical events, in particular the struggles between peasants and their feudal lords. Kabuki is thus a theater of the masses, a form of popular entertainment. As opposed to the deathly stillness and profound tension of Noh, a Kabuki production incites a visceral response from its audience: the names of favorite actors are often shouted affectionately during moments of pause. It is more a theater of action and bombast than one of quiet contemplation.
During the Geroku Period, Kabuki divided into two distinct styles. "Aragoto," or rough style, is characterized by bombast, exaggeration, and anger against the ruling class. 'Wagato,' or soft style, focuses more on the plight of once-wealthy lovers dispossessed of their fortune for having spent too much money on their romantic affairs. Whereas the former style is often politically motivated, the latter tends to be comic. These two styles still characterize most contemporary Kabuki.
Although dance was originally the central feature of Kabuki, acting soon came to dominate the stage, mostly due to the influence of Ayame, a seventeenth-century actor who brought a depth to Kabuki characters that had previously been lacking. This depth became quickly formalized, however; a set of character types soon defined all Kabuki plays, and actors focused more on portraying these idealized types than on representing any historical or personal reality. This stylization resulted in contemporary Kabuki's tendency toward abstraction: every gesture -- usually punctuated by music -- carries a symbolic value that references a particular idealized type. Actors strive to achieve a state of formalization that goes beyond individuality and personality.
Although it no longer enjoys the popularity it once did, Kabuki is still a staple feature of Japanese culture. It has managed to resist the influence of Westernization, maintaining its traditional form with only a few alterations. [show less]