In general, entertainment forms an integrated part of the Japanese culture, just think of all the karaoke parlours, manga or anime places, game centres and more. Another highly popular form of entertainment integrated in the Japanese culture is kabuki. You may envision the visual image of a man dressed up in traditional looking clothes, wearing a lot of make-up, dancing to rhythmic music during a theater show. That is, in short, what kabuki is about. But there is much more to tell about this traditional theatre dance, that is also designated as UNESCO Word Heritage. In this article we will give you some back ground information and explain how to witness this forms of entertainment yourself!
What is kabuki?
Kabuki is a rich blend of music, dance and mime, spectacular staging and costuming. The play involves several set elements including particular rhythmic music, make-up known as kumadori, costumes and most remarkable, the exaggerated actions performed by the actors. The poses and movements of the actors are of great importance for the public to understand the play, the spoken old-fashioned Japanese is difficult to understand, even for the Japanese!
The origin of Kabuki
The traditional Japanese form of performance art originated in the Edo period. Originally it was performed by both women and men, but present day only male actors perform the plays. However, it is said that a woman called Izumo no Okuni, began performing in the 1600’s in Kyoto, and thereby laying the foundation of kabuki. Later during the Edo period, the Tokugawa shogunate prohibited women from performing and men took over the female parts.
Japan’s traditional art form is recognised as one of country’s three major classical theaters along with noh and bunraku and in 2015 it was designated as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. Today it is still very much alive and popular among Japanese people, but also a fun activity for foreigners.
The kabuki plays are often based on historical evens and moral conflicts and were used to parody the everyday life. The three main categories of kabuki plays are jidaimono (early historical and legendary plays), sewamono (contemporary plays post-1.600) and shosagoto (dance dramas).
The striking make-up on the actors faces is another feature of kabuki that is easy recognisable and essential to storytelling of kabuki. The traditional method of applying make-up is referred to as kumadori; heavily applied make-up to create a brightly painted mask that uses colours in symbolic ways to indicate the age, gender, and class of each character, as well as their moods and personalities. The base version of make up, a pure white face, used by the actors is called kesho.
Kabuki plays are accompanied by music created by singers and or instruments. that are performed live. The music is sung by one or more utakata (singers) that use monotone voices and are often they are accompanied by traditional Japanese instruments such as shamisen (stringed instrument) or taiko drums.
Dancing is an integral part of all kabuki plays and there is a large number of characteristic patterns and styles of posing the body. The dance will differ per character, for example gracious and beautiful for the onnagata (female characters) or bouncier for the doki (comedic characters).
The stage is not your typical theatre stage, with dynamic stage sets including revolving platforms and trapdoors that allow for the quick changing of a scene or the appearance/disappearance of the actors. What you will also undoubtedly notice is the hanamachi, the footbridge that leads through the audience, allowing for a dramatic entrance or exit.
How to watch a kabuki show?
Throughout Japan there are many theaters where you can watch kabuki. Though, Kabukiza in Tokyo is the only theatre that specialises in kabuki and and merely shows kabuki plays. Other kabuki theaters in Tokyo are Shinbashi Enbujo, and the National Theater. We recommend you go and watch a show in Kabukiza because it is most accessible to foreigners; staging plays almost everyday and offering single-act tickets and rental monitors with subtitles and explanations in English. Kabukiza also houses the Kabuki gallery, shops and a restaurant.
In Kyoto, you can go and see kabuki in the Minamiza Theater, where they offer shows that often runs a few weeks. Depending on the shows, English translation devices might be available.
How to get tickets to kabuki?
A kabuki play is usually divided into two or three segments and each is again separated indifferent acts. It is possible to visit just one of these acts and generally tickets costs around ¥2,000 for a single act or between ¥3,000 to ¥25,000 yen for the entire show, depending on the seating.
Depending on your ticket, you can buy them online or when you are looking for a single act ticket, you will have to go down to Kabukiza and purchase your ticket there as they cannot be reserved.
If you are looking for a unique cultural experience, you should definitely try to watch a kabuki show in Japan. It will be unlike any other (theatre) show you have ever seen and a unique experience. If you have any questions, we are happy to assist you. Let us know in the comments below or follow us on Instagram or Facebook for more travel inspiration.
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