You may have heard about Kabuki, especially if you are interested in performance art, dance, music, acting or similar. If not. Well, then I hope the following text can contribute with some new perspectives to a different type of expression, with several hundreds of years in making.

Torii Tadakiyo (Hasegawa Kanbee XIV, 1847 – 1929) and Torii Kiyosada (1844 – 1901) – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, online database. Part of the series The Eighteen Great Kabuiki Plays. Image from Wikipedia 2019-08-08. Image classified to be in the Public Domain.

The term Kabuki has several different meanings, but in this context we are focusing on the traditional Japanese art form. The term Kabuki represents a mix of singing and dancing and expressions of professionalism. Its etymological origin probably derives from the word Kabuku, that can be translated to something close to Rising above standard measures. A related word is Kabukimono, interpreted as Crazy acting person wearing peculiar clothes. This points us back in time to an era when lord-less samurai/mercenaries were common in Japan and some of them went ballistic, ravaging communities, becoming a nuisance to people in the and 17th century Japan.

The art of Kabuki saw first daylight in the 17th century when Izumo no Okuni, who is believed to have been a Japanese Miko (equivalent to shaman or religious aid), introduced a new type of performance art in the surroundings of Kyoto. Okuni was born around year 1572 as the daughter of the blacksmith Nakamura Sanemon. Her engagement in religious groups, closeness to one of the Shinto holy places and her skills in dance and music, probably motivated her family to send Okuni to Kyoto to perform.

During her stay in Kyoto, she came to perform with an alternative style of the Nembutsu odori dance, that has its origin in the honoring of Amitābha Buddha. Her interpretations had clear erotic and romantic expressions. Okuni’s shows soon attracted a grand audience. Around year 1603 she managed to gather a group of artists from the poor, outcasts and prostitute women of the Kyoto suburbs. They performed with dancing and musical acts and most likely made their living this way. The style was wild and avant-garde and came to be called Kabuki. From a modern perspective you may call it an early Eastern version of burlesque shows, although no further connection exists as far as I know.

The acts became very popular and was soon to be adapted by several theater groups, especially among the well established Kyoto brothels, where it became a part of the sex trade. All roles during this first period of the Kabuki were occupied by female actresses and were by that time called Onnakabuki or Okuni kabuki.

The shows could last for several Hours and made a large contribution to the wealth of the pleasure industry. Okuni and her (likely) partner Nagoya Sansaburō, who contributed with financial support as well as artistic influences, developed the Kabuki style with additional dramaturgical ingredients. Okuni ended her Kabuki career in year 1610.

Moral Panic
Excessive erotic style of the Kabuki soon caused calls for legislation against such immoral behavior. A side effect of the Kabuki shows was that people in the audience, from different classes of society, came to intermingle. It was not seen mildly by people in power, who did not want different parts of society to interact more than absolutely necessary. This type of “social mix” was not common in those days and may have been considered subversive. Regardless what real cause, Kabuki in its early form was forbidden, motivated as a precaution against immoral erotic expressions. The shows had to stop in the year 1629. You can speculate what caused the prohibition. It has been pointed out that it was the combination of civil unrest as a consequence of mixed audiences, and jealous behavior associated with actresses’ attention. Some argue it was associated with immoral aspects only, others say actresses gained higher status than their class belonging would normally allow, and it became to much of a challenge to the establishment. It is worth noting that Kabuki and its development has become subject to historic forgery in some contemporary forums, by being described in terms of power struggle between men and women, although it is very hard to find any evidence for such opinions.

Soon there was a backlash to the prohibition. Groups of young men formed new Kabuki ensembles, so called Yarōkabuki. They were often members of the sex trade and offered, in addition to acting, sexual services to male and female customers. Soon the performances came to be abolished and this variant of Kabuki was forbidden. In the 1650s, the prohibition against Kabuki shows was lifted.

Some decades later Kabuki was reestablished in a new form, now with roles occupied by adult men only, what came to be called Wakashūkabuki. The art form was still popular and spread all over the country, and is still performed to present days. Men who performed in female roles went under the name Onnagata.

hibai Ukie by Masanobu Okumura (1686–1764), depicting Edo Ichimura-za theater in the early 1740s. Image from English Wikipedia 2019-08-08. Image classified to be in the Public Domain.

During the end of the 17th century, and in the 18th and 19th century, the Kabuki genre slowly developed into a formalized act of performances. Roles, gestures, choreography, attributes and props underwent changes, greatly influenced by the traditional Japanese puppetry Ningyō jōruri and Bunraku. It is during this era the well known Kabuki makeup appear (what has later given name to the Kabuki syndrome, a rare but serious genetic disease).

End of an Era
In mid 19th century, Edo area went through a period of severe drought, causing devastating fires. Several of the Kabuki theaters burnt to the ground leaving little to save. To Japanese authorities, who never were fond of the theaters, this came as a golden opportunity, and they forced the theaters to go underground. It is during this period the most satirical/critical plays of Kabuki history are written and performed, a clear message to anyone I think, that radical goals and means soon is followed by reactions in opposite direction.

Modern Times
Changes in Japanese society and increasing interaction with western culture once again injected new energy into the Kabuki community, but it came to a crude stop due to the end of the Second World War when so much of the Japanese social order and culture was questioned.

In current Japanse culture Kabuki theaters have taken a step forward, in a landscape of modern technology and media. Onnagata actors can be seen in television shows, Kabuki is present i animated forms, some theater groups have been established, films have been recorded and the art form has found new practices in other countries. Since beginning of the 21st century Kabuki is on the UNESCO list of cultural heritage.

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