What is Kabuki?


“Kabuki” is a world-class traditional Japanese entertainment, which started in Edo period in the 17th century, and has been passed down from generation to generation to this day. Each production of Kabuki is made by a combination of entertainment elements from classical Japanese Dance, shamisen (three-stringed guitar), fue (flute), taiko (drum), and Kyogen (farce). We would like to introduce you to Kabuki, a form of theatrical arts unique to Japan, which you can catch a glimpse of the manners and customs of those days.

What is Kabuki? What is its meaning?

The word Kabuki has its origin in the word “Kabuku (behave oddly).” People who dressed in the latest eccentric fashion or behaved in a rampant way, not respecting common knowledge were called “Kabuki people,” and dancing while wearing clothing imitating their fashion is said to be how Kabuki started. Today, Kabuki is registered as UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage, and has enjoyed high acclaim from the world.

Kabuki is performed by men only. Actors that play men are called “Tachi-yaku,” and actors that play women are called “Oyama or Onna-gata.” Families of actors each have a certain favorite performance, and are known as “family A is good at performing Tachi-yaku,” or “family B is good at performing Onna-gata,” so depending on which family you are born into, you are bound to play one role or the other. However, in some cases, an actor's looks or personality would not match what his family is best at performing, so the actor may play a different role, or both roles.

What is the history of Kabuki?

The history of Kabuki began more than 400 years ago. It is said that Kabuki originated when a woman named “Izumo no Okuni” played a “Kabuki person” and did a “Kabuki odori (dance).” This dance became popular, and yujo (female prostitutes) also started performing the dance, and since women performed the dance, it became known as “onna (female) Kabuki.”

After some time, the “Yaro (men) Kabuki,” a prototype of today's Kabuki came into being, comprised of “ka (music),” "bu (dance)” and “ki (arts).” During around the Genroku era (1688-1704), when the Edo culture blossomed, Kabuki developed even more in Edo (Tokyo), and Kamigata (Kyoto and Osaka). In Edo, there were many “aragoto,” a performance with a lot of impact, as actors wore make-up called “kumadori,” and acted dynamically and wildly. On the other hand, in Kamigata, performances called “wagoto” was popular, as handsome men charmed audiences acting gently and elegantly. This tone is still seen in today's performances, as the Ichikawa Family's specialty is “aragoto,” and the Sakata Family's specialty is “wagoto.”

What sort of place is Kabuki-za?

What sort of place is Kabuki-za?
The Kabuki-za is the only theater in the world specializing in Kabuki, located Ginza, Tokyo. Kabuki-za was first established in Kobiki-cho in 1889, and the fifth-generation theater was built in April 2013.

The classy building's design harmonizes with the townscape of Ginza while following the traditional designs of the tile roof and hand railing of the fourth generation Kabuki-za.

What sort of place is Kabuki-za?2
Usually, Kabuki performs twice a day, with a matinee and an evening show. Each has 3 to 4 acts. At Kabuki-za, they have “hitomakumi (one-act)” seats, where you can see just one act. If you try to see all acts, it will take time and will be quite expensive. This Hitomakumi is affordable, at around 1,000 yen, and you can choose which act you want to see —recommended for tourists. They have ticket booth, and tickets are sold at a designated time for each act, so check it out.

There is one other convenient system when viewing Kabuki at Kabuki-za. They have a “captioning service” which will guide you through the various meanings of actions, costumes, music, historical background, etc. Aside from Japanese, they also have an English channel, which will allow you to have a greater understanding of the performances.

What sort of place is Kabuki-za?3

On the fifth floor of the Kabuki Tower, there is a “Kabuki-za Gallery,” a hands-on exhibition facility where you can actually touch the Kabuki stage settings. You can feel like a Kabuki actor as you ride on the horse you see in the Kabuki plays, or go on stage of “Fuji Musume (Wisteria Maiden)” and take pictures like you are one of the actors. They also have English audio earphone guides, so not only can you enjoy the stage sets, but you can also get correct information on them.

What sort of place is Kabuki-za?4
“Kabuki Gallery (Kabuki-za)”
●10:00-17:30 (last admission 17:00)
●Adults: 600 yen, elementary and junior high school students: 500 yen, pre-school children: free, admission plus audio earphone guide: 1,500 yen

What are the characteristics of the acts of Kabuki?

There are mainly four categories of Kabuki. First, there is the “Jidaimono (history).” The plays were history events seen from the eyes of people during the Edo period (17th to 19th century) when Kabuki flourished as popular drama. The plays mainly depicted samurai societies before the Edo period, such as Muromachi period (14th to 16th century), Kamakura period (13th to 14th century), and Heian period (9th to 12th century), where historical characters such as Minamoto no Yoshitsune are active. Depicting contemporary events in the samurai society were prohibited by the shogunate, so some were performed as “Jidaimono” using historical settings as metaphors for contemporary events. “Kanadehon Chushingura,” which is about 47 Ako ronin (leaderless samurai) avenging the death of their master, has its historical background replaced in the Ashikaga period. Major Jidaimono include “Kanjincho” and “Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura.”

The second category is “Sewamono.” From the eyes of the people of Edo period, this is contemporary drama. They focus on townsmen and societies of commoners, so it is interesting to get a glimpse of the manners and customs of the people during the Edo period such as kyokaku (professional gamblers, often romanticized as chivalrous), yujo (female prostitutes), and residents of nagaya (terraced houses). Compared to Jidaimono, it is distinctive that Sewamono's stories and dialogues are easier to understand. Although Sewamono are presented as fiction, many of the plays were based on true incidents that created sensations at the time. Major Sewamono include “Sonezaki Shinju” and “Yotsuyakaidan.”

The third category is “Shosagoto.” There is very little talking, with mostly dancing. There are various contents, such as dance dramas that use No or Kyogen as subjects, and acts where the dancer changes costumes many times to play different roles.

The fourth category is new acts written by modern playwrights, etc. Plays written since the Meiji era are generally called “Shin (new) Kabuki.”

Who are Kabuki actors? Kabuki actors famous in Japan

Here, we would like to introduce you to Kabuki actors very famous in Japan, and also “yago (guild),” which represents performance styles and tradition.

Belonging to the “Koraiya” yago are the three generations of immediate descendants from the Matsumoto family who recently succeeded stage names simultaneously: “Matsumoto Hakuo, Matsumoto Koshiro, and Ichikawa Somegoro." Father and son Hakuo and Koshiro have performed in many TV dramas and stage musicals. You will be seeing them performing ever so beautifully in the Kabuki performances commemorating their successions which have been going on since the start of 2018.

“Ichikawa Ebizo” who belongs to “Naritaya” yago is seen in many TV commercials as well, is so famous that every Japanese knows him, even if they have never seen Kabuki.

Belonging to the “Nakamuraya” yago are “Nakamura Kantaro and Nakamura Shichinosuke,” and their father was a world famous Kabuki actor named Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII. Succeeding their father, they have been performing in Heisei Nakamura-za and performance overseas. They could be the ones to advance Japan's traditional entertainment, Kabuki to a new level. These two actors are also seen in many TV dramas, playing unique roles.

“Ichikawa Chusha” of the “Omodakaya” yago has a bit of a unique background since he grew up without knowing the world of Kabuki after his parents divorced when he was three years old, but became a very famous actor in movies and TV dramas, and later made his debut as a Kabuki actor in 2012.

There are many other very talented Kabuki actors such as Onoe Matsuya of the “Otowaya” yago, Nakamura Kazutaro of the “Narikomaya” yago, Ichikawa Ennosuke of the “Omodakaya” yago, and Ainosuke Kataoka of the “Matsushimaya” yago. Their talents that they have been working on since childhood remarkably shine in worlds other than Kabuki as well.

What are Kabuki music?

The music used in Kabuki are broadly divided into two: “Utaimono,” sung to the melody of shamisen, and “Katarimono,” spoken while the shamisen is being played.

Utaimono is a “nagauta (long song),” using a large organized group of singers, shamnisen players, taiko drummers, and fue players lined up on a tiered platform with red fabric covering. They perform on the platform or perform hiding in the space called kuromisu (black bamboo screen), in the left stage.

In Katarimono, there are three Joruri schools: “Takemoto (Gidayu),” “Tokiwazu,” and “Kiyomoto.” Joruri is stage music, performed by chanters called “tayu,” who chant the scenes or the sentiments of the characters to the tune of shamisen.

“Takemoto (Gidayu)” is originally Joruri puppet drama music. The Joruri puppet dramas began to be performed in Kabuki, and so its music was also played in Kabuki performances. The dolls themselves do not talk in the plays, as the tayu express their feelings instead. So the style of performance of “katarimono (spoken thing)” plays a large role. Takemoto uses both tayu and shamisen, so the profound sounds of the broad neck shamisen and the passionate talks of the tayu are characteristic of Takemoto. They are performed on the revolving door on the right stage or in the space called yuka.

“Tokiwazu” and “Kiyomoto” use middle-sized shamisen. Words are spoken, but close to singing, in a flirtatious way. The tayu appear on the right or left side of the stage.

A fusion of Kabuki and modern culture?! Fictitious characters that use Kabuki as motif

At Sanrio Puroland, starting March 2018, the popular characters are performing Kabuki characters in a participation type new musical titled “KAWAII KABUKIーMomotaro by the Hello Kitty Troupe.”

A fusion of Kabuki and modern culture?! Fictitious characters that use Kabuki as motif © 2017,2018 SANRIO/SHOCHIKU ©1976,1993,1996,1999,2001,2018 SANRIO CO., LTD.

The leader of the troupe is Hello Kitty. Very popular characters, Cinnamoroll and Pom Pom Purin also appear on stage wearing Kabuki costumes.

A fusion of Kabuki and modern culture?! Fictitious characters that use Kabuki as motif2 © 2017,2018 SANRIO/SHOCHIKU ©1976,1993,1996,1999,2001,2018 SANRIO CO., LTD.

The performance starts off with Hello Kitty's prologue, just like a real Kabuki act. There are many Kabuki-like stage effects in various parts.

A fusion of Kabuki and modern culture?! Fictitious characters that use Kabuki as motif3 © 2017,2018 SANRIO/SHOCHIKU ©1976,1993,1996,1999,2001,2018 SANRIO CO., LTD.

A fusion of Kabuki and modern culture?! Fictitious characters that use Kabuki as motif4 © 2017,2018 SANRIO/SHOCHIKU ©1976,1993,1996,1999,2001,2018 SANRIO CO., LTD.

There is a scene just like in real Kabuki called “Danmari (silence).”

A fusion of Kabuki and modern culture?! Fictitious characters that use Kabuki as motif5

The Momotaro act performed by the Hello Kitty troupe uses "Momotaro" which is well-known folk tale by every Japanese.Just when the show is about to end, a demon appears, and… From here, you will have to see what happens at the theater. Enjoy the participation-type stage effects, unique to Sanrio Puroland.

This performance is supervised by Shochiku, and screenplay, production, and lyrics are managed by Kensuke Yokouchi, who has also managed performances such as the “Super Kabuki.” So although this is a musical performed by popular characters, you can also feel the essence of real Kabuki. This Hello Kitty troupe act is a great opportunity to experience the world of Kabuki for families. You can also look forward to an elaborate production as Kabuki actor Nakamura Shido provides the voice of a character, and Bando Minosuke appears on video.

Of course, the true-to-life performances by the Sanrio characters who were instructed to do their Kabuki acting are worth seeing, too.

“Sanrio Puroland”
●1-31, Ochiai, Tama-shi, Tokyo

【KAWAII KABUKIーMomotaro by the Hello Kitty Troupe special website】
*For details, please refer to the website

I want to see Kabuki in Japan! Where and when can I see it?

Major theaters you can go see Kabuki include Kabuki-za and Shinbashi Enbujo (Tokyo), Osaka Shochiku-za (Osaka), Kyoto Minami-za (Kyoto), and Hakata-za (Fukuoka).

You can see Kabuki in Tokyo almost all year. They have periodic performances in Kyoto, Osaka, and Hakata.

For the year 2018 at Kabuki-za, they will be performing “Rokugatsu Okabuki (June Grand Kabuki)” during June 2nd to 26th. Onoe Kikugoro, Nakamura Kichiemon, Nakamura Tokizo, and Nakamura Shikan, among others will be performing.

I want to see Kabuki in Japan! Where and when can I see it? Matinee: IMOSEYAMA ONNA TEIKIN, BUNYA, NOZARASHI GOSUKE

During the July 5th to 29th performance in the “Shichigatsu Okabuki (July Grand Kabuki),” Ichikawa Ebizo will be doing a “chunori (midair performance).”

I want to see Kabuki in Japan! Where and when can I see it? 2 Matinee: SANGOKU MUSO HISAGO NO MEDETAYA

At the Shinbashi Enbujo Theatre, they will be performing “Shinsaku (newly produced) Kabuki NARUTO.” Bando Minosuke will be playing “Naruto Uzumaki,” and Nakamura Hayato will be playing “Sasuke Uchiha.” It will be an amazing gathering of talent, as Ichikawa Ennosuke and Kataoka Ainosuke will be alternately playing “Madara Uchiha.”

At the Kyoto Minami-za Theatre, they will be performing “Kichirei Kaomise Kogyo Tozai Godo Okabuki” during November and December, and at the Osaka Shochiku-za, they will be performing “Shichigatsu Okabuki” between July 3rd and 27th, “Jugatsu Okabuki (October Grand Kabuki)” during October. At the Hakata-za, they will be performing “Rokugatsu Hakata Okabuki” between June 2nd and 26th. All theaters have Matinee (from 11am) and Evening shows (starts between 4pm and 5pm), with Matinee and Evening shows having different programs.

Theater goer manners! Things to be careful about when watching Kabuki

Many people seem to think that Kabuki–going is difficult to approach, but it is originally pastime commoners enjoyed during the Edo period. There are no rigid manners you need to keep. It is best to enjoy the plays relaxed, not in nervousness. Here are some tips on manners when you go watch plays in general, not just Kabuki.

First, when the curtains open, you should not make sounds. Talking is a no-no, without saying, and putting your hands inside your bag, making noises is against manners as well. Eating between acts is okay, but not during acts.

There is no particular dress code, but you should take off your hat, so you don't block the view of the person sitting behind you.

How do I put Kabuki make-up on?

The most impressive Kabuki make-up would be the “kumadori.” Originally, they depicted the veins and muscles of the face in an exaggerated way.

There are different types of kumadori. “Mukimi” is for those that play a youthful person with a strong sense of justice. “Sujiguma” is representative when depicting a strong, vigorous youth in a fighting scene. A high-ranking enemy role would not have red, but azure kumadori. A low-ranking villain role would have an all-red face called “akattsura.”

In order to put Kabuki make-up on, the major things you need are pomade, liquid face-whitening makeup, itahake (flat brush), grease paint in red, black, brown, azure, etc., and beni (red lip color).

[How to do Kabuki make-up]

1. Surprisingly, the process of Kabuki make-up is simple. First, put pomade as undercoat on the entire face, neck, and decollete.

2. Put liquid face-whitening makeup in a bowl, and add water. Mix them well with the hake (brush).

3. Using the itahake brush, which is a wide brush, paint the face-whitening makeup over and over again on your eye brows so they won't show, and also the entire nose several times.

4. Paint the face-whitening on the entire face, neck, and decollete.

5. Press lightly on the parts you have painted white with a large sponge, in order to absorb some of the moisture.

6. Put black grease paint on the finger for “kumadori.” Draw them in rather straight lines, upwards to make them look kumadori-like.

7. Put red grease paint on the finger and draw lines from the inner corners of the eyes towards the outer canthus. Then straight lines from the outer canthus to the eye brows, and also straight lines from the inner corners to the eye brows.

8. Paint with beni in a way that the corners of the lips go downward. Now you have completed your “mukimi” make-up.

The point in doing Kabuki make-up is how you use the pomade as undercoating. Spreading it on the skin evenly will allow you to spread the whitening make-up on evenly, and also, it will prevent damage to the skin.

Where can I buy the Kabuki face masks?

Isshindo Honpo's KABUKI FACE PACK which is designed kumadori is recommended to the people who find it difficult to put Kabuki make-up on. It was the official gift of the G7 Ise-Shima Summit 2016, an item representing Japan. The face pack's design has reproduced a realistic kumadori from Kabuki acts “Funabenkei” and “Shibaraku” under the supervision of Kabuki actor Matsumoto Koshiro.

Where can I buy the Kabuki face masks?
The sheet contains camellia seed extract, tea-leaf extract, Satozakura (prunus) extract, and other beauty ingredients. Not only has unique appearance, it also has a great ability as a beauty item.

Where can I buy the Kabuki face masks?2
Where can I buy the Kabuki face masks?3
You can be a Kabuki actor without putting on make-up. The price is 900 yen. Major stores you can find these products are Isshindo Honpo Skytree Solamachi Shop, Kabukiza Kobikicho Shop, all shops of Tokyu Hands and Loft.

Summary of Kabuki

From various angles, we have introduced you to the Japanese traditional entertainment of “Kabuki,” which has its origins in the Edo period. But Kabuki's true attraction is something you will have to see with your own eyes.

Depending on the theater and acts, “hitomakumi,” which are seats you can watch during one act only are available. It is a ticket sold on the day of the performance, and the price is reasonable, at around 1,000 yen each. This allows you to enjoy Kabuki when you suddenly have some spare time on your hands. Relax and enjoy Kabuki without too much hassle.

*The above information was last updated June 8, 2018. For further information, please contact the facilities directly.

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