For over four hundred years Kabuki has remained a major form of artistic expression for Japan's mercantile, urban societies. Essentially it has always been a popular theatre, reflecting not just the fashions and cultural tastes of the people, but also the political and socio-economic conditions of each age through which it has evolved.
Following centuries of civil war that ravaged the country, the ascendancy of the Tokugawa shogunate at the beginning of the seventeenth century at last brought peace in the form of a centralised military dictatorship. The shogun maintained his power by an unforgiving, hierarchical control of nearly all aspects of Japanese society. With the samurai warrior class at the top, the Confucian class system descended through farmers and craftsmen and finally to merchants, the latter despised particularly for their association with such vulgar matters as usury and trade.
In such constrained social circumstances, the Kabuki theatre was one of the only officially sanctioned forms of entertainment for the general public, and in particular for the grass roots of society. As such Kabuki became a vital channel of expression against government repression. Although strict censorship ensured that nothing negative could be stated openly, nevertheless the subjects of many plays were subversive in content, often criticizing the contemporary social system under ancient historical guise. The real intentions and subjects of such stories, however, were perfectly obvious to the audiences of the time.
As time passed, Kabuki actors became increasingly popular with the public and were, in effect, the bright superstars of their day. They were appreciated not only for their acting skills, but also for the spirit of freedom and individuality that they embodied, as well as for their roles as true fashion icons.
A performance in 1603 in Kyoto is the first record we have of a woman by the name of Okuni, reputedly a shrine maiden from Izumo, and her troupe of female dancers. Okuni is said to be the ancestor of what we know as Kabuki today. Illustrations on painted screens show troupes of such women dancing in a large circle in a modern and secularised form of a kind of Buddhist prayer dance. Okuni was also socially provocative in that she sometimes dressed as a man, and seems to have worn elements of Portuguese dress (adopted from early missionaries), or a crucifix - highly daring because Christianity had been banned by this date. This early period of Kabuki is known as onna kabuki, 'women's Kabuki'. As well as dances, simple skits also appear to have been performed showing the process of negotiating between a man and a woman. The erotic overtones of these early Kabuki performances were a deliberate attempt both to titillate the audience and to advertise the girls themselves.
At the time, kabuku was a word employed to describe something which was slanted, offbeat and eccentric. The overall strangeness of these early Kabuki performances was such that they came to be described as kabuku or kabuki mono - the products of a Bohemian culture.
In 1629, however, the shogunate prohibited women from appearing on stage. The authorities considered the great popularity of these performers as a threat to public order.
Troupes of young boy entertainers had also been in existence as rivals to 'women's Kabuki'. Their performances were characterised by simple skits, dances and acrobatics. With the disappearance of women from public performance, these boys now took centre stage and this period has come to be known as wakashu kabuki, 'young men's Kabuki'.
The most significant development to arise during this period was the need for some actors to play female roles. This saw the early beginnings of the art of the onnagata, female role specialists. However, the natural beauty of some of the young boys made such specialisation far easier at this time than it was soon to become.
There was certainly a homoerotic element to these performances and once again, in 1652, the shogunate prohibited their appearance. The reason for the government's ban was the threat to public order caused by the large numbers of men who gathered to admire the boys.
The prohibition did not extend to more mature men and so Kabuki continued from this time with older actors. This period of mature male Kabuki came to be called yarō kabuki and it marked the beginning of a slow and gradual change from review-like dancing and skits towards greater emphasis on serious drama. A move towards real artistic content became necessary.
By the end the seventeenth century we see clear divisions between the onnagata actors and the male-role players and even within these categories there was increasing specialisation. Certain actors, for example, would play older women or clowns or villain roles almost exclusively. The art of the onnagata, in particular, developed out of necessity as the older actors could no longer rely on youth and beauty to carry them through. The onnagata adopted stylised gestures and a higher-pitched voice.
Dance had been one of the mainstays of Kabuki ever since the time of Okuni. After the development of yarō kabuki, it increasingly came to be the province of the onnagata for whom dancing was considered central to the expression of femininity and even eroticism.
The Puppets & Kabuki
The combination of storytelling, music and puppetry called ningyō jōruri, (today known as Bunraku), developed towards the end of the sixteenth century. Some of its finest plays were written by the man widely lauded as Japan's greatest playwright, Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724). Early in his career Chikamatsu also wrote for Kabuki and between 1693 and 1702 he worked closely with the star actor Sakata Tōjūrō I. His puppet dramas, however, would become very important for both Bunraku and Kabuki.
Ningyō jōruri is a style of dramatic narration and singing, the narrator being accompanied by the 3-stringed shamisen. Puppets had also been added to this narration and the fusion of three distinct arts, narration, music and puppetry, created a single new form that was to reach great heights of artistic achievement.
Towards the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries there was a growing preoccupation with realism on stage. This went hand in hand with developments in playwriting, developments that saw a vast improvement in the quality of the texts as well as in the basic structure of plays. In this respect Chikamatsu's contribution was hugely important. In Bunraku, his play, 'The Love Suicides at Sonezaki', (Sonezaki Shinjū), was the first to capitalise on a real news event that had happened only a short time before his play came out. The scandal of the day... a young man and a courtesan who took their own lives in a lovers' double suicide... became a hit on stage and led to a great number of other news events being staged. In those days, one could say that the theatre was also a kind of living newspaper.
The puppet and Kabuki theatres co-existed in close proximity and vied with each for the custom of the townspeople who were their principal supporters. Kabuki also began to adopt the dramas which had been written for the puppets. Inevitably, Kabuki itself changed under this influence. The style of performance in the puppet theatre affected that of Kabuki, especially in its timing and movements, and even such things as the stage machinery was copied. Perhaps most importantly, however, the jōruri style of musical narration was also adopted by Kabuki for all plays taken from the puppet theatre. The writing style of new playwrights was also important because it successfully mixed together the tradition of epic narrative with the idea of living drama. Historical characters were treated with greater psychological depth and were brought to life in a more convincing manner. In many of these works we see the very real emotional struggle and self-sacrifice that was demanded by the military dictatorship in pre-modern Japan.
The latter half of the Edo Period (1603-1868) was a Golden Age for Kabuki. During this relatively peaceful era in Japan's history the townspeople became increasingly powerful in economic terms. Kabuki actors, too, though still officially despised, had become wealthy stars who were admired for their skill, looks and personalities.
The most celebrated playwright to emerge during this golden period was Tsuruya Nanboku IV (1755-1829) whose works exploited Kabuki's potential to the full. Writing for the finest actors, Nanboku is credited with developing the kizewamono category of plays which portray the decadence, harshness, cruelty, and sensuality of the lower stratum of Edo Period society. His plays also popularised stage tricks (keren) and the kaidanmono category of ghost plays.
The wealth of the theatres meant that lavish costumes and sets could be afforded, and both actors and playwrights became more daring in what they attempted to achieve. This in turn increased the audience's expectations and they demanded ever increasing novelty and spectacle. Yet ostentatious displays of luxury by actors and managers alike were the constant source of government prohibitions. Some actors, such as Ichikawa Danjūrō VII, were even banished from Edo for their luxurious lifestyles.
Later in the century, the works of Kawatake Mokuami (1816-1893) were to be extremely influential in broadening Kabuki's range. Mokuami was a prolific playwright who is most celebrated for his creation of the shiranamimono genre that portrays, and to some extent glamorises, the lives of criminals. His contribution to the world of Kabuki dance lyrics is also very important though frequently overlooked.
Developments from the Meiji Period (1868-1912) to the Present Day
With the overthrow of the shogunate and restoration of the Emperor Meiji in 1868 there came a surge of interest in the modern, largely western orientated cultural world.
The destruction of the old feudal class system left both Nō and Kyōgen bereft of their samurai patrons. Kabuki, however, remained as popular as ever and its actors found new status and modern-day stardom. The Edo Period audiences had clamoured for new and exciting plays and the theatre was an integral part of the lives of the townspeople. In the new modern world other excitements were to be found, but Kabuki continued successfully under its new guise as part of Japan's national heritage and as one of its 'classical' theatres.
While the established dances and dramas remained the principal bulk of the repertoire, new plays were also added with varying degrees of success. In the Meiji period some of these attempted a new realism but never achieved great popularity. In the early 20th century, however, a movement known as Shin Kabuki, 'New Kabuki' did make a significant contribution to the repertoire through the works by such playwrights as Tsubouchi Shōyō, Japan's first major translator of Shakespeare, Mayama Seika and Okamoto Kidō.