Yoshizawa Ayame I (1673~1729). Many of the great kabuki actors have built theirreputations solely on these roles. The performances are not so much 'acting' in the Westernsense as stylized representations of female beauty or virtue. While early onnagata wererequired to maintain their feminine persona and dress even in their private lives, this practicewas abolished in the Meiji Restoration of 1868.Kabuki is performed on a large, revolving stage and has such familiar stage devices as scenicbackdrops and trapdoors for surprise entrances.
(stage left) is often where you willsee the important or high-ranking characters, while
(stage right) is occupied bylower-ranking characters. Actors perform
(forms) as they have been performedthroughout the generations. An example is
or striking an attitude, often with one's eyescrossed and an exaggerated expression for dramatic effect.The
or 'rough style' of acting is exemplified by suchexaggeration and dramatic make-up and costume (left). It isassociated with the Ichikawa Danjuro line. Die-hards in theaudience join in the action, calling out the
(house or familyname) of the actors at prescribed moments in the performance.Standard male kabuki roles include the handsome lover, thevirtuous hero or the evil samurai; for an onnagata, roles include thehigh-ranking samurai lady, the young maiden or the wicked woman.Traditional kabuki is highly melodramatic but strictly historical.Like the work of Shakespeare, the old stories and characters in theplays are all familiar to those in the know even though the language itself is often antiquatedand hard to follow. But while the Bard's masterpieces are still widely popular among all ages,kabuki is no longer of much interest to younger Japanese people. Audiences tend to be madeup of older people and refined young ladies. One of the most famous stories,
- atale of revenge and loyalty - owes most of its popularity today to its many movie adaptations.Various actors and troupes have worked to incorporate avant-garde elements into kabuki andhave worked in other areas such as TV and film. The actors themselves seem to do alright, atleast the ones from the famous kabuki dynasties. Their romantic escapades make tabloidheadlines and they appear in the odd TV commercial so I suppose there's life in the old artform yet.Kabuki is truly a theatrical spectacle, combining form, color and sound into one of the world'sgreat theatrical traditions. But as far as dipping your toe into this particular cultural pond isconcerned, a half hour spent at the
theater in Tokyo,
in Osaka orthe
in Kyoto is probably all you'll need. At Kabukiza, for example, there is aseparate box-office for seats on the 4th floor, where you can enjoy a single part of theprogram for as little as 500 yen. Seats for the full program range in price from 2,400 yen to16,000 yen. An English "Earphone Guide" is available (except on the 4th floor) to give youthe rundown on what's going on and also give you a bit of background. Feel free to get up andleave when you've had enough!In November 2005, UNESCO announced its decision to designate kabuki as one of theMasterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. It certainly didn't hurt itscandidacy that the director-general of UNESCO at the time was Matsuura Koichiro, aJapanese. Kabuki joined Nohgaku Theater,similarly designated in 2001, and Ningyo Johruri
Bunraku Puppet Theater, usually simply referred to as Bunraku,designated in 2003.