In November 2005, Unesco designated the art of kabuki theater a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritages of Humanity’. Kabuki hasn’t always been so well respected, however. Kabuki was born from the kabuki odori art form, and the dances of a woman called Izumo Okuni at the beginning of the Edo Period. She began dancing and entertaining in a dry river bed in Kyoto, and soon developed a large following. Her style of entertainment was considered too provocative by the shogun, and was relegated to performing in the “pleasure districts”. However, as its popularity increased, the government recognized that it would be best to support and control kabuki performances. To preserve moral character in the audience, and prevent bloody swordfights between samurai vying for the attentions of the lusty maiden actresses, women were banned from performing. Apparently, the authorities thought it would be more wholesome for young boys to wear make-up and act the female parts. This plan backfired, however, as bloody swordfights between samurai for the attentions of said young boys ensued. The decision was made then: only grown men may act in kabuki! As you can see, kabuki’s history is a long and varied one, and in the beginning, they really were rebels.
To non-Japanese, kabuki can appear to be another one of Japan’s unfathomable national treasures, alongside sumo, the tea ceremony and the electric toilet seat. The distinctive dialogue, make-up and rampant cross-dressing put many off. But kabuki’s popularity is warranted: with a little patience, be prepared to uncover a form of theater that is rich, rewarding, and uniquely Japanese.
For beginners, we recommend the plays of Bando Tamasaburo. He is an actor with such presence that as soon as he appears on the stage, you’ll be swept away with the rest of the audience (and probably forget that he is a man wearing a lot of make-up). Another good play to start with is Sukeroku, featuring Ichikawa Ebizo. The story is comparatively simple, and Ebizo is known for performing the role of his character very well – voted sexiest guy of 1629 (probably)!
Don’t be surprised if, while at a kabuki performance, you hear somebody shouting at the stage from the audience. No, he hasn’t had a bad day at the office and decided to vent his frustration on the nearest thespian; he’s a kabuki uber-fan, and he’s politely heckling the actors, as is the tradition. Usually he will shout something like “Finally, you’ve arrived!” when a famous character appears, or yell the name of the actor’s yago (acting troupe.) It is not recommended that you join in, unless you are a) a kabuki uber-fan or b) very brave. (We would also have accepted c) very drunk, for two points.)
As you can imagine, watching kabuki is not your average trip to the theater, and pictures and words cannot do it justice. Why not head down to Hakata-za for one of the performances this February and appreciate this Japanese treasure, and World Heritage art form, yourself? There’s no better place for those in Kyushu to see kabuki; Hakata-za is the only true kabuki theater west of Osaka, and its design is often complemented. You’ll enjoy a great view wherever you sit.
The actors who bring kabuki alive have come a long way since the theater form’s first incarnation, when they were considered very low on the social scale. Nowadays, the actors are given the recognition they deserve for perpetuating this fascinating art form.
Here are some of today’s best:
Nakamura Kanzubaro (Nakamuraya House)
It is said that among kabuki actors, Kanzaburo is the best dancer of the moment. He also works in television and in other media. While his style of dancing and his performances are traditional, he is actively involved in the progress of kabuki, and wishes to help kabuki evolve. Along with Kushida Kazuyoshi and Noda Hideki he directs contemporary plays as well.
Ichikawa Ebizo (Naritaya House)
Son of Ichikawa Danjuro and said to be the most handsome of all the young actors at the moment. Ichikawa is no stranger to the media, appearing on TV and in movies, as well as modern theater.
Bando Tamasaburo (Yamatoya House)
Tamasaburo is the iconic, beautiful onnegata (the name given to female characters played by men). He is the head of his own Japanese dance school, and has danced with international artists like ballet stars Bejart and Barishnikov, and even in the Peking Opera. Don’t miss a chance to see Tamasaburo in action.
The tradition of having a house name, or an acting name, began in the Edo period. Chonin (commoners / trader class) and actors were deemed to be low members of society, and not allowed to have family names. So, they developed acting and house names for themselves. These names became known to the audience, who started shouting them at certain times during the performance.
HOW TO BECOME A KABUKI ACTOR
It is possible to be a kabuki actor even if you were not born into a kabuki family. You would have to become an apprentice to an established actor or become a student in a Japanese National Theater school. Kabuki is a unique Japanese art, and as such has never had any famous foreign stars. But it is not impossible! Look at sumo and the many foreign wrestlers performing well.
Kabuki’s unique aesthetic appeal is well known, with the costumes, sets and make-up supplying the visual splendor.
Costumes can indicate the social standing, moral character or even age of a character by the design and material used. There are also extravagant, fantastic costumes for spirits, as well as exaggerated superhero type characters
Traditionally, kabuki clothing – especially as worn by the female characters – was always the height of fashion. During the Genroku period (1680-1709), fashion design was rapidly developing in Japan, and one of the ways it spread was through the kabuki actors; you could say they were the supermodels of their time
The dress of the oiran (geisha-like characters) usually weighs around 30kg. You can imagine the skill required of the actor to appear as a delicate young lady wearing such a heavy costume There is a special technique for changing dress quickly – hikinuki or bukkaeri – where dresses and clothes are created with loose, strategically placed threads; one pull and the clothes fall off (hopefully, this happens backstage)! Tattoos are created with prints on flesh-colored body stockings. During the Edo period and beyond, nobody but the ruling class was allowed to wear extravagant clothing or material. The costume-makers for kabuki had to find ingenious ways around this law, making imitation satin and silk garments through innovative sewing and embroidering techniques
One of the most distinctive aspects of kabuki is the make-up, which is applied by the actors themselves. Different patterns and shades help the audience to know the character’s placement on the scale between good and evil. For example, a mostly white face would indicate a pure, good person. A red-shaded face shows an evil character.
Kumadori is a unique way of applying decorative and illustrative make-up for kabuki actors. First, the face is painted completely white. Paint is then applied in particularly expressive ways, depending on the character. Red is usually a color used to signify youth, passion and righteousness; it literally represents blood rushing to near the surface of the skin. Kumadori differs from character to character; it is said that there are over 50 accepted ways of applying the make-up. Color is very significant, with red expressing the characteristics as outlined above, and black, indigo or brown usually applied to a host of evil or frightening characters.
A DAY AT THE KABUKI
Hakata has always been a popular place for festivals and entertainment. Hakata-za was built in 1999 by Fukuoka City, but is now privately owned. It is the first public built, privately owned theater in Japan. It is funded by various investors, as well as five major theater companies, and plays host to kabuki theater, musicals and contemporary productions.
Once you enter Hakata-za, you’ll be swept away by the grand scale of it all; an expansive, elegant reception, red carpets, and souvenir and bento (lunchbox) shops. If you are watching a play, turn up early and soak up some of the atmosphere.
Within the theater itself, you’ll see the features that make it famous across Japan: the hanamichi (‘flower road’, where the actors can walk among the audience), a rotating stage, and three tiers of seating with a capacity of 1500. Perfect for a day, or evening, enjoying kabuki.
During performances, which last many hours, there are intermissions (makunouichi) where it is customary to eat makunouichi bento. These luxurious and tasty meals have gained quite a reputation of their own, and we highly recommend ordering yourself one for the intermission when you arrive.
There’s more to enjoy before and after the performance; souvenirs are a great way of remembering your time at the theater. Popular things to take home include kabuki figurines and, believe it or not, the equipment for hagoita, a traditional form of badminton. All the young cads of the 17th century used to play, you know. Of course, typically intricate Japanese sweets are also available for you to (quietly) munch on during the performance.
Feb.2 ~ Feb. 26
11:00, 16:30 daily
The easiest way to get tickets is to call Hakata-za at 092 263 5555 (Japanese speaking only) or visit the theater in Hakata Riverain. Prices range from 5,250 yen to 17,850 yen. Alternatively, if you want to see just one show, buy a makumi ticket on the day of the performance (you may only buy tickets for yourself). Available from 10am, these ‘one-act tickets’ start at 630 yen for a short act, with 2,100 yen for longer acts. Makumi tickets are for seats on the third level balcony. Students also receive a half-price discount but you can only buy these 20 min. before the performance. For group bookings of 15 or more, call Hakata-za at 092 263 5880 (Japanese speaking only).
Hakata-za offers all patrons of kabuki performances free headsets which narrate the play in modern Japanese, as opposed to the ancient dialects used on stage. If your modern day Japanese is better than your Edo-era slang, this will be much appreciated.
Hakata-za has a Kimono Day on Feb. 4th and 5th. Turn up in your best kimono to watch the kabuki and receive a small free gift.
At the end of May is Funanorikomi, when the actors performing in the kabuki play sit atop a ceremonial boat and float down the Hakata river. There are also Japanese flute and drum players, and from the riverbanks, kabuki fans will shout the actor’s house names. Funanorikomi is now only performed at Hakata and Osaka, so it is a very unique event to observe. Go, watch, and be transported to another time and place…
Originally published in Fukuoka Now magazine (fn86 Feb. 2006)