Interesting Facts About Kabuki Theatre

by David Harris
Kabuki has long been an important part of Japan's artistic tradition.

Kabuki has long been an important part of Japan's artistic tradition. Images

Kabuki is a style of Japanese theater. It originated in the 17th century and is still performed in Japan today. Kabuki is known for the elaborate makeup and costumes worn by its actors. It is a combination of dance and a theatrical play. The development of the art form was influenced by both the Japanese society and government of the Edo period (1603 to 1868).


Kabuki originated with Okuni, a shrine dancer. She set up a performance space in a dry riverbed in 1603 near Kyoto, where she performed a mixture of folk and religious dances. The dancing drew the interest of people of lower castes and soon acting troupes began to imitate this style of dance. The art form became more and more popular until 1688, which is when playwrights began to craft Kabuki around complete stories.


About 10,000 different plays have been written since Kabuki began but most of them have vanished with time. Today, about 200 stories are performed. Most Kabuki plays fall into two categories: Jidaimono and Sewamono. Jidaimono mainly deals with the lives of aristocracy. However, since dramatizing nobility during the Edo period was forbidden, the stories deal with people prior to the 17th century. Sewamono plays deal more with common people, mainly farmers and merchants. The stories deal with life during the Edo period and can be compared to soap operas.


Kabuki theater makes elaborate use of make-up during its productions. A major style used in Kabuki, called kumadori, uses dark lines to create a mask-like effect on the performer's face. Actors also apply colors to their faces to highlight the temperament or emotion of their character. For example, an actor using a deep red is angry or indignant, purple is reserved for nobility while black equals gloom or terror. Many Kabuki stories will feature supernatural creatures so an actor with a completely red face is often a demon.


Kabuki theater utilizes numerous traditional Japanese instruments in its productions. However, the basic musical elements weren't codified until late in the 18th century. Besides the use of drums and flutes, Kabuki also showcases the Shamsen, a long, three stringed instrument that resembles the banjo. The human voice is also an important part of the musical ensemble as the actors sing the narration to let the audience know what is happening in the story.

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