Introduction to Kabuki Theatre

by Nola Moore
Japanese Kabuki theatre features exaggerated costumes and acting.

Japanese Kabuki theatre features exaggerated costumes and acting.

Bruno Vincent/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Japanese kabuki theatre is instantly recognizable because of the elaborate costumes and makeup worn by the actors, but the plays themselves can be very confusing for those new to the style. Kabuki's 400-year history has resulted in a rich tradition in which each element of the performance has layers of meaning.


Kabuki began in 1603 as an exclusively female art form. The term "kabuki" means to slant or to be offbeat, and performances were risque and subversive. About 30 years after the first performances, the shogunate (rulers of the time) outlawed female performances because they were believed to be dangerous. From that point on, kabuki became an exclusively male art form and remains so to this day. Kabuki has evolved in the last 400 years, but much of the costume and performance style still reflects those early days.

Exaggerated Style

Nearly everything in kabuki is exaggerated in some way. Costumes are bold, props are oversize, and performances are caricatures. The idea of this flamboyant style is to be "more real than real," magnifying and examining the nuances of story rather than simply mirroring everyday life. Although performances are stylized, actors take great care to provide an authentic performance. Again, the idea is to amplification rather than subtlety.

Actors and Characters

All the characters in kabuki theatre are played by men, including female roles. Characters can be fictional or historic, depending on the play. No matter what, each actor brings his own signature style to the part. Kabuki actors are well-known for their stage personas, and many attain celebrity status both in Japan and around the world. A great kabuki actor must transcend the style to make the part come alive without stepping outside the boundaries of the form itself.

Subjects and Themes

There are two major categories of kabuki subjects: the jidaimono and the sewamono. Jidaimodo deals with the aristocracy in the pre-Edo (pre-kabuki) period. These are stories of heroics and intrigue, run through with themes of honor and revenge. Sewamono stories are those of everyday people: love affairs and the duties of family, work and country. Primarily based in the Edo period (1603-1868), these stories reflect themes of loyalty and duty that were highly valued in Japanese society at that time.

About the Author

Nola Moore is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles, Calif. She has more than 20 years of experience working in and writing about finance and small business. She has a Bachelor of Science in retail merchandising. Her clients include The Motley Fool, Proctor and Gamble and NYSE Euronext.

Photo Credits

  • Bruno Vincent/Getty Images News/Getty Images