A Brief Introduction to Kabuki Theater

My wife has been a big fan of Kabuki Theater since her days as a young lady in Japan, and loves to follow some of its most famous actors, and occasionally watches DVDs of it too. However, with the lockdown, the National Theatre of Tokyo has started sharing some videos of famous plays on Youtube for free until April 30th. This play is the famous Yoshitsuné Senbon Zakura based on the life of famous warlord Minamoto no Yoshitsune (dressed in white) and his companion the eccentric warrior-monk Benkei (the guy with the wild makeup in black):1

Even if you can’t understand Japanese (no subtitles, sorry), I highly recommend taking the time to watch this as the quality is excellent, and a rare treat to watch.

Odori-keiyō Edo-e no Sakae by Toyokuni Utagawa III, depicting the July 1858 production of Shibaraku. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Kabuki, for those not familiar, is a traditional form of Japanese theater that started in the late-medieval Edo Period as a form of street theater frequently found in urban red-light districts. The Shogunate tried to stamp it out this “scandalous street theater” through various regulations, but these ultimately failed, and in time Kabuki was more widely accepted, especially during the high water-mark of Edo Period culture, the Genroku Period,2 and is now considered a high art-form.

Kabuki is comparatively younger than the venerable Theater which was frequently was patronized by the upper-classes in Japan, especially the noble families surrounding the Emperor. Nō still retains a certain “aristocratic” air compared to Kabuki, but both are treated as cultural treasures.

Going to Kabuki Theater is not unlike going to a fancy Broadway musical: the good seats are quite pricey, and people usually dress up for the occasion. At the famous Kabuki-za Theater (English site) in Tokyo you can pay to watch the entire play or buy tickets to watch a single “act” instead. Obviously, the latter is cheaper, and might only take up an hour or two, but you don’t necessarily get the full experience. The fact that you can now watch certain plays via YouTube above is pretty significant.

Kabuki lead actors are big celebrities in Japan, and have a strict lineage system like many traditional arts in Japan. For example, my wife is a big fan of one actor named Ichikawa Ebizō XI (市川 海老蔵, born 1977) who is the latest successor of the Ichikawa Danjurō lineage that goes all the way back to the 17th century. Ebizo is his “stage name”, not his birth name, and when he succeeds his father in May 2020, he will take on the stage name “Danjurō” instead becoming the 13th holder of that name. But colloquially, most people just know him these days as “Ebizo” since he is a household name.

As for me, I have been to the Kabuki-za Theater before, but we were not able to get seats that day as it was booked up, so instead we went to the Kabuki-za Gallery next door. I highly recommend it. It was very foreign-friendly, and pretty interesting throughout:

Also shown, my 3-year old son’s fuzzy head in the lower-left corner.
He had a huge head of curly hair back in those days. 🥰

The best part is a life-size recreation of the stage itself. This is a recreation of the entrance to the left-size (stage right) aisle you see in Kabuki called the hanamichi (花道):

I have to admit, I had a good time:

While I don’t follow Kabuki as closely as my wife does, I admit I do enjoy it. It is a pretty fascinating form of theater and the traditions around it are a fascinating window into Edo Period culture in Tokyo. I for one will be enjoying these Kabuki plays on Youtube. In fact, as you’re reading this, I might already be doing that. 🉐

Enjoy while you can!

1 If you’re seeing this after April 30th, my apologies. But go see the Kabuki-za if you can!

2 Much of what people associate with “Tokyo culture” and life has roots in the Edo Period, especially the Genroku Period.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: