By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterExplaining the traditional Japanese performing art of kabuki is very challenging. Even if you look it up in a dictionary, you won’t learn exactly what it is, as kabuki is described simply as a type of theater particular to Japan that originated in the early modern period and was developed via the culture of the Edo period (1603-1867).
People likely have an image of kabuki as something performed only by men, an art in which actors wear elaborate makeup and abruptly strike distinctive static poses after moving dynamically. This is true about today’s kabuki, but was not the case in the past.
Kabuki is said to date back to “kabuki odori” (kabuki dancing) initiated by the female performer Izumo no Okuni on the banks of the Kamogawa river in Kyoto. Authorities later banned the dancing, claiming it would corrupt public morals. As a result, kabuki shifted to a style in which only men perform. In this way, kabuki has mirrored society in successive periods and continued for 400 years while changing its forms freely, like an amoeba.
The name of kabuki derives from the Japanese word “kabuku,” which means acting and dressing out of the ordinary. In other words, it could mean “the most advanced fashion.”
The current kanji for kabuki took root in the Meiji era (1868-1912), including the Chinese character for “ka” meaning song and that for “bu” meaning dance. The kanji for “ki” — a combination of ninben, a kanji radical signifying a person, and a Chinese character meaning support — means moving with a leaning posture. With these all kanji characters combined, the word means “movement by an actor who sings and dances.”
To learn about kabuki, it’s best to go and see it firsthand instead of studying this and that. The Kabukiza Theatre in Higashiginza, Tokyo, is one of Japan’s most active in terms of holding performances, putting on day and evening plays most days.
People tend to describe kabuki as a performing art that’s hard to understand, with actors using words from long ago. This is indeed true, but it’s not a particular problem even if you don’t understand. For example, the matinee for May at the theater is “Kanjincho,” a popular kabuki play in which the three major characters mostly deliver lines with old and difficult terms used in the Edo period. Even I, a Japanese native, can’t follow more than half of what they say.
However, spectators can fully enjoy the program if they know this is a story about how the lead character Benkei dedicates himself completely to protecting his master Minamoto no Yoshitsune and getting him past a road barrier — whatever it takes.
Another feature of kabuki is the hereditary system involving families and actors to turn out kabuki stars. “Kanjincho” is a specialty of Naritaya, the family stage name of Ichikawa Ebizo, who plays the role of Benkei in the May program. The role has been played by Naritaya members thousands of times, including Ebizo and his forebearers.
Ardent kabuki fans come to the theater to see how Ebizo plays the role differently from his past performances, or what the similarities and differences between him and his predecessors are.
Having interviewed many kabuki actors, I sense that they have a strong sense of pride in carrying on a traditional art with a 400-year history. Kabuki is not only entertainment for people today, it also respects its forerunners and tradition. I believe this balance has kept kabuki what it is.