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Things Japanese - Kabuki

Kabuki is a traditional Japanese theaterical art form founded in the early 17th Century. It was created by a woman called Okuni from Kyoto, and uses song and dance to tell stories of famous historical events or the everyday lives of people from the Edo period (1600-1868). From being performed by a group of women in the ancient capital of Kyoto 300 hundred years ago, it has developed into what it is today - a blend of traditional dance, song and music (provided by few musicians on the side of the stage). In these early days of Kabuki most of the women that acted on stage acted as prostitutes off stage and in an effort to protect public morales, the government banned women from the stage. It has been said that this ban on women was a positive move because it meant that there was more of a focus on skill rather then the beauty of the performers and more of a stress on drama than dance. This resulted in Kabuki plays being written men and performed solely by men - even the female roles. Men who play the roles of women are referred to as "onnagata" - female role specialists. Only recently (in the past 20 or 30 years) has a separate all-female form of kabuki appeared, and has gained a certain amount of popularity and prestige, but not to the same level as the all-male version.

Kabuki's form and standing in Japan changed over the years from it's inception. The last part of the 17th century - known as the Genroku period - was a time when Kabuki flourished, and it was during this period that the stylizations that would form the base of Kabuki were created. Kabuki continued to develop after the Genroku period and although it was one of the most popular art forms in Japan at the time, Buraku puppet theater, which influenced Kabuki became more popular.

Not to be 'outdone' by Buraku, Kabuki actors responded by taking the movements of the puppets in Buraku, adapting them for the stage, and creating stylized movements to mimic the puppets themselves. Towards the end of the 18th century there was a trend towards realism and the switch of the cultural center from Kyoto and Osaka to Edo. The opening of Japan to the West in 1868 affected Kabuki as it did the rest of Japan and though there were less restrictions placed on it by the government, Kabuki had to change with the world around it. Kabuki survived government oppression during the Edo period, the loss of many young actors in World War II and censorship by occupation forces after the war, but faced its most difficult time when more accessable, mass forms of entertainment like movies and television came to the fore.

Many similarities have been drawn between Shakesperean theatre and Kabuki and between Shakespeare himself and Chikamatsu Monzaemon who is regarded as Kabuki's greatest playwright and is often referred to as the "Shakespeare of Japan". Chikamatsu was one of the first professional playwrights in Kabuki though his most famous works were for the Bunraku puppet theater. Especially popular were his love suicide plays, in which a young couple would decide to take their own lives when social pressures kept them from being together. Chikamatsu's works for the puppet theater were often adapted for Kabuki, and he repeatedly used stylizations from Kabuki in his Bunraku scripts (the best example being the use of "aragoto" in his play "Kokusenya Kassen"). This trend of borrowing between the two theaters continued and spurred the growth of both Kabuki and Bunraku. The "aragoto or 'rough style' of acting is shown by the dramatic make-up and costumes of the performers. Parallels have also been made to the rise of kabuki in Japan and Shakespearean theatre in England. Both emerged at approximately the same time, when the merchant classes were increasing in power and influence. In Shakespearean theatre male actors played all female roles, and there are several parallels in stage technique and style of delivery. Like the work of Shakespeare, the old stories and characters in the plays are all familiar to those in the know even though the language itself is often antiquated and hard to follow. But while the Bard's masterpieces are still widely popular among all ages, kabuki is no longer of much interest to younger Japanese people with udiences tending to be made up of older people.

Some young people and many foreigners find Kabuki a little boring and difficult understand. Five hours of sitting and watching something that is barely comprehensible because of the old language which is used has meant that Kabuki's popularity is not what was it was, though there has been a small increase in popularity recently amongst young people. For English speakers the addition of cassette tapes with translations at many of the theatres will help people to get an insight into one of Japan's great theatrical traditions.

If you can't cope with sitting through a whole five hour play then a couple of hours would be more than enough time for you to get the feel of Kabuki. Twice each year, in the spring and fall, Misonoza in Nagoya stages a collection of kabuki performances and at the Kabukiza theater in Tokyo, Shin-Kabukiza in Osaka or the Minamiza in Kyoto you can also see perfomances regualarly taking place. At Kabukiza, for example, there is a separate box-office for seats on the 4th floor, where you can enjoy a single part of the program for around 500 Yen. Seats for a full program range in price from 2,400 yen to 16,000 yen depending on where you sit.



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