Kabuki is a traditional form of theater that originated in the Edo Period (1603–1867) – a relatively peaceful time in which popular culture flourished. Unlike the older and more refined Japanese Noh theater, Kabuki was popularised by the lower classes who loved it for its universal themes of love, tragedy and conflict and its outrageously flamboyant costumes.
There are several things that make a Kabuki play distinct:
- All the actors are men: the Tokugawa Shogunate forbade women from acting in the late Edo Period – actors who specialise in playing female roles are known as Onna-gata (woman-role).
- Colorful costumes, elaborate wigs and make-up: different styles of make-up are used to differentiate between the heroes and villains and white face paint is always used as the foundation
- A rotating stage (kabuki no butai): the stage rotates to change scenes and has trapdoors through which actors can appear and disappear
- Traditional music: Kabuki performances are accompanied by the shamisen, a guitar-like instrument with only three strings
- All day performances: Kabuki, like other traditional forms of drama in Japan, was always performed in full-day programs – these days many of the plays have been shortened to account for today’s time-poor audiences!
Kabuki audiences interact with the play and yell out the names of the actors – many of whom are quite famous and also appear in television and film roles. At many theaters you can rent audio guide players in English to help you understand what’s happening.
Tokyo has several theaters that stage traditional Kabuki, the main ones being Meiji-za; Shinbashi Enbujo; the National Theater and Kabukiza (which is currently closed for renovation until 2013).