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Kabuki: The traditional Japanese theatre transformed by technology

...but for all the forward steps, women are still not allowed to perform. Ben Swindlehurst reports

Thursday 17 January 2019 14:20 GMT
(Getty Images)

With roots in early 17th century Japan, the traditional form of Japanese theatre know as kabuki has been entertaining audiences for hundreds of years. Now, thanks to embracing new technology, this mainstay of Japanese culture is reaching a more global audience.

However, for all the forward steps, women are still banned from performing in kabuki on the bigger stages.

In early forms of kabuki, theatres would have all-female performances known as “onna kabuki” and all-male ones known as “yaro kabuki”.

Often onnagata and male actors specialising in adolescent female roles, known as wakashu, were the object of the fans’ attention and as a result many of these actors, male and female, would become prostitutes.

Prostitution around kabuki would be the norm until 1629, when women were banned from performing in a bid to curb the practice and the violence their patrons would inflict. This change was ultimately unsuccessful, however, as onnagata’s male counterparts were also perused by the customers of kabuki and so young men were also prohibited from performing.

Many performers are descended from prestigious acting families and learn the craft at a very young age. For those looking to learn kabuki, the only way you used to be able to do this was to be from within one of these family groups.

However, in modern times people from other backgrounds are now able to learn at the National Theatre in Tokyo, which offers training for young hopefuls looking for a way in without the family heritage.

The era known as the golden age, from 1770 to the 1780s, is actually thought to be from 1673 to 1841. During this period the popularity of kabuki continued to flourish and many of the structures of the play recognised today were introduced.

Woodblock print from the 18th century depics the traditional kabuki theatre (Rex)

It was also during this period that elements of style and the character types would become established. Namiki Shozo created many of the stage mechanisms used in the shows, such as cable systems, enabling actors to fly across the stage, or a hinged roof that would open to reveal the action inside for the audience to see. Shozo also created large trapdoors within the stage so that a whole scene could disappear in a moment.

There is a wide range of topics that kabuki covers, from a realistic drama to a fantastical mythic adventure. Often the most popular plays portray a clash between social classes and those that show a commoner gaining victory over their social superior.

The plays are spilt into distinct styles, the jidaimono style portrays fantastic epics of feudal Japan, often with mythical elements. These plays are set in the distant past and it is thought that this style was first adopted by playwrights to avoid censorship from the Edo period rulers who would censor anything considered to be criticism of their rule.

Jidaimono plays are highly stylised with extravagant costumes reflecting the fashions of the time.

The sewamono style is more realistic and recounts the lives of the average person in the Edo period. Often this style will be based around true events and would avoid mythical elements. These plays would also be subject to censorship from the authorities, with plays featuring double suicides committed by lovers, and were periodically banned after they became popular.

The third category is the shosagoto style. These plays focus on music and dancing, with the dances considered to be the leading element.

It is rare that kabuki plays of any style would deal with topical issues of the day. Their main theme is the classic victory of good over evil and the virtuous over the deceitful.

The makeup and costumes and special moments

To many who watch kabuki the most distinctive feature is painted across the faces of the performers. In an art form where conveying emotion is considered paramount above all else, makeup is used to bring this to the audience in addition to the characters’ social standing, making vigorous characters stand out from the crowd.

The main characters will feature in pure white makeup, which is associated with refinement and aristocracy, in stark contrast to the more neutral tones of characters portraying commoners and servants.

Shido Nakamura performs in ‘Hanakurabe Senbonzakura’ (Getty) (Getty Images)

The distinctive red and blue markings are used to exaggerate facial features and indicate whether they are hero or villain to the audience – red for hero and blue for villain.

The costumes used in kabuki can range from elaborate feudal style for jidaimono or more accurate historical dress for depictions of everyday life in the sewamono style plays. Costumes are used in a variety of ways, often to convey hidden messages to the audience; the different colours or even embroidered details such as flowers can hold symbolic meanings and the act of simply revealing a sleeve of a kimono can portray a secret message to those in the audience who know what to look for.

Costumes can also be used in dance sequences with parts of them attached to cables to allow for quick changes.

Kabuki today holds true to many of the traditional conventions of the past and plays are regularly shown across the cities and towns of Japan to packed theatres.

With the introduction of modern technology such as earphones providing translations during live performances and western-style seating in the larger venues, kabuki is now reaching international audiences.

Modern kabuki also takes advantage of lighting and practical effects to improve on the classic methods used over hundreds of years.

Performances have evolved in regards to their length; in the past, plays would be performed in an entire day and people would visit to watch a particular scene. Now, plays are still long with an average run time of five hours, which includes an intermission, but it means the performances are far more appealing to audiences.

In recent years, kabuki has gone against its isolationist roots with some troupes touring the world with tours in America, Europe and Russia.

Although smaller theatres have embraced women back into the productions, the larger ones remain closed to them.

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