Shozo Sato, a Kabuki master, presents an overview of Kabuki, pointing out major characteristics such as male actors, stylized acting, and audience. He also discusses the distinction between Kabuki and Noh theater, the other classical Japanese theatrical style.
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In the early 1600s, while Elizabethan drama revolutionized English theater, another groundbreaking form of theater was captivating audiences in the Far East. Kabuki theater, a spectacular blend of singing, dancing, and acting, emerged in Japan at the beginning of the Edo Period (about 1603). During this peaceful period, Japan experienced prolonged economic security, which gave rise to an affluent and visible merchant class (the chounin).
Chounin audiences, newly wealthy and hungry for entertainment, considered Kabuki theater to be an appealing alternative to traditional Noh theater, an understated and aristocratic theatrical experience using dance and masks. Though Kabuki theater borrowed many elements from the Noh tradition, it cast off the elegance and refinement of Noh theater in favor of lavishness and exaggeration. From the start, the ruling Tokugawa government believed Kabuki was a corrupting influence that encouraged the intermingling of classes and made many attempts over the years to control its influence.
Kabuki literally means “sing, dance, skill.” A shrine dancer named Okuni is credited with giving birth to Kabuki by performing a series of dances in a dry riverbed in Kyoto. Early Kabuki (Onna Kabuki) consisted mainly of dance performances done by women. In 1629, the governing officials deemed these dances a threat to public morals and prohibited women from performing in Kabuki. Following the edict, young men’s Kabuki (Wakushu Kabuki) became popular, but it too was outlawed.
In Kabuki theater, actors wear elaborate costumes and makeup representing traditional Japanese culture. It is known for its creative and symbolic use of props. A paper fan, a popular Kabuki prop, can be used to represent a tray, a sunrise, the wind, rain, cutting with a knife, drinking, and much more.
In 1830, the characteristic form of Kabuki stage was developed including a hanamichi, or flower-walk ramp that extends into the audience, and a low proscenium, which gives the stage a wider, rectangular appearance.
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