TOURIST LIBRARY 23
JAPAN TRAVEL BUREAU
Copyright 1953, fourth edition
Total 133 pages
Kabuki is a Japanese theatrical art based on song and dance. Developed to capture
popular appeal, it is a feast for the senses in which male actors portray a wide
range of characters with symbolic expressions and lively dance. Types of kabuki
plays include “aragoto” (drama on “masculine” themes), “jidaimono” (historical plays),
“sewamono” (plays on everyday themes from Osaka), and “kizewamono” (similar to sewamono
but coming from Tokyo), and dance pieces. The eighteen plays which were most successful
on the Edo stage are known as “Kabuki Juhachiban” (Eighteen Best Plays).
Please enjoy these excerpts from “Kabuki Drama”
Origins of Kabuki
The Kabuki was first created by an actress by the name of Okuni who lived in Izumo
about four centuries ago. In its original form the Kabuki was not a play, but a
type of primitive dance called Nembutsu Odori, or “prayer dance.”
Shortly afterward, the drama was monopolized by male actors, and features of the
Noh, a classical play of music and dance, were incorporated into the Kabuki. The
present stage of development has been attained through the efforts of male players
alone. The earliest period of the Kabuki, when it consisted of dancing only by female
players, was of short duration. After the cast came to be made up entirely by male
players, the Kabuki play was designed to tell a story and it was enriched in its
contents. The foundation of the present-day Kabuki was thus laid in those early
Because of the all-male cast the best-looking actors naturally come to take the
roles of female characters. Such actors are called onnagata, or oyama. This art
of female impersonation by men has made remarkable progress during the past three
centuries. Onnagata are trained for their work from early childhood. Before the
Meiji Restoration (1868), onnagata, dressed in female costume oif the stage as well
as on and every effort was made by them to be like a woman in everyday life. The
result was a marked advance in the art of impersonation making it possible for trained
actors to represent women of all sorts and conditions on the stage. This is one
of the most conspicuous features of the Kabuki play.
A spirited lion (center) sports with the butterflies, flitting about among the peony
flowers—a performance that typifies the symbolism of Kabuki art. This manly dance
of the lion played in the second scene of Kagami Jishi " (see P. 116) contrasts
greatly with the graceful dancing of the pretty maiden acted by the same actor in
the first scene.
The corridor into the audience, or “Hanamichi”
Hanamichi, or “flower way,” is a passage leading to the stage through the left section
of the theater. There is diverse opinion as to the history of the hanamichi, and
no detailed account of it can be given here. Suffice it to say that the hanamichi
has been in use for about two centuries. The passage of the actors on to the stage
over the hanamichi is called de (advance) and the passage back from the stage to
the exit screened with a small curtain termed agemaku, is called hikkomi (withdrawal).
The use of the hanamichi is considered very important and productive of histrionic
Players on the passage to the stage
The hanamichi is sometimes doubled to enhance the spectacular effect and maintain
closer contact with the audience. The auxiliary passage, kari- hanamichi (“provisional
flower way”), runs parallel on the opposite side of the main passage, and it is
narrower than the hanamichi by about one-third.
The ki and the mie
In the Kabuki, ki or wooden clappers invariably accompany the pulling on and off
of the curtain. Ki or hyoshigi are a pair of square-shaped sticks made of hard kashi
wood. The clapper is about three inches thick and about a foot long. The hyoshigi
are clapped by a kyogenkata, who is a sort of assistant to the stage manager. The
peculiar, sharp sounds of the hyoshigi, like the sound of the bell or the gong of
the Western plays, are used to punctuate the beginning, close, or intervals of a
play. Simple as it may seem, considerable skill is really required for the proper
operation of the hyoshigi.
The Eighteen Best Plays
A CHIVALROUS MAN IN " SHIBARAKU," ONE OF "THE EIGHTEEN BEST PLAYS"
Reproduction of the color print by Toyokuni Utagaivo the first (1769- 1825), owned
by the Theatrical Arts Museum at Waseda University
As already mentioned, the eighteen masterpieces selected from the plays of Kabuki
origin staged since the birth of the Kabuki about two centuries and a half ago are
collectively styled “Kabuki Juhachiban.” These eighteen were the repertoire of the
nine generations of the illustrious Ichikawas from the first Danjur5 of the Genroku
period (1688—1703) to the ninth in the Meiji era. The plays have been the monopoly
of the Ichikawas, and even now the rights of printing and staging them are in the
hands of the present representive of the family. About ten out of the eighteen are
now staged, the rest having died a natural death. The following seven are considered
by general consent to be of greatest merit:—“Sukeroku” (The Love of Sukeroku, an
Edo Beau), “Kanjinchd” (A Faithful Retainer), “Shiba- raku” (Stop a Minute!), “Yanone”
(The Arrow-head), “Kenuki” (Hair Tweezers), “Narukami” (Thunder), and “Kamahige”
(Shaving with a Large Sickle).
Of these seven, “Sukeroku” and “Kanjincho” are the most distinguished, being the
best of the plays of Kabuki origin. All the plays of the “Kabuki Juhachiban” are
characterized by the spirit of hero-worship, and are labelled Aragoto, or plays
of masculine character, and are theatrical products peculiar to Edo.
Symbolism in kabuki
As has repeatedly been stated, realism and rationalism must not be sought in a Kabuki
play, which is not a play to be heard, but rather a sort of revue to please the
eye. In revues, however, reality and truth are not lost sight of by their writers
in their work of presenting the beautiful. Though there are some exceptions, the
contrary method is used by the Kabuki dramatist. He aims at the beautiful presentation
of the unreal and the unnatural. This point is dwelt on at some length in the following
There is a well-known play named “Suzugamori,” (At Suzugamori), which belongs to
the Kizewamono class. In this play one sees at the opening, when the curtain is
drawn off, a black curtain in the background. This kuromaku, as the black curtain
is called in the language of the Kabuki stage, symbolizes the darkness of night.
The suggestion of a black night is what it is intended to convey, and it is needless
for the spectator to inquire whether it is a rice-field or a hill that is hidden.
In the same scene there is at the right and left a sort of two fold screen called
yabudatami made of bamboo and bamboo twigs. This represents a bamboo grove. Sometimes
a sea is symbolized by a board on which are painted waves—technically called namiita.
It will be seen that, in stage scenery as in other features, the Kabuki play is
essentially symbolic in technique. It is important that the audience should be prepared
to adjust their minds to symbolic representation.
It is related of the fifth Danjuro Ichikawa, one of Japan's stage stars who lived
in Edo more than one hundred years ago, that when taking a meal on the stage he
never used real boiled rice, but instead had some white cotton in the bowl, which
he manipulated so skilfully that the audience was deceived. This shows what his
idea of art was like. The art of Kabuki consists not in making the real look real,
but in making the unreal look real. From this it may be argued that symbolistic
representation is the soul of Kabuki.
Let us take up the case of the mie already explained. The straining of the eyes
and a steady gaze which make up the pose of mie may seem unnatural, but this is
the Kabuki way of emphasizing the senses of excitement,sorrow, and emotion.
In the appreciation of the Kabuki, therefore, one must be richly endowed with imagination;
otherwise one will fail to understand the symbolic and impressionistic expression
of the Kabuki. One must also be a person of great sensibility, who is capable of
perceiving beauty in the apparent grotesqueness and cruelty of a kubijikken or who
discovers a dramatic element in harakiri. Only with such imagination and such sensibility
can one penetrate into a feeling intricate but common to all humanity roughly represented
by a mie, a pose reinforced by the sound of wooden clappers.