Essay on Kabuki: A Japanese Form

This essay has a total of 2426 words and 10 pages.

Kabuki: A Japanese Form

Kabuki: A Japanese Form

Japan's dances and dramas as they are seen today contain 1300 years of continuous
uninterrupted history. This prodigious feat of conservation, theatrically speaking, makes
Japan an extraordinary and unique country. In all of Asia, where tradition generally is
sanctified and change eschewed, Japan stands as the only country whose theatre is its
entirety has never suffered an eclipse nor undergone any drastic revivification or
renovation. The most traditional form of Japanese theatre is kabuki. Its origin goes back
to the latter part of the 16th century and, with extensive and continuous evolution, it
has now been perfected into a state of classical refinement. Though not as flourishing as
it once was, the kabuki theatre retains wide popularity among the people, and is in fact
drawing quite large audiences even now.

During the period generally referred to as the Edo Era, during which much of the
development of kabuki took place, distinctions between the warrior class and the commoners
was more rigidly observed than at any other time in Japan's history. Mainly the merchants
cultivated the art of kabuki in those days. They had become increasingly powerful
economically, but had to remain socially inferior as they belonged to the commoner class.
To them kabuki was most significant as the artistic means by which to express their
emotions under the prevailing conditions. Thus, the fundamental themes of kabuki plays are
conflicts between humanity and the feudalistic system. It is largely due to this
humanistic quality of the art that it gained such an enduring popularity among the general
public of those days and remains this way today.

A unique feature of the kabuki art, and possibly the most significant detail and in
keeping with the kabuki spirit of unusualness, is the fact that it has no actresses
whatsoever (Bowers 325). Male impersonators known as onnagata play all female parts. The
players of the kabuki drama in its primitive stage were principally women, and with the
increasing popularity of kabuki, many of the actresses began to attract undue attention
from male admirers. The authorities felt that this would lead to a serious demoralization
of the public and in 1629 the theatrical appearance of women was officially banned.

However, since the public already accepted kabuki, men immediately took over and have
continued performing to the present. The ban on actresses was in effect for about 250
years. In the mean time kabuki brought to perfection the art of the onnagata. As a result,
there was no room for actresses in kabuki when the ban was lifted. Moreover, the art of
onnagata had become such an integral part of kabuki that, if deprived of this element, the
traditional quality of kabuki could be lost forever.

Another important characteristic of kabuki is that it is a wide-ranging and accumulative
theatre (Hsu, 73). Born at the turn of the 16th century, it incorporated parts of all the
preceding theatre forms of Japan. Among the traditional arts from which kabuki has drawn
from, stage techniques and repertoire are the noh drama and the kyogen play. The kyogen
plays are the comic interludes presented between the noh performances. Today, the number
of Japanese who appreciate noh proper is far smaller than that of those who favor kabuki,
but those kabuki plays adapted from or inspired by noh plays enjoy a wide popularity and
constitute an essential portion of the entire kabuki repertoire (Mackerras, 132).

Another area from which kabuki has borrowed elements is the puppet theatre, often referred
to as bunraku. The development of bunraku roughly paralleled that of earlier kabuki. In
kabuki, the primary importance has always been placed on the actor rather than on any
other aspect of the art, such as literary value of a play. During the early 17th century,
some of the great writers, including Monzaemon Chikamatsu, often called the "Shakespeare
of Japan", left kabuki with its actors' domination and turned to the puppet theatre where
their creative genius was more or less unrestricted. As a result, there was a period when
puppets overshadowed actors and the puppet theatre was more popular than kabuki. To meet
this competition, kabuki adopted virtually all the puppet plays. Thus, today more than
half of the conventional kabuki plays except for a group of dance-dramas is of bunraku
origin. A final example of kabuki's all-embracing acquisitiveness came at the end of the
19th century, which added an element of literary realism to the art (Bowers, 330).

Until kabuki, the people of Japan had never seen theatre of such color, glamour,
excitement and general astonishment. In these qualities, perhaps no theatre elsewhere in
the world can excel the kabuki drama (Hsu, 70).

There are about 300 plays in the conventional kabuki repertoire. Previously, the
playwrights of the kabuki theatre itself supplied the plays almost exclusively.

There is a group of plays in the repertoire designated as shosa-goto, or dance-drama,
which is primarily and almost entirely dance. In the dance-drama, actors dance to the full
accompaniment of vocal and instrumental music. Many plays tell a complete story, while
others are scarcely more than partial dance pieces. Many of them have their origin in the
noh drama and the kyogen plays. Kanjincho (The Temple Offering List),Musume Dojoji (Maiden
of the Dojoji Temple), Migawari Zazen (The Substitute), and Takatsuki (The Clog Dance) are
examples of the dance-drama(Mackerras, 140).

The remainder of the kabuki plays may be divided into two categories from the standpoint
of theme and dramatic persona. Historical dramas, known as jidai mono's, depict historical
facts or present dramatized accounts of warriors or nobles. Many of them are heavy
tragedies relieved only by momentary flashes of comedy. Some of the texts come from the
puppet plays and they often call upon the hero to make the greatest possible sacrifices.
For example, Chushingura, one of the most celebrated kabuki adaptations of a bunraku play,
tells the famous story of the forty-seven lordless knights. These men avenged the enforced
self-sacrifice of their master after years of patient waiting and plotting, and, for this
act, they also were compelled to commit suicide.

The second category of kabuki plays is domestic dramas. These plays, also known as sewa
mono, invariably depict the life of the plebian class. The center of attention is focused
upon the commoner. Kagotsurube (The Courtesan) and Tsubosaka-Dera (Miracle at Tsubosaka)
are representatives of this group of plays. The domestic drama is essentially a realistic
story. Nevertheless, it is not infrequent that plays of this type have scenes where the
acting and staging become unrealistic, with emphasis placed upon such superficial aspects
as elocution and splendid colors rather than upon internal elements like the logical
consistency of the plot (Bowers, 330).

In terms of origin, kabuki plays can be classified into the three groups. The first is
plays adapted from noh and kyogen dramas. A substantial number of comic dance plays were
adapted from kyogen, such as Migawari Zazen. Dance plays of a more serious nature, such as
Kanjincho and Musume Dojoji, were adapted from regular noh plays. These are characterized
by exceeding grace and dignity, reflective of the noble atmosphere of their origins. The
stage setting for many of these plays was adapted directly from the noh theatre. It
consists of only a panel background showing an aged pine tree and two side wings with
pictures of bamboo groves.

Plays adapted from the puppet theatre are the second category of origin for kabuki. In
these plays a large part of the text is derived almost verbatim from their originals. They
are still performed in a unique style unique to the puppet theatre. A singer and his
accompanist sit at the right of the stage on a podium, in full view of the audience, as in
the puppet theatre. But the actors, with narratives and descriptive passages left to the
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