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Kabuki Dance: Definition, History & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Kabuki is one of Japan's most cherished arts, but how much do you know about it? In this lesson, we'll explore the history of kabuki and see how it's changed over time.

Kabuki

If you ever take a trip to Japan, there a few things you definitely want to see. Go to a Japanese garden and participate in a tea ceremony. Catch up on popular culture in the form of manga or anime. And whatever you do, don't miss a chance to experience kabuki.

Kabuki being performed
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Kabuki is one of the preeminent theatrical art forms in Japan, as well as the first one developed to entertain the working classes. To tell a story, kabuki relies on a mixture of mime, acting, and vocal performance, along with extravagant costumes and makeup. At the heart of kabuki, however, is dance. Dance-like movements and rhythms define characters and propel the story, as well as the skill and repute of the actor. It's one of Japan's most cherished forms of traditional entertainment.

History of Kabuki Dance and Theater

Kabuki is a unique kind of theatrical performance. Around the world, theater from opera to Greek classics were largely designed for the wealthy and the educated. It was a form of high art, meant for refined patrons. Kabuki was different, developed as a form of entertainment for the masses. With such a unique place in the arts, it's no surprise to see that kabuki has a unique history of its own.

The story of kabuki begins with a young woman who worked as an attendant of the Grand Shrine of Izumo, named Izumo no Okuni. Around the year 1600, Okuni began capturing attention by dressing in flamboyant styles that often incorporated men's clothing. With these attention-grabbing outfits, she began performing public dances in dry riverbeds in Kyoto, creating a form of daily entertainment that merchants, farmers, and others could come and watch. By 1603, Okuni had refined her dancing and developed the style of kabuki.

Okuni, dressed as a samurai
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Okuni gathered other young women and formed the first kabuki dance troupe, which would travel around giving performances of this dance style. Unlike the esoteric arts of the elites, kabuki dance was irreverent and playful, mocking various aspects of Japanese feudal society and even parodying Buddhist prayers. It was shocking and enjoyable, and the peasantry of Japan quickly grew to love it.

However, the nobility had some concerns. Kabuki was an art form controlled by women, which was dangerous in a gender-based political structure of power. Also, these women were not exactly reputable. Dancing didn't pay well, so most of the women worked as prostitutes as well. In 1629, the government banned women from kabuki. Adolescent males were first used to fill these roles instead, but it was soon found that the association between kabuki and prostitution remained. To stop these youths from being prostituted, the theatrical form was relegated strictly to adult males. To this day, kabuki is danced only by men. Males in female roles are known as onnagata, and they are some of the most revered actors in the genre.

Over the next several generations, kabuki theater was refined and developed further. Moving from markets and other spaces into standardized theaters, set pieces became important parts of kabuki as well. Unlike other forms of theater, kabuki does not ignore the presence of the audience, but incorporates them into the action, so the relationship between audience, actor, and stage has always been important. By the end of the 17th century, kabuki was one of the most beloved art forms in the country.

Dance, Movement, and Costume

As kabuki was refined, three distinct types of kabuki emerged. Jidai-mono are historical plays, largely set in the feudal era and telling tales of samurai in battle. Sewa-mono are domestic plays, which told stories happening in that community at that time. In a way, they almost served as news programs for the people of feudal Japan, retelling stories from their lives. Finally, shosagoto are dance pieces, primarily used to show off technical talents and dancing skills.

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