“Kabuki” refers to the singing and dancing genre of art. “Ka” means “sing,” “bu” means “dance,” and “ki” means “skill,” respectively. One could say that the skill in song and dance is the definition of kabuki. Comprising elements of “theatre” as well, is dance form originating from Asia known as Kabuki.  This “dance-theatre” is said to have originated from Japan, and is renowned for its use of extravagant make-up. Due to its abstractness this form of theatrical style is often interpreted as “absurd” by many. Furthermore, it has also earned the sobriquet “the art of singing and dancing”. In terms of its history/origin and development, there were three critical periods which include the Female Kabuki period from the years 1603-1629, the transition period from 1629-1673, and the “Golden Age” from 1673-1841.

a. History/origin of the Kabuki:

This unique theatrical dance style is said to have originated in the city of Kyoto alongside riverbeds during the 17th century. It was under the regime of “Tokugawa Shogunate”, a military government that this unique theatrical dance style was first developed. Furthermore, it was during this period i.e. 1603-1629 that this dance form was mainly performed by only females including roles that belong to males.

Later, the Tokugawa Shogunate forbade young men from acting out due to worries about kabuki upsetting the government and prostitution. The female dancers in many of the original troupes also served as prostitutes. Women’s kabuki (onna-kabuki) and young men’s kabuki (wakashu-kabuki) were both outlawed, so adult men began practising kabuki (yaro-kabuki), which has remained the tradition. The onnagata, a man who portrays a woman in kabuki, is one of its central figures. The evolution of kabuki over time shows the numerous changes that were made before it became what is now regarded as a classical, traditional art form. 

In addition, it was eventually during what is known as the “transition period” which began in 1629, and lasted till about 1673 that males were finally permitted to perform this theatrical dance. The male version of this theatrical dance style was named “Yaro Kabuki” which means “young man Kabuki”.

The first popular art form in Japan that was created to amuse the peasantry and working classes rather than the lords was kabuki. Social order was upset as a result of this. Everything was targeted at the upper classes before kabuki, such as the nobility and samurai class. Lewd humor and innuendo are frequently used in kabuki.

b. Costumes used in the Kabuki:

The type of costume worn by a male and female performer while performing the Kabuki depends on the period in which the play (that is being performed) was written. So the costumes worn would basically include kimonos, and hakama i.e. long court pants. In addition, make-up plays a huge role in this theatrical dance style and includes the use of masks.

c. Music involved in the Kabuki:

The music used in this theatrical dance form comprises three categories, and they are as follows:

  1. Geza: This form of music is usually played on the stage on which the Kabuki artist is performing. This music is then subdivided further into three categories. They are

a. Uta: This is essentially a song that is sung along with the music produced by a Japanese musical instrument known as “Shamisen”.

b. Aikata: basically involves the use of music without the use of singing.

c. Narimono: Is basically music produced by other Japanese musical instruments excluding Shamisen.

2. Shosa Ongaku: This is yet another form of music played on stage during a Kabuki performance. In addition, this form of music includes the Takemoto that supports the acting of the performer, and the Nagauta, Tokiwazu, and Kiyomoto which supports the dancing of the performer.

 3. Ki and Tsuke: Is a form of music produced by striking two square oak boards.

d. Kabuki dance turning into drama

Japanese kabuki dance started to incorporate drama in the 17th century. Traditional stories were modernized and gained more popularity by incorporating plot twists and changes. While aragoto had more bravado for fighting plays, wagoto was a more gentle style for love stories.

Chikamatsu Monzaemon, a significant figure in the history of kabuki, wrote a number of important plays, one of which prompted the banning of all plays featuring romantic suicide because of copycat incidents in real life. Although Chikamatsu also wrote for the kabuki (Japanese puppet theater), which was occasionally more well-liked, many plays have historically been performed in both kabuki and bunraku. Kawatake Mokuami was a well-known playwright who also wrote about daily life in the Edo period. Tsuruya Namboku IV was renowned for his thrilling stage antics and ghost stories.

Terms of Kabuki dance

The actors themselves apply the Japanese kabuki dance makeup, known as kesho, as part of getting to know their characters. It consists of a white face painted with coloured lines that stand in for personality traits, gender, and qualities. Kimonos, which can be simple or ornate, are frequently worn as costumes, along with wigs that are made by hand.

The flute, a three-string guitar called the shamisen, and rhythmic percussion are all used in the composition. To produce sound effects, hyoshigi, or wooden blocks struck against one another or another piece of wood, are used. Additionally, there are times when the audience participates in the performance by calling out the actors’ names at crucial moments. This is referred to as kakegoe.

In Japanese kabuki theater, gestures and forms are referred to as kata, and they include:

Tate’s stylized dance moves for fighting.

entrances in tanzen.

Roppo leaves.

Mie, adopting an aggressive pose.

Because the actor strikes the pose at the very end of a scene after complex movements, Mie is particularly significant. The actor comes to a complete stop and maintains a fixed gaze.

d. Training availability and the technique involved in the Kabuki:

In terms of technique, this “theatrical dance” requires the performer to strike a pose corresponding to the character being played. In addition, the performer is also expected to express a variety of human emotions such sadness, drunkenness, happiness etc through the use of body language and use of costumes. As for training centres/schools, there are a number of them available in Japan as well in a few countries (especially in Asia) around the world for those interested in acquiring knowledge in this unique “theatrical dance style”.

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