Japanese Kabuki – A Guide to Traditional Japan

Our guide has everything you need to know about traditional Japanese kabuki. This includes a list of recommended theaters in and outside of Tokyo.

Kabuki Theater

Photo Credit : Christian Kaden via Flickr cc

Each country has its own unique way of telling a story on stage. In the USA, grand Broadway shows like The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérable dominate. In Italy, the powerful voices and dazzling costumes of opera are preferred and in Russia, ballet is king. In Japan, kabuki takes this role. Kabuki has a history of roughly 400 years and is now even recognized by UNESCO as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” (2005). 

Kabuki needs to be experienced to be fully understood, but many visitors have their worries. For example, will the language barrier hamper my enjoyment? Or will it simply be too expensive for a traveler on a budget? 

To help you out, we’ve got all the vital information for you to appreciate kabuki and enjoy it:

History

Famous Plays

Things to Know About Kabuki

Tips for First Timers

Recommended Kabuki Theaters in Tokyo

Other Recommended Theaters

Photo Credit : GanMed64 via Flickr cc

Photo Credit : GanMed64 via Flickr cc

History

It’s said that kabuki originated in 1603 when Izumo no Okuni, a Shinto priestess, and her troupe started a new kind of dance drama to raise funds for the Grand Shrine of Izumo. This new type of performance arts quickly caught on and became so popular that Okuni and her troupe were asked to perform for the Imperial Court. This popularity then led to the formation of rival troupes. Unlike its upper-class counterpart that is Noh, kabuki appealed to the masses due to its risque nature. In addition to this, performers were often available for prostitution. As a result, this was a common form of entertainment in the red light districts.

However, this was short-lived as women were banned from performing kabuki in 1629 due to its erotic nature, so young boys started to perform kabuki. This too was soon banned because these boys were being prostituted – resulting in adult males in picking up the mantle. Eventually, both bans were rescinded – leading to the kabuki we know today.

Famous Plays

Kanjincho

Kanjincho

Photo Credit: Utagawa Kunisada [NDL Digital Collections or Public Domain]

First performed in 1840, Kanjincho, based on the Noh play Ataka, is one of the most popular modern era kabuki. This play depicts the interactions between a local noble charged with defending a gate and a formidable enemy.  

Kanjincho also provided inspiration for Akira Kurosawa’s film The Men who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail

Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura (Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees)

Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura was written for puppet theater in 1747 but was soon adapted for kabuki the following year. Set post-Genpei War, this play follows Minamoto no Yoshitsune who attempts to rally a coup against his brother, Minamoto no Yoritomo, who has established himself as the shogun.    

Shibaraku

Shibaraku

Photo Credit: Public Domain

Considered one of the Eighteen Best Kabuki Plays, Shibaraku premiered in 1697 and starred famous kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjuro I. He played Kamakura Gongoro Kagemasa who goes on to save innocent royals from being executed.

Things to Know About Kabuki 

Types of Stories

There are approximately 400 kabuki stories, each belonging to one of two main categories: historical and melodrama. In the historical stories, important events from Japanese history are played out and dramatized, even including wars which took place long before the birth of kabuki. The performers generally employ highly exaggerated expressions and sport super flashy colored make-up and costumes.

Kabuki Painting

Photo Credit: Utagawa Kunisada [GFDL or CC-­BY­-SA-­3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

On the contrary, melodrama usually uses the lives of ordinary Japanese people from the 17th-19th century or the Edo period as its source of inspiration. The storylines are commonly related to love affairs, forbidden relationships and murder. These performances are closer to real-life than the historical version, reflecting the complex social relations and lifestyles of people during the Edo period. Consequently, the acting, make-up and costumes are less exaggerated and whimsical.  

Kabuki Poster

Photo Credit: Utagawa Kunisada [GFDL or CC-­BY­-SA-­3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Stage

The first thing you’ll notice is the long runway-like platform extending from the main stage. This long stage is intended to ensure performers and audiences are not alienated from one another, that there is a sense of intimacy during shows. The backdrop designs reflect the beauty of Japanese fine art but also use artistic trickery and 3-dimensional drawing techniques to create the illusion that the stage is a lot bigger than it actually is. Similarly, many kabuki stages can also rotate, move and allow actors to fly around supported by invisible strings.  

Kabuki Theater Seats

Photo Credit : urasimaru via Flickr cc

Kabuki Play

Photo Credit: Benjamin.pineau [GFDL or CC-­BY­-SA-­3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Actors

In general, there are 3 main types character types of characters in kabuki: the hero, the villain and the female role – all of them performed by male actors only. Besides browsing the program booklet, another easy way to differentiate between the characters is to look at the makeup and costumes of the actors which is a simple way to pick up on the basic characteristics of that character. For example, when a character has several bold red lines on their face, typically around the eyes, this is often an indication of bravery and a hot-tempered personality. 

Kabuki Actors

Photo Credit : GanMed64 via Flickr cc

Kabuki Actor

Photo Credit : urasimaru via Flickr cc

Yelling from the Audience

First timers at kubuki are often surprised by the occasional yelling from other audience members inside the theater. Don’t be alarmed, this is pretty common. The shouts are usually family names of the actors and not random noises or heckles. Audience participation palpably increases the excitement at shows but also allows the audience to pass their admiration onto the actors. However, there are a few rules to follow: firstly, shouts can only come from male audience members, secondly, shouts can only come from the back rows and lastly, shouts must only come during moments of silence and not disturb the performance.

Painting of Kabuki Theater

Photo Credit: Okumura Masanobu [GFDL or CC-­BY­-SA-­3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Tips for First Timers 

Know Your Taste 

Conveniently, kabuki doesn’t have anything to do with your Japanese language skills but rather it has to do with your affinity for storytelling. Kabuki performances are delivered in very old-fashioned Japanese that even a lot of Japanese people don’t understand, much like how Shakespeare plays can be difficult for English speakers to follow. Therefore, thinking about what kind of story you like and reading up a little on the main plotline beforehand is enough to ensure you enjoy the show. If you’re into war movies and samurai culture, go for a historical play. If soap operas and romance are more of your thing, go for melodrama. 

Photo Credit : GanMed64 via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: GanMed64 via Flickr cc

Facilities at the Theater

In addition to providing information on your particular play, programs and handbills provide an exhuastive guide to kabuki in general. It’s worth taking some time and reading through this literature before the show begins, as they could give you some vital insight into what you’re about to watch. Also, audience members can often rent gadgets such as a subtitle tablets or earphone-guides with several language options. These can be useful but as stated already, knowing exactly what the actors are talking about at all times is not particularly necessary.   

Kabuki Pamphlets

Photo Credit: Josplendor

Single Act Tickets

A prime seat at a famous kabuki performance can cost up to 20,000 yen, a price that can discourage many tourists from catching a show. However, there is a way around this. The single act ticket allows you to watch just one of the many acts in a performance. The price of single act ticket can be as low as 500 yen and as high as 3,000 yen depending on demand. Be warned, however, single act ticket seats are limited to the very back rows or the standing section and are not sold online. Get to the theater well before the show to avoid disappointment. 

Recommended Kabuki Theaters in Tokyo 

Kabukiza Theater

Photo credit:Tak1701d [ GFDL or CC-­BY­-SA-­3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Tak1701d [ GFDL or CC-­BY­-SA-­3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Closest Train Stations: Higashi-Ginza Station (subway) Exit 3, Ginza Station (subway) Exit A6 

Ticket Reservation: Available directly at the Box Office and Online
*Single act ticket available 

Address: 4-12-15 Ginza, Chuo, Tokyo, Japan 104-0061

Website: Kabukiza Theater

National Theater of Japan

Photo credit: 663highland [ GFDL or CC-­BY­-SA-­3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: 663highland [GFDL or CC-­BY­-SA-­3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Closest Train Stations: 5-minute walk from Hanzomon Station (subway), 10-minute walk from Nagatacho Station (subway) 

Tokyo Metropolitan Bus: 1-minute walk from Miyakezaka of To 03 Line (Harumifuto-Yotsuya Station), Shuku 75 Line (Shinjuku Station West exit, Miyakezaka)

Ticket Reservation: Available directly at the Box Office and Online

Address: 4-1 Hayabusa, Chiyoda, Tokyo 102-8656

Website: National Theater of Japan

Other Recommended Theaters

Osaka Shochikuza Theater

Osaka Shochikuza Theater

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Closest Train Station: 1-minute walk from Namba Station Exit 14 (subway)

Ticket Reservation: Available directly at the Box Office and Online

Address: 1-9-19 Dotonbori, Chuo, Osaka 542-0071

Website: Osaka Shochoikuza Theater

Pontocho Kaburenjo Theater (先斗町歌舞練場)

Pontocho Kaburenjo Theater (先斗町歌舞練場)

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Closest Train Station: 3-minute walk from Sanjo Station (subway)

Ticket Reservation: Available directly at the Box Office and Online

Address: Pontocho Sanjokudaru, Nakagyo, Kyoto 604-8003

Website: Pontocho Kaburenjo Theater

The prominent kabuki theater in Kyoto, Minimiza Theater (Google Map Link), is currently closed due to anti-earthquake renovations.

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