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What is Kabuki?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 24 October 2014
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Kabuki is to the Japanese as perhaps Shakespearian theater is to the English or traditional opera is to Italians. It has become a form of artistic shorthand for the culture which spawned it, even if native interest has been variable over the years. Kabuki is a traditional form of Japanese theater, combining elements of dance, music, pantomime and drama. Performers often wear exaggerated costumes and extreme makeup to define their characters, using rice flour to create a porcelain effect for their skin.

Around 1603, a young shrine maiden named Okuni began staging elaborate dances outside of Kyoto, the ancient capital city of Japan. These performances became so well known that a number of other dancers and musicians formed their own kabuki companies. However, because these performers played primarily to the lower class in dubious sections of town, kabuki theater was not embraced by the upper class patrons who controlled the 'proper' venues. Making matters worse, some of the female kabuki performers became popular for their bawdy songs and suggestive dances, much like American burlesque shows. Prostitution also became a common practice following a kubuki performance. All of this shocking behavior led to a government prohibition of all females from future kabuki productions.

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Much like the Shakespearian theater companies, kabuki troupes substituted male actors called onnagata in female dramatic roles. For a brief time some of the male onnagata continued to follow the examples of the banned females, but kabuki theater in general became much more sophisticated. Emphasis shifted from the original line dances to dramas and comedies based on contemporary themes of betrayal, political intrigue and mistaken identities. Kabuki actors also studied the movements and dialogue of a popular puppet theater form called bunraku.

As kabuki theater gained some much-needed respect from the government and upper class, it became a popular cultural export for Japanese diplomats. Although foreign kabuki performances were often expensive to stage, they generated tremendous amounts of goodwill and a positive, if a bit anachronistic, foreign opinion of traditional Japanese culture.

Kabuki theater troups suffered tremendous losses during WWII. It took several decades to build up a sufficient number of trained actors to replace those lost in combat or collateral damage. Meanwhile, other performance outlets, such as Western-style theater, motion pictures and television, became more appealing to young male actors. Kabuki theater is often seen by modern Japanese actors as a good proving ground, much like soap operas in the West, but not suitable for a lifelong career.

Kabuki theater remains fairly popular among native Japanese theater-goers, in the same vein as Shakespearian productions remain popular among Westerners. Many kabuki performances are now geared towards tourists who seek a glimpse of traditional Japanese culture from a time before Western influence.

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