The most well known and iconic Japanese performance is the Kabuki dance. Over centuries, the dance has combined a respect for tradition with innovations from current times in order to keep it vibrant and popular.
The Skill of Dancing and Singing
The three ideograms that form the word "kabuki" represent "song" "dance" and "skill," though it would be a mistake to assume that the terms are meant literally. In fact, the word is also a bit of a pun, relating to the idea of the "bizarre" or "avant garde", which is certainly an accurate description of the history of Kabuki dance.
The first kabuki performers were outlaws. The Tokugawa shogunate, in power in the seventeenth century, had banned popular performers due to their supposed immoral influences on the populace. However, since the riverbeds were technically not under the authority of the shogun, during the dry season the performers would set up their theaters and produce elaborate and entertaining plays. The first performer to pioneer this combination of dance and acting was Okuni, a courtesan, and as she became increasingly popular, other troupes began to form.
The Kabuki plays began to spread from the river-bottoms to the red light (ukiyo) districts, with the actresses performing explicitly erotic and ribald plays that drew stern criticism from the government. In an effort to crack down on prostitution, laws were passed forbidding all females to perform kabuki dance, and eventually the law was expanded to include young males as well. By 1673 all Kabuki dance was performed by yaro-Kabuki, or adult male performers. This tradition would continue until after World War II.
Kabuki Dance Forms
Everything about Kabuki is stylized and significant. Every aspect of every character on the stage is carefully designed to convey some meaning. While the costumes and makeup are a large part of the ensemble, the movement is what sets this dramatic form apart from others.
Different character types are assigned different modes of movement. For example, the Doki (comic) characters, usually portrayed as monks, have a bouncing, jaunty walk. The heroes epitomize the idea of aregota, an intense masculine arrogance and confidence denoted by long, low strides across the stage. The onnegata (female) characters have a very small, flowing gait when they walk, almost heel-to-toe. Due to the manner of staging kabuki plays, the performers needed to travel across not only the stage, but also out on a long walkway that extended into the audience. Many dance solos were performed on this hanamichi, and it was often how the characters in a drama would introduce themselves. Any of these actors would spend years perfecting just the way their character walks, and that was only the beginning of the choreography.
Another significant aspect of Kabuki dance is the move called the mie (pronounced mee-yay), which serves the same purpose as a close-up or a slow-motion effect in the movies. When a Kabuki actor performs a mie, the action around him or her freezes, often in tableaus that highlight a particular part of the stage. While the mie is different for the different character types, both male and female characters use them as emphasis during a performance. Other parts of the Kabuki tradition, such as the kumadori makeup, help emphasize facial expressions, which are also precisely choreographed.
Learning Kabuki Today
Though it struggled to survive in the time following World War II, Kabuki slowly adapted, as it has always done, to the demands of a modern audience. Scholars and performers such as David Furumoto, Chair of the University of Wisconsin Theater & Drama Department, both preserve the tradition of Kabuki dance, as well as expand upon it. Furumoto has adapted many Western plays such as Richard III and Yeats' Fighting the Waves to the Kabuki style. At the same time, he preserves the tradition by staging performances of classic Kabuki dramas such as Narakami the Thunder God for Western stages. In an interview about his work, he said "I look upon this project as a way of honoring the time my teachers invested in me, and also as a way of passing on Japanese traditions and my love of Kabuki theater."
Furumoto is not alone in his respect and love of kabuki dancing; the tradition is an old one, but is only made stronger by its deep roots.