The Untypical Art of Kabuki

kabuki20131112_174553In 2008, Kabuki 歌舞伎, as well as other forms of traditional Japanese theatre like Bunraku 文楽 and Nōgaku 能楽, were included in UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Performances are quite spectacular because of the abundant colors, exaggerated acting and remarkable fashion, heavily contrasting with the Japanese ideal of sober refinement (wabi  侘び). The word itself comes from kabuku, which means “to wear avant-garde, over-the-top clothes and do outlandish things”. (The characters for kabuki (singing-dancing-art) are ateji, phonetic equivalent characters). In short, kabuki is characterized by its theatricality. According to Donald Keene:

If the performance of a Nō actor is praised as excitingly theatrical, he may feel annoyed that the audience was moved not by the transcendent beauty of his singing and dancing but by vulgar theatricality. But Kabuki is above all theatrical. Every element of a performance is exploited to yield the most intense dramatic effects, making a Kabuki performance a supremely theatrical experience. (…) Of the different varieties of Japanese theatre, kabuki is the easiest for a (foreign or young Japanese) audience to admire.

kabukiSchermafbeelding 2013-11-12 om 18.57.10The Kabuki tradition started in 1600, when a young woman called Okuni, dressed like a man, danced on the stage accompanied by musicians. During the Edo period, women were prohibited to perform, and, ironically, female roles had to be played by onnagata 女形. There are different roles for onnagata (courtesan, princess, young girl, married woman, lady-in-waiting), but it is a fact that they are “an indispensable part of the magic of Kabuki“.

Without onnagata, kabuki would cease to exist. – Utaemon VI

kabukiSchermafbeelding 2013-11-12 om 18.57.28Facts for Fun

– For drama lovers, there is “Pin to Kona”, all about Kabuki (and teenager love triangles). Watch here.


– all photos are taken by Ohkura Shunji, and appeared in the book: Ohkura, Shunji, Donald Richie, and Iwao Kamimura. Kabuki Today, The Art and Tradition. Kodansha International, 2001.

– Kawatake, Toshio, Frank Hoff, and Jean Hoff. Kabuki: Baroque Fusion of the Arts. Tokyo: House Press, 2006.

– “Welcome to the World of Kabuki.” Niponica, no. 1 (2010).


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