A samurai in white and red face paint
takes center-stage to recount his latest battle in a rumbling voice. His wife kneels behind him transfixed into stillness. As he
ends his monologue, he crosses one eye, wobbles his head, and holds a distinct. The audience applauds and hollers the actor’s father’s name. A musician slips in
stage left and smacks wooden blocks on the ground with a piercing tink.
Another actor enters from the back of the house and crosses over the audience on a runway. He is the samurai’s nemeses, and the two draw their swords to fight. The actors lunge and flip in a wild dance as hidden musicians play an otherworldly tune on traditional Japanese instruments. This is kabuki. Just what does “kabuki” in Japan mean?
The word kabuki in Japanese uses the characters 歌 (sing), 舞 (dance), and 伎 (skill). Although this performing art doesn’t follow the same paradigms as a Broadway musical, all three of these elements are employed in every play. Here, we’ve provided everything you need to know about kabuki, and where you can experience it on your next visit to Japan.
An actor stands on one foot in a pose that is often used in productions.
When did kabuki start? The founder of kabuki was a Kyoto woman (who according to some records was a priestess) named Izumo no Okuni. She originated a style of dance-drama based on everyday life in 1603. Izumo and her all-female troupe quickly caught the attention of audiences from all walks of life including the imperial court. Rival troupes of women performing male and female roles formed. Teahouses began hosting kabuki shows which attracted a diverse crowd of classes.
The mixing of nobles, merchants, and farmers plus the erotic overtones of kabuki plays vexed the ruling shogunate, and in 1629 women were banned from performing. Men took over the art in a tradition that is still mostly observed. In present days, the most prestigious theaters exclusively employ male actors—even for female (onnagata) roles. Many of these performers come from a long line of kabuki actors, and their stage names (like Ichikawa Danjuro and Ichikawa Ebizo) are often passed down through their lineage.
Although kabuki was seen as a “low class” art form in the 17th-century, by today’s standards it’s a cherished tradition. Attendees may wear formal clothes such as kimono or suits, but most just wear the equivalent of their “Sunday best.” For travelers attending a performance, you may want to wear something nice but comfortable due to the production style of kabuki plays.
Interior of Uchiko-za Theatre
Unlike western 2-hour plays, a typical kabuki program is an all-day event consisting of five acts, and each act can last for over an hour. The first act is an auspicious and slow introduction to the characters and plot. The second through fourth acts move at quicker speeds and often culminate in moments of drama or battle scenes. The fifth act, if there is one, is considerably short and provides a satisfying conclusion to the story.
No matter where you watch kabuki or which play you see, there are certain archetypes in almost every show. Most kabuki plays fall into one of three genres: a historical piece (時代物 jidai-mono), a play about everyday people (世界物 sekai-mono), or one that uses Japanese traditional dances in kabuki plays (所作事 shosa-goto). In any of these genres, actors establish their character by employing stylized poses known as mie (見得). Depending on the story, you may also see any one of the following standards:
Hanamichi (花道) The runway from the back of the house to the stage is known as the “flower path.” Actors enter, exit, and perform scenes on this space.
Mawari-butai (回り舞台) Revolving stages were invented in Japan during the 18th-century and they are still used for scenery changes.
Seri (迫) Trapdoors are often used not just to change scenes and props, but to transport actors for effect.
Chūnori (宙乗り) In some performances, actors fly over audiences and the stage with wires.
Meaningful Makeup Colors convey emotions or signal the character’s role. Rice powder makes the actors' faces completely white, and colored lines accentuate their features. Red indicates positive traits like passion and heroism, while blue and black represent villainy. Greens are reserved for the supernatural and purple for nobility.
Kuroko (黒子) Stagehands dressed entirely in black are central to the costume and props of kabuki. Without them, typical kabuki costume and makeup changes would be impossible.
Kakegoe (掛け声) During a kabuki performance, expert spectators shout the names of actors, the actor’s father, or the playhouse where the actor studied to praise their skills.
Single act ticket schedule and prices outside of Kabuki-za.
No time? No Japanese? No problem! Many theaters not only provide support in English but also “single act” tickets! By purchasing a single act ticket, you can experience the world of kabuki for about an hour. These tickets aren’t usually available online, and they must be purchased at the box office on the day of the show. Watch out for plays that star Ichikawa Ebizo, as tickets for his performances sell out quickly! To guarantee your chances, try to arrive at least an hour before the act you want to watch.
After entering the theater, look out for booths offering translation guides. You may be able to rent audio or visual guides in English depending on the theater or show. Be careful though—kabuki plays are written in old Japanese (think Shakespearean English), so some of the translation guides are for Japanese people! Make sure you get the English version before you take your seat.
Note that not every theater offers single act tickets or English support for every show. Make sure to check online before making your itinerary!
Men who play female roles are known as onnagata actors.
As with most performing arts, tickets vary by theater, show, and seat. Kabuki ticket prices can range from 4,000 JPY (about US $40) to 20,000 JPY (about US $200) for matinee and evening performances. Single act tickets, on the other hand, tend to be much more budget-friendly and can be purchased for as low as 1,000 JPY (about US $10). Unlike single act tickets, regular tickets can be purchased in advance over the phone or online.
You can find theaters all over Japan, but the following are the best and most convenient places for overseas travelers.
The Tokyo National Theatre
This theater opened its doors in 1966 with the intention of preserving traditional Japanese theater: Noh, Kabuki, and Bunraku. There are also traditional music recitals held in its smaller hall. Although events aren’t held every day, you can always go the Traditional Performing Arts Information Centre to see digital exhibits of plays.
*Note* Don’t get this place confused with the New National Theatre which specializes in ballet, opera, and contemporary drama and dance!
Kabuki Theater in Ginza, Tokyo: Kabuki-za Theatre
Kabuki-Za is the only theater that holds performances every month throughout the year. You don’t need a ticket to check out their shops where you can buy souvenirs like Kabuki masks (the colors mean the same on the mask as on an actor’s face), Ukiyo-e style Japanese kabuki prints on postcards, or traditional Japanese sweets. On the fifth floor, you can find a gallery that displays costumes, scenery, and props used in previous shows.
Kabuki Theater in Kyoto: Minami-za Theatre
The center of Kyoto once had many theaters, but due to changing political climates, natural disasters, and wear and tear of the centuries only one original theater remains. Minami-za, as it stands now, was erected in 1929, but the property has hosted kabuki shows since the 1600s. The theater holds a wide variety of performing arts, but it’s still credited as the birthplace of kabuki.
Kabuki Theater in Osaka: Shochiku-za
Built in 1929, this theater was originally intended to host Western plays and cinema (which is apparent in its architecture), but after World War II kabuki saw a renewed interest. Three to five different kabuki performances are held here including the New Year’s Great Kabuki performance. Since its renovation in 1997, Shochiku-za is one of the most technologically advanced theaters, and it features the fastest revolving stage in Japan.
Kabuki is a must-do experience for any traveler to Japan! Ask us how we can help you see a show by clicking the link below.