Dance like kabuki
Apparitions through a
Shoji screen~ …”
~Kabuki~ (excerpt), Leila Fortier
When I first read ~Kabuki~ by Leila Fortier for Silk Road’s issue “Voices on Asia”, I was immediately struck by the imagery it presented, really drawing me in and fueling an interest as to what kabuki (歌舞伎) is — a Japanese style of theatre and dance that ties in elements of drama, the kanji for it sometimes translated as “the art of singing and dancing”. The art form is thought to have begun in 1603, founded by a female dancer named Izumo no Okuni. It was designed as entertainment for the common people of the time, marking it the first as such. Although started by a female, the participation of female dancers was banned in 1629, with young men taking their place in the performance. It shifted once more in 1652 from portrayals done by young men to being done by older men — this shift is what has carried through to present day.
As it developed, the form moved through parody to genuine, serious performance. Many things were transferred from life to the stage, including historical plays, domestic stories, and dance pieces. A common theme for kabuki theatre is the idea of the “lovers double suicide”, similar Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Staging for this art form is complex, originally called “magic box” due to the ever shifting elements including lifts, traps, and even revolving platforms — this is where the image of shoji screens that Fortier draws, comes into play.
When not wearing Noh masks, actors frequently wear distinguishing make-up that highlights their features, examples including white face paint and red lips. The bright and colorful nature doesn’t end with the make-up either, but carries on through to the costumes worn by actors. Each costume’s color and design has a different meaning, just going to show how intricate and detailed kabuki theatre is.
One of the most incredible things about kabuki is the fact that it’s a traditional style of entertainment that has carried over to the modern era, even remaining the most popular form of traditional theatre in Japan. Kabuki is currently performed in The National Theatre of Japan with each piece lasting around four to five hours.
If the intricate nature of kabuki caught your interest and you want to learn about other cultural elements in Asia, you’ll find them in Silk Road’s newest issue, Voices on Asia, which will be released on December 9th.
By: Alex Clanton
Image Credits: WikiCommons & visipix.com