The Kabuki Story

Written by Leanna Serras

The art of kabuki, a type of stylized Japanese dance-drama, is a fascinating reflection of Japanese culture. Although it started out as a type of dance, kabuki eventually evolved into a full-blown type of theater, where its performers wear elaborate costumes and apply elaborate makeup to tell a dramatic story.

History of Kabuki

Kabuki originated in 1603 when a woman named Izumo no Okuni began performing a special new style of dance that she had created. Kabuki caught on almost instantly. Women began learning kabuki dances and performing them for audiences. Kabuki had a large impact socially as well. The dances themselves were very suggestive and, even though it didn’t start out that way, many prostitutes began learning the dances so they could attract customers. The performances started attracting bad crowds. In 1629, the government stepped in and banned women from performing the dances.

Male dancers then took over. Known as wakashu, these men were typically young and effeminate. As such, prostitution wasn’t stopped as the men were just as available as the female dancers. In 1652, the government banned young males from dancing as well since it became very common for brawls to break out at performances over them.

Kabuki really came into its own during its “Golden Age” which lasted from 1673 to 1841. The dances really began to have a formal structure and kabuki theaters began to catch on. Unlike most plays, these lasted all day from sunrise to sunset. Many theaters were destroyed again during World War II and the forces occupying the country banned kabuki. The ban only lasted until 1947, but the damage had already been done. As Japan tried to rebuild itself after the war, it began rejecting its “old ways” and kabuki was almost abandoned. However, a director began producing plays that revitalized kabuki and it remains popular today.

Anatomy of Kabuki

Kabuki theaters relied on the stages, plots, and music.

Music was used to set the mood of the play and it also helped emphasize important points in the plays. Music also played a key role in one other aspect: the actors were trained to take their cues not from a stage director but from the music so listening to the music allowed them know when it was their turn to take the stage.

Theaters started introducing a stage known as a hanamichi, or walkway that extended into the audience. Later, a mawari-butai, or revolving stage, was invented. The seri, or stage trap, was also implemented. Most kabuki theater plots were jidaimono, or history plays, that typically focused on important events in Japanese history such as the Genpei War. Strict censorship was employed to make sure the plays did not incite criticism of the government. The other popular genre of plays was sewamono, or family play. These deal with love stories or revolved around family.

Kabuki Makeup

Kabuki makeup, called kesho, came in two types: standard makeup applied to most actors and kumadori makeup which was applied to villains and heroes. While there were hundreds of types of kumadori, only around fifteen types are still in use. Some examples are the mukimi-guma or suji-guma, where after the lines are painted onto an actor’s face, they are then smudged to soften them.

Kumadori makeup is composed of very dramatic lines and shapes applied in colors that represent certain qualities. For instance, dark red represents passion or anger; dark blue represents depression or sadness; pink represents youth; light green represents calm; black represents fear; and purple represents nobility. The makeup and perfume worn throughout performances were highly significant to the stories that were being told.

No matter the actual style, white face paint was the foundation of kabuki makeup. The neck and face were covered in oil and then smeared with a thick white cream called oshiroi. With females, this makeup would extend down the back as well so all the exposed skin was white. This cream would make the actor’s other features disappear so the makeup artist was then free to make their face look “perfect.” They would paint on eyebrows higher than they actually were and the eyes would be outlined in either red for women or black for men. Men also applied lip rouge and black paint to make their mouth curve downward while women’s mouths were made smaller. The makeup itself was composed of rice powder, and different shades of white actually represented class, age, and even gender of the character.

Makeup is so important to kabuki plays that actors would often take a cloth and press it to their faces so they could make a print of the makeup. These prints were then sold as souvenirs! Below are links to good resources about kabuki:

Today, kabuki is enjoying a revival and it seems that it will be around for a long time.