歌舞伎 (Kabuki) has about 400 years of history
behind it, and is listed by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage.
It began with dance performances, then continued to evolve, always
popular, into one of Japan’s best known performing arts. The colors,
music and stylized ideals of beauty combine on stage to form a
first-class repertoire of dramatic plays and spectacular acting styles.
A feast for the eyes
Your first surprise will probably be the gorgeous costumes and spectacular makeup. The word “Kabuki” comes from kabuku, which means “to wear avant-grade, over-the-top clothes and do outlandish things.” This is what you will see in kabuki, and in other aspects of Japanese traditional cultural and history as well, like the dashi Float1 in Kyoto’s Gion Festival, and the awesome kabuto helmet worn by warriors in the 16th century.
The thick lines of kumadori makeup, often in reds and blues, had a practical purpose as well – they highlighted the actors’ faces in the theater, where artificial lighting was almost non-existent and the stage was darker than you could probably imagine today. Another important role for the makeup is to create a spellbinding atmosphere. Japan is certainly not the only place in the world where people used to wear extraordinary makeup on special occasions, but kumadori makeup seems designed to make the actor appear to have supernatural powers.
Onnagata – male actors who play female parts on stage – take kabuki into a whole new dimension. A reader of the history of theater will learn that men have played women’s roles in many parts of the world, but only kabuki has developed this into a truly refined art that remains active to this day.
Interestingly, in today’s Japanese pop music and some other performing arts, it is not uncommon for a man to express the feelings of a woman, and for a woman to easily cross the gender gap in the same way. This gives us insight into another interesting aspect of Japanese culture.
1 Dashi floats: During the Gion festival centered on Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto, tall, fancifully decorated floats called yamaboko make their way through the city streets
2 Kabuto helmets: Worn by warriors in medieval times. Generally made of iron or leather. Many were works of art, as well as being part of the body armor
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