A guide to Kabuki viewing, one of the leading traditional performing arts of Japan

KABUKI, popular as always

It is said that the origin of KABUKI dates back to around the year 1600, when “Okuni”, a Miko (the woman who assists a Shinto priest) in Izumo, performed a dance on a dry riverbed in Kyoto. It is around the same time Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and “Othello” were first performed in London. Just as the works of Shakespeare are still being performed all over the world, KABUKI, with over 400 years of history, is still popular in Japan and overseas even today.

A picture signboard
A picture signboard where characters are drawn

The actors, all of whom are male, are called “Tachiyaku”. Similar to early Shakespearean plays, they do female roles (Onnagata) as well . The current performance style remains unchanged since the Edo period (mid-18th century). During this time, KABUKI matured, and the production style, costumes, makeup and dialog, which make KABUKI unique, have since been passed on. Actors specialized in KABUKI stand on the stage and perform in a style that has been passed on for generations, providing a lively performance that does not seem old-fashioned even though it is a classical drama. Aside from classical dramas, nowadays they are also actively trying new ideas and dramas that go beyond traditional styles.

Do not miss! Take a look at the beauty of KABUKI.

Gorgeous art, costume and Kumadori makeup

“Tenugui”, or washcloth, with the design of “Kumadori” on it is sold for souvenir.

Rather than spotlights, KABUKI uses bright flat lights to illuminate the stage. Colorful stage design, ravishing costumes and Kumadori, the unique makeup of KABUKI, all contribute to the lively atmosphere of the act.

“Kata” and “Mie” have been passed on for generations

KABUKI is characterized by a method of communication using the exaggerated performance styles of Kata and Mie. The style in which an actor stands still and unmoving mid-performance to express the emotion, mood and resolution of the character is known as Mie. The fighting scenes, which are performed in slow motion (Tate), are intended to give a stronger and more dramatic impression of the scene through the slowing of time.

“They are visible, but invisible” — Rules onstage

“Kurogo”, stage assistants dressed in black from head to toe, are seen only in KABUKI. Since they are considered to be invisible during the performance, their faces are concealed. They take on a wide range of roles including passing hand props to actors, cleaning up, and helping actors change costume. “Hikinuki”, a magic-like skill in which actors instantly change onstage, cannot be done without the assistance of Kurogo.

Dance that lets you fully enjoy the beauty of KABUKI

Kabuki Buyo
“Kabuki Buyo” is more popular than many of other programs for its splendid dance.

In Kabuki, there are programs about pre-Edo history, ones which reflect the customs and fashions of the Edo period, and ones where the actors elegantly dance to the live performance of Shamisen (Japanese traditional stringed instrument) and Taiko drums. These dance performances are called “Kabuki Butoh”. Especially noteworthy are the dances performed by Onnagata, male actors dressed as breathtakingly beautiful females. The music and sound effects are performed live in all the programs.

The stage equipment is also worth noting

KABUKI stage

The “Hanamichi” is indispensable on the KABUKI stage. Hanamichi, considered to be the “red carpet” of KABUKI, is a straight, stage-facing pathway that stretches through the left portion of the audience. When the lead actor appears onstage from the Hanamichi, loud applause can be heard throughout the venue. This is joined by the efforts of “Omuko”, a specialist sitting in the audience. Omuko shouts at the actor whenever he appears or leaves the stage in order to build up the performance. The stage equipment is also noteworthy, including “Mawari Butai”, a rotating stage floor, “Seri”, a stage elevator that comes up from under the stage, and “Yatai Kuzushi”, where buildings that are part of the set design are destroyed.

Let’s go see KABUKI

The appearance of Kabukiza Theatre
Kabukiza Theatre

Kabukiza Theatre, located in Higashi-Ginza in Tokyo, is the only theater in Japan that specializes in KABUKI. The program changes every month, and with the exception of several days at the beginning and end of the month, you can see KABUKI at any time. There is an afternoon show, which starts at 11:00 am, as well as an evening show, which starts after 4:00 pm. Each show consists of three programs. An English subtitle guide (1,000 yen) is also available. Tickets are available for purchase online from overseas as well.

The entrance and lobby of Hitomakumiseki
The entrance of Hitomakumiseki of Kabukiza Theatre (left) and the lobby with a Nishijin Textile carpet on the floor (right)

If you don’t have enough time to watch all 3 programs, “Makumi”, where you can watch just one program at a reduced price (1,000 yen – 1,500 yen) from the upper gallery (4th floor), is recommended. The number of Makumi seats available for purchase is limited to about 150 per day, and you must line up at the ticket counter of Kabukiza Theatre on the day of the performance. An English subtitle guide (500 yen + 1,000 yen for deposit) is also available.

Dress in KABUKI costume
KABUKI costume dressing plan of a photo studio, “KABUKI Photo Studio”.

Also in “Kabukiza Gallery” on the 5th floor of Kabukiza Tower integrated with Kabukiza Theatre, the costumes and props that were actually used onstage are displayed. There is also a photo studio on the same floor where both male and female visitors can take a photo wearing the makeup and the costume of KABUKI. You can find shops that provide the same service in other theatres and cities as well.

Other than Kabukiza Theatre, there are theaters in major cities that show KABUKI on a semi-regular basis. Don’t miss out on the traditional Japanese performing arts.

Theaters in Tokyo

Theaters outside of Tokyo