Week 5 Class Notes, 28 February 2019


Background to Kabuki Theatre: origins in Kyoto

At the beginning of the Edo Period (1603-1867) Kyoto had been the capital of Japan for hundreds of years and was the largest city. The Emperor’s court and the associated nobility lived there, so it was the artistic center of Japan. The nobility patronized the Noh Theatre (also written as No Theatre), which originated in the th century. Noh stages were constructed outdoors, within the palace and mansion compounds of the wealthy. Noh employed minimal sets and simple props that represented objects, but did not seek to accurately depict them. This minimalism did not extend to the costumes, which were magnificent.

All actors were male and the principal actors generally wore a mask to represent their character. Noh Theatre became the official ceremonial art of the shogun’s government during the Edo Period.

Ordinary townspeople (chonin) did not attend Noh Theatre. Large Buddhist Temples and Shinto Shrines held musical and dramatic performances periodically to raise money and in addition the public could enjoy a variety of street entertainers such as musicians, dancers, jugglers, acrobats, men demonstrating martial arts skills, etc.

In the summer the Kamo River flowing through Kyoto would shrink considerably, leaving a large flat area of exposed riverbed. This area was unregulated and untaxed and various forms of entertainments were set up there for the summer along with food vendors’ booths. Wooden platforms were constructed where women performers sang and danced. It is said that the first of these female performers was Okuni, a dancer from the Shinto Shrine in Izumo. Okuni performed satirical dances in which she imitated samurai men. Her performances were popular and other women copied her and soon female dance troops formed. Between 1615 and 1623 several licensed theatres opened where these “burlesque” performances were featured. This was called women’s kabuki (kabuki at this time meant bent, implying something odd or unusual) or sometimes prostitute’s kabuki as these women generally also sold sexual favours. This popular theatre spread to other cities. The first one in Edo opened in 1624. As the performers were generally “for sale” at the the end of the performance, fights sometimes broke out over who would get to spend time with the most beautiful performers. Women’s kabuki was patronized by samurai, including members of the government, as well as by chonin. This became a problem as the government considered it inappropriate for samurai to be associated with prostitution. The solution was to ban all women from performing on stage in 1629.

By the time of the ban it was not only women who were performing in these theatres. There was also wakashu kabuki (young men’s kabuki). After the ban the wakashu troops incorporated the women’s dances into their own routines. Wakashu kabuki was very popular and Shogun Iemitsu even invited them to perform at Edo Castle. The problems of prostitution persisted, however, as the wakashu offered sexual services just as the women had, so in the mid 17th century all kabuki was banned.

The development of the current Kabuki Theatre

By 1662 the ban had been lifted, with the strict stipulation that all performers be adult men and that they all shave their foreheads. The result was that Kabuki evolved from dance and music variety shows into a new dramatic form. The word “kabuki” was given a new meaning. Instead of “bent” it now meant “sing dance skill”. Music continued to be an integral part of Kabuki and some plays included long dance sequences, but most plays featured a dramatic plot. The plots were adapted from Noh plays, or from history or folklore. Others came from stories about the lives of the townsfolk. Actors began to specialize in male or female roles and individual actors could be identified onstage by their mon, a family crest that was often included as a design element on their costume. Note the Ichikawa family crest, which is three nested squares.

The end of the 17th century saw the emergence of some great Kabuki stars whose influence shaped the development of the art form. One of the first, and greatest, was Ichikawa Danjuro (1660-1704).

Ichikawa Danjuro specialized in the portrayal of macho male heroes and he developed a very specific acting style called aragoto, meaning “reckless warrior matter” (rough style). Aragoto characters were brave, loyal, self-sacrificing and excelled at martial skills (the same qualities a samurai was supposed to embody). Their makeup, wigs and costumes emphasized their size and strength. At exciting moments they would strike a dramatic pose, freeze, and affect a cross-eyed glare. This was called mie.

Aragoto style was very popular in Edo. In the Kyoto/Osaka (Kamigata) region wagoto (gentle style) performances featuring lovers rather than heroes were more popular. These specialties were passed down through family lines, as were acting names.

By the end of the 1600s Kabuki had matured into a serious theatrical art practiced by highly skilled performers and there were four Kabuki theatres in Edo (in the vicinity of the current Kabuki-za). Kabuki was extremely popular and everyone went to it. Unlike the Yoshiwara, Kabuki was a part of the floating world that both men and women could enjoy and almost everyone could afford. Theatres offered different grades of seating to accommodate all budgets.

Some plays had moments of great spectacle, making use of a variety of special effects. Kabuki is thought to be the first theatre to have used revolving stages (in about the mid 18th century). In addition trap doors, wires, and other special effects were used to make actors appear, disappear, or fly. One favourite effect was a quick change in which an actor’s costume transformed into something completely different while he was on stage. Some of these things were accomplished with the help of assistants who were there, but were not supposed to be seen.

The action was accompanied by music. There were always percussionists and shamisen players and often other musicians and singers.

Over time the theatres increased in size. By the mid 19th century big Kabuki theatres held audiences of around 1500. The acting day was a long one. Performances began at 6am (4am in summer) and ended around 4pm (5pm in summer). For the first 2 hours, when there were few spectators, there were dance or acrobatic performances by lower-ranked or trainee actors. Following that were the features. Audience members came and went as they pleased during the day and did not necessarily sit through an entire play.

Kabuki theatres in the Edo period were places to socialize. Today nobody talks during kabuki performances except to shout out their approval to the actors, nor do they eat except during intermission, but in the Edo Period food was served in the theatre and could be eaten while the plays were in progress. Ukiyo-e also shows theatregoers engaged in lively conversations among themselves while the actors performed on stage. The party could continue once patrons left the theatre as the street outside was also home to tea houses and brothels.

In 1841 two of the three officially approved theatres, the Nakamura-za and the Ichimura-za were destroyed by fire. In 1842 all three theatres were relocated to Saruwaka-machi, along with their associated tea shops and brothels, joining their sister entertainment district, the Yoshiwara, in the more remote Edo district of Asakusa.


Actors specializing in female roles were called onnagata.

They usually covered the shaved part of the front of their head with a piece of purple silk, which could be worn off stage and also under their wig on stage.

While the aragoto style of acting was popular in Edo, a gentler, romantic style called wagoto was popular in Kyoto and Osaka. Through to the middle of the 1700s most onnagata who performed in Edo were trained in Kyoto. It was common at this time for these men to dress and live as women off stage as well.

In the beginning onnagata imitated the style of the famous women of the Yoshiwara. Soon they were considered to be more elegant and feminine than women and women began to imitate them! This mutual imitation continued throughout the period. Apparently trainee geisha were taken to the Kabuki to see how a refined woman should behave.

The Lives of Actors

Actors were ranked. The lower ranked actors did walk-on or bit parts, or played animals. They were attached to a particular theatre and shared communal dressing rooms. Lower ranked onnagata had their own communal dressing room. The top or headline actors had individual dressing rooms. All of the higher ranked professional actors belonged to acting “families”. Most top actors were free to work at different theatres.

At the end of a performance all actors bathed. There was a communal bath for the higher ranked actors, excepting the onnagata who had tubs in their dressing rooms. Lower ranked actors only had wash basins in their communal dressing room.

Younger members of the family received strict training in order to perform the roles and dialogue perfectly, though the more senior actors were permitted to ad lib. Roles were generally not the property of a particular acting family, but families might own the right to perform parts of the role in a particular way. In addition to roles and acting styles, costumes and makeup were passed down in families.

The top actors earned huge salaries. Ichikawa Danjuro I (1660-1704), one of the first great stars of Edo Kabuki, earned up to 800 gold pieces per year. The average annual salary was closer to 1 gold piece. In the early 1700s an onnagata named Yoshizawa Ayame I (1663-1729) became the first actor to earn 1000 gold pieces in a year and Danjuro II was the second to earn that amount in 1722. Danjuro II even earned 2000 gold pieces one year, though this was highly unusual. .

Top actors may have earned high salaries, but they had many financial obligations. They bore the cost of all of their costumes, wigs and makeup (from the 1830s on they received a costume allowance). They required servants and hosted lavish parties. Low ranked actors performing bit parts had their costumes provided for them.

Guidebooks about actors, modeled on the guidebooks about courtesans, appeared in the late 17th century. They provided plots and commentaries on the plays, but they also evaluated the talent of the actors and provided personal background, including sexual preferences. Some actors became superstars, with fan clubs and many ardent admirers. When Ichikawa Danjuro I played particularly popular roles, fans threw money on the stage. At one point in a play called Sukeroku the title character had to hide in a barrel of water. When the role was played by a great heart heartthrob, like Ichikawa Danjuro VIII, bottles of the water were sold to female fans after the performance.

Fans also collected ukiyo-e woodblock prints depicting actors on stage and off. Prints and other items featuring actor portraits or crests, such as fans or articles of clothing, promoted particular actors and helped spread their fame. The prints were disseminated throughout the country so that even people in rural areas knew the names and faces of famous actors. This was helpful to the actors in cases when they could not perform at their normal theatres, if for example the theatre had been destroyed by a fire. Actors could tour the provinces where they were already well known and would be enthusiastically received.

Actors, both male role specialists and female role specialists, became sex symbols. Onnagata appealed to male and female fans alike. Some actors supplemented their income by selling sexual favours. Also, a number of brothels specializing in wakashu were located in the vicinity of the theatres. Some of these brothels were owned by actors and some of the young male sex workers also appeared on stage in bit parts. Occasionally one even went on to starring roles.

Acting, like prostitution, was considered to be an extremely low profession and existed outside of the acceptable 4 social classes (actors were hinin, or non-persons). Early Kabuki was sometimes patronized by the elites, but by the latter part of the 17th century it was considered inappropriate for the samurai to attend the Kabuki, though they continued to do so.

Theatres and a Scandal

By the beginning of the 18th century there were four kabuki theatres in Edo, in an area close to the present Kabukiza and Ginza. In 1714 Lady Ejima (1681-1741), a lady in waiting to the shogun’s mother, went out on a day trip to visit places of worship. But she also went to the Yamamura-za, one of the Kabuki theatres! After the performance she met with an actor, Ikushima Shingoro (1671-1743). When news of this was discovered it was a terrible scandal. All kabuki theatres were immediately closed. The lady, the actor, and the manager of the theatre where they met were exiled. The Yamamura-za Theatre was demolished. Eventually the other three theatres were permitted to reopen.

Names of Actors

Acting families specialized in certain acting styles and in particular roles. Costumes were passed down through the families and most costumes and makeup changed very little over time.

A boy born into an acting family not only inherited a profession, he inherited a name. He would take on a professional name when he first began to act, often as a child, and would take a new name to mark each milestone in his career. The most prestigious name was usually held by the head of the acting family. For example, within the Ichikawa family of actors Danjiro was the most important name as it had been the name of the founder. Generally an actor passed his name and position in the lineage on to his biological son. If he had no son, or perhaps had an untalented son, he would adopt a boy from another acting family with surplus sons.

The Ichikawa family in the 19th century is an interesting example. Ichikawa Danjuro VII (1791-1859), a direct descendant of Ichikawa Danjuro I, was one of the greatest Kabuki actors ever and enjoyed huge popularity.

Today he is most commonly known as Danjuro VII because Danjuro was the most prestigious name he acted under, but during his career he used different stage names:

He first appeared on stage at age 3 under the name Ichikawa Shinnosuke.

At age 6 his name was changed to Ichikawa Ebizo V.

At age 16 he was given the name Ichikawa Danjuro VII.

At age 38 he performed in Osaka as Ichikawa Hakuen II after a fire destroyed the Edo theatres.

At age 41 he took the name Ebizo V again so that his son could become Danjuro VIII.

Ichikawa Danjuro VII had 2 wives and 3 concubines. He had 7 sons and 5 daughters. All of his sons trained to be actors. Another Kabuki family, the Kawarazaki family, had no male heir. As Danjuro VII had many sons, one of the younger boys, the son of a concubine, was adopted into the Kawarazaki family. The head of the Kawarazaki family, Gonnosuke VI, put this boy through a rigorous training regimen and he became a very skilled actor, Kawarazaki Gonjuro I. When Gonnosuke VI was murdered in 1868, Gonjuro I succeeded him, becoming Kawarazaki Gonnosuke VII (1838-1903).

When Danjuro VII stepped aside so that his older son could become Danjuro VIII, the boy was only 9. This was an exceptionally young age to inherit such a prestigious name, but he showed great promise as an actor. Danjuro VIII was very attractive and he excelled in young lover roles. Female fans adored him. Some critics felt that he was not so good in the traditional aragoto roles as his father, but he enjoyed great success as an actor.

Danjuro VIII was born in 1823. In 1854, at the age of 30, he took his own life. His father continued acting as Ichikawa Ebizo V and nobody held the name of Danjuro for 20 years. In 1874 Kawarazaki Gonnosuke VII (the younger half-brother of Danjuro VIII) returned to the Ichikawa family and assumed the name Ichikawa Danjuro IX.

At the moment there is no Danjuro. Ichikawa Danjuro XII died in 2013. It is expected that his son, who is an actor, will eventually inherit the name.

When actors wished to say something to their fans, such as letting them know about a name change, they would address the theatre audience directly. Before a play began, or sometimes even during it, an actor could step out of character, bow to his audience, and make a personal announcement. This might be something career-related such as taking a new name, or taking on a new role, or he might be introducing a family member who was embarking on his acting career, or it might be even more personal, such as thanking the audience for all their support during a difficult time such as an illness. Woodblock prints would be produced that showed the actors and provided a text of the announcement.

When an actor died it was the custom for memorial portraits of them to be issued. These commonly showed the actor in a devotional sort of pose, looking relaxed or contemplative, but in some cases when the death was unexpected or unusual, such as Danjuro VIII’s death from suicide, publishers rushed to issue memorial portraits by reworking previously issued portraits of the actor. Particularly elaborate (or even comic) memorial portraits were sometimes also issued for very famous actors such as Danjuro VIII. Memorial portraits gave some information about the individual, might include a poem, and provided their posthumous name. In the Japanese Buddhist tradition an individual was given a new name, a kaimyo, when they died.

Promotion and Merchandising

There were various ways for actors to supplement their incomes. Actors could earn a bonus for playing roles outside their speciality: an actor from the Ichikawa family playing an onnagata role for example (they also did this to prove their prowess as an actor). Also some stars operated retail shops selling their own brands of makeup, accessories, incense, sweets, etc. They also made extra income from personal appearances or advertising. Some inserted commercial info into their stage dialogue. An example of this would be when a character mentions a general product or place (I’m going to a noodle shop) and the actor referred to a specific place (I’m going to the Nezu Noodle Shop) in order to promote a specific local business.


In class we watched Act XI from a kabuki performance of Kanadehon Chushingura. All eleven acts are available on DVD from the Japan Foundation Library.

We also watched “Japanese Theater 3: Kabuki” from youtube: Click here

Note: one of the most popular Kabuki actors today is Bando Tomasaburo, an onnagata, or female role specialist. He excels in dance roles and excerpts from his performances are available on youtube. Here are some examples:

This is from Sagi Musume. It is the last part of a famous dance performed by Tomasaburo that incorporates quick-changes on stage. You are not supposed to notice the two men who appear in the background to help with the change. In the last transformation Tomasaburo becomes a white heron. A singer describes what is happening and there is an English commentary. Click here

Here Tomasaburo is a courtesan and performs a type of very slow dance while a singer describes the courtesan’s thoughts. There is a good English commentary: Click here