Jablonski, Marek (Michael)



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3. Kabuki.


Japanese theatrical form popular since the Edo period (1603–1868) and the source of many major musical genres.

(i) History.


In the late 17th century the term kabuki was used to refer to something unconventional, such as clothing or social behaviour. The word was first connected with the theatre in a source of 1603 that mentions an unusual dance (kabuki odori) supposedly performed in 1596 by Okuni, a female dancer from the Izumo Shintō shrine. Using a -style stage set on the Kamo river-bed in Kyoto, she performed a lively version of a Buddhist festival dance, the nembutsu odori, to the accompaniment of the drums and flute of the and a small Buddhist gong that she played herself. The popularity of the entertainment was enhanced by additional folkdances and pantomimes. Such performances subsequently spread through the country as female (onna kabuki) or prostitute (yūjo kabuki) ‘modern’ theatre. In 1629 the government banned them, although the rival genre, the wakashū kabuki (‘young-boy show’), continued. These forms of popular theatre had developed rapidly, the major musical change being the addition of the shamisen, a three-string plucked lute, as the chief melodic instrument (see §II, 6 above).

The banning of the ‘young-boy’ kabuki in 1642 led to the use of the term ‘yarō’ (‘male-adult’) kabuki and to pantomime comedy (momomane kyōgen zukushi). However, audiences preferred the term kabuki, and as the drama matured, the Chinese characters that stood for music, dance and acting were chosen to write it.

Traditional kabuki has remained a genre performed entirely by males, the role of onnagata (female impersonator) being highly respected. It was cultivated and popularized by itinerant and local companies as well as in the permanent theatres of big cities such as Osaka, Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo), and by the 19th century there was an established repertory of 18 great plays and a tradition of famous playwrights, ‘hit’ shows and star actors (fig.33). Much of the tradition survived into the 20th century, continuing alongside regional variants and new styles (some of which include actresses and new music). Most major kabuki companies are owned by film corporations, but in 1965 a government-subsidized national theatre was established, which regularly shows kabuki (among other traditional genres) and includes a training school for kabuki performers.

There are two main kinds of kabuki play: jidaimono, or pseudo-historical period pieces, and sewamono, stories dealing with plebeian life of the Edo period. There are also modern plays. Traditional plays are seldom performed complete, as they may last for a day or more. Normally the Kabuki-za in Tokyo stages two different programmes a day, each consisting of single acts from plays and often dances from other acts. Some scenes have no music at all, but only the content of the more usual kabuki dramas with music is discussed here.




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