Kabuki performance

Anthropology: The Significance of Kabuki in Japanese Theater and Culture

Author’s Note: As a rule of thumb, names of historical figures and noteworthy individuals appear in the Japanese name order, surname first (e.g., “Monzaemon Chikamatsu” would be rendered in Japanese as “Chikamatsu Monzaemon”).

Kabuki performance
Kabuki is one of the oldest and most iconic forms of Japanese theater. Pictured here are actors Nishizaki Sakurako and Bando Kotji, who starred in “Yoshino Mountain.” Image Credit: Acting For Young People — Chinese and Japanese Theater History.

Japanese classical theater has three main traditions: Kabuki, Noh, and Bunraku. Each of these performance types has been deemed to possess intangible cultural value by UNESCO, helping to preserve them for future generations (“Kabuki Facts and Details” 2014; ). Kabuki traces its roots to the Edo Period and uses three characters to represent song (ka), dance (bu), and skills (ki). Typical kabuki shows are characterized by their elaborate costumes, exaggerated wigs, flamboyant makeup, over-the-top actions, and the presence of only male performers. Since the dialogue contains traditional Japanese words that even native speakers may find hard to follow (“Kabuki, Noh, and Bunraku” 2020), there is a deliberate focus on movement to convey meaning to the audience.

Traditional Noh theater combines dance, music, and drama. Kabuki is known for its opulence; Noh has slower movements and a monotonous tone, though a unique characteristic of Noh is the use of masks that reveal which character is being portrayed (Hays 2014; Miettinen 2018; “Noh Theater” 2021; Larsen 2020). Japanese cypress blocks are typically used in carving the masks, which are three-dimensional to allow the actors to show various expressions from a variety of angles (“Kabuki, Noh, and Bunraku” 2020; Miettinen 2018; “Noh Theater” 2021). It is the case in Noh, as in Kabuki, that all roles are inhabited by men: Shite (the main character), Waki (the supporting actor), Hayashi (the musicians), Jiutai (the chorus), and Koken (the stagehands). Interludes of the main performance feature comical pieces called kyogen. The origins of Noh, which was popularized by the playwright Motokiyo Zeami, date back to the 14th century (Miettinen 2018; Larsen 2020).

Bunraku, a traditional puppet theater, had a very large following in Osaka during the Edo Period. Originally conceived as an entertaining form, the style evolved into an artistic performance in the 17th century (McElhinney and Larsen 2021). The puppets, which are half the size of a human, are operated by three performers, one of whom is the main operator and the other two are assistants (“Invitation to Bunraku” 2017; Miettinen 2018; “Bunraku – Japanese Puppet Theater” 2021). Neither strings nor belts are needed to move the puppet, and the puppeteer is in full view of the audience. A single individual provides narration alongside the voice work of all the puppets, and a shamisen (a three-stringed guitar) is used to underscore the performance.

History and Origins of Kabuki

Kabuki is one of Japan’s three main forms of theatre (the other two being Noh and Bunraku). Exquisite costumes, slapstick action and exaggerated movements, dynamic sets, and creative prop utilization make for recognizable performances. Not unlike the stage traditions in Ancient Greece and Rome or Elizabethan England, kabuki has been dominated largely by men. Ironically, this art form was invented in Kyoto by a female shrine attendant, Izumo no Okuni (ca. 1578-1613), and popularized by her troupe of female dancers in the 17th century.

Although greatly influenced by the aristocratic noh, kabuki was primarily an acting style popular with the masses, especially those who frequented Japan’s red-light districts (Flynn 1982). Early shows were generally based on Buddhist ritual dances but were meant primarily as popular entertainment (“Kabuki Facts and Details” 2014). Like noh theatre, kabuki‘s roots in music, dance, and drama date back to the eighth century.

Contemporary image of kabuki founder Izumo no Okumi.
A contemporary image of kabuki founder Izumo no Okuni (center, on stage) dressed as a samurai. Image Credit: Tokugawa Art Museum.

Okuni’s dancers created quite a sensation with their exotic costumes, some of which were impersonations of the Portuguese missionaries, and because of their cross-dressing scenes parodying everyday life. The latter, however, was not a complete novelty; female roles were played by masked men in the much older noh theatre, for instance. During the Edo Period, the Tokugawa Shogunate prohibited women from performing in kabuki tropes due to its association with prostitution (an undue assumption also affiliated with geisha), so to this day, kabuki is still performed only by men; several male kabuki actors specialize in playing female roles (onnagata).

Though kabuki‘s formative years were dogged by moral panic and controversy, the performances quickly gained such immense popularity that rival troupes emerged as far away as Tokyo (then called Edo), and Okuni herself performed for the Imperial Court (“What is Kabuki?” 2019). As the structure of performances became standardized, character types based on recurring themes became established, and all stigma about its grandiose fashions and bizarre drama was erased, the 18th and 19th centuries have become known as the “Golden Age of Kabuki,” continuing to enjoy great appeal to this day.

Statue of Izumo no Okuni, founder of kabuki theatre.
A commemorative statue of kabuki founder Izumo no Okuni in Kyoto, Japan. Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Kabuki Hallmarks: Costumes, Wigs, and Makeup


Kabuki theatre is well-known for its lavish costumes, makeup, and wigs. As most dramas are set in the past, performers usually wear kimonos, traditional Japanese clothing. From practical and understated to cumbersome and extravagant, the styles range widely, often dependent on the character’s background and position within the plot (“Kabuki Facts and Details” 2014; “Characters and Costumes” 2019). For instance, a peasant in a kabuki drama may be identified by their “paper kimono,” while courtesans wear magnificent brocade and multiple layers. Indeed, some costumes are known to weight over 20 kilograms, and have numerous folds and layers that have to be carefully positioned when the actors sit down. Bold colors and patterns are believed to heighten the actors’ performance, and most kabuki costumes are disposed of after just one 25-day theatrical run: the brilliant colors fade in bright lights, and they smell bad from sweat (“Kabuki Facts and Details” 2014).

Kabuki actor headshot
Pictured here is celebrated onnagata Bando Tamasaburo V in ‘The Wisteria Maiden’. Note the details of the wig and kimono. Image Credit: Japan Zone – Kabuki Theater.

Among the most challenging skills of the actors is simply manipulating and moving in their heavy costumes. Most costumes and wigs are designed and made by hand by trained artisans, sometimes featuring fine silver and gold threads woven into them (“What is Kabuki?” 2019). Typically, costumes in domestic plays are realistic depictions of Edo-period fashions, but historical plays often feature beautiful robes and large wigs reminiscent of those worn in noh theaters. Onnagata dance pieces are renowned for their exquisite costumes.

In kabuki narratives, women are usually dressed in elaborate kimonos and obis, while pleated hakama trousers are worn by characters of both sexes. Even changing costumes is seen as an art form, so there are special teams that are responsible for completing and partial costume changes, which are sometimes incorporated into the performance.


Wigs are a necessary component of every costume, and there are a variety of types available. The wigs are tailored to each individual’s head, maintained, and prepared for every performance by specialized craftsmen. In addition, some craftsmen specialize in wigs for certain characters. As noted by Jeffrey Hays, most of the wigs were “made of human hair but some are made of horsehair or, bear fur or yak-tail hair imported from Tibet” (“Kabuki Facts and Details” 2014). Many wigs were made by hand, with the craftsmen carefully attaching one hair at a time.

Kabuki poster
A poster such as this wouldn’t be an uncommon sight at traditional theaters like Tokyo’s Kabukiza. Note the diversity of the actors’ wigs, makeup, and costumes. Image Credit: Japan Zone – Kabuki Theater.


Kumadori, the extravagant makeup used in historical plays, is a well-known trademark of kabuki. Theater performers paint their faces white (oshiroi) to accentuate their features and give a more dramatic edge to their performances. Colored lines can also be added to describe the character’s appearance or attributes. About a hundred of these masklike styles can be found in which the colors and designs represent aspects of a character. Typically, the color blue is used to describe negative traits such as jealousy and fear, while the color red is commonly associated with good traits such as virtue, passion, or “superhuman power” (“Kabuki Facts and Details” 2014). Brooke Larsen notes that the patterns differ based on the gender of each character (“What is Kabuki?” 2019). Many supernatural beings, such as ghosts and demons, have blue veins drawn like branches. Samurai have white faces with black eyebrows and red lips, while onnagata delicately paint idolized feminine features on a white base, and servants and peasants are noted to “have more brownish make-up, indicating the tan of people who work outdoors” (“Kabuki, Theatre as Spectacle” 2018). Traditionally, performing actors apply their own makeup to better understand their characters.

Kabuki makeup
This undated picture portrays an unknown actor from ‘Shibaraku,’ which is noted among kabuki admirers for its flamboyantly dramatic costumes and makeup (kumadori). Image Credit: Kabuki Facts and Details.

Kabuki actors wear no masks, unlike their Noh counterparts. Their faces, necks, and hands are painted white, and their eyes and lips are painted red. The striking makeup is regarded as 1) a way of elevating a character to mythic status, 2) a way to define their behavior, 3) and a way to reveal hidden characteristics about themselves (“Kabuki Facts and Details” 2014). Rather than heightening facial lines, kabuki makeup exaggerates them to portray dramatic expressions; crossed eyes in mie poses indicate intense emotion.

Themes, Key Elements, and Genres of Kabuki

There are many similarities between kabuki dramas and Western dramas. The most common kabuki themes are loyalty, love, honor and revenge, as well as consummating love with suicide. As noted by Hays (2014), Larsen (2021), and Japan Guide (2021), many kabuki masterpieces are adapted from bunraku puppet shows. Kabuki plays generally fall into three main categories: jidaimono (early historical and legendary stories), sewamono (contemporary tales post-1600), and shosagoto (dance dramas).

Famous Actors and Playwrights

The foundations of modern Japanese Kabuki were set by many key players, in addition to Izumo no Okuni. Japanese playwright/puppeteer Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725) has been compared to William Shakespeare (1564-1616) for his prolific output; The Courier for Hell (1711) and The Love Suicides at Amijima were among countless scripts he wrote, many discussing tragic suicides. Similar to Shakespeare’s frequent collaborations with Richard Burbage (c. 1567 – 1613), Chikamatsu often cast Sakata Tojuro I (1647-1709) as his leading man in romantic shows, praised by contemporaries for his realistic acting and gentle demeanor. In the same period, Ichikawa Danjuro I (1660-1704) was making waves for his bombastic enthusiasm, making him perfectly suited for stories involving war and conflict.

Chikamatsu self-portrait
Self-portrait of Chikamatsu Monzaemon, who is widely regarded as the greatest Japanese dramatist. Date unknown. Image Credit: Wikipedia.

The legacies of Sakata Tojuro and Ichikawa Danjuro have both been perpetuated as yago, or stage names held by several generations of actors. Similar to Noh, Kabuki is a system in which artistic skills are passed by parents to children and from master to disciple, and each acting family develops their own distinctive techniques (“Expressions of the Actors” 2019). The same can be said of outstanding actors who are able to pass down from generation to generation the plays and roles in which they excel. Several generations of performers have taken names from famous kabuki players, such as Ichikawa Ebizo, Matsumoto Koshiro, and Nakamura Kanzaburo. New generations add a number to their names. Some modern-day examples are Nakamura Shichinosuke II, Nakamura Kanzaburō XVIII, Ichikawa Danjuro XII, Ichikawa Ebizō XI, and Sakata Tojuro IV (whose lineage went dormant for roughly 230 years but was recently revived).

Types of Roles, Techniques, and Training

Kabuki is one of the few theatrical traditions where performers play such a crucial role in creating the content of the art form. Some actors have such versatility that they can portray a variety of characters; both Sakata Tojuro IV and Nakamura Shichinosuke II can play male and female roles. In reality, however, most kabuki actors specialize in one category, as acting techniques, voice use, etc. require almost lifelong training and specialization. The main character types in kabuki include: wagoto (emphasizes realistic speech and more elegant mannerisms/gestures), aragoto (uses flashy, dynamic movements and aggressive, “larger-than-life” speech patterns), and onnagata (actor of female-roles).

As kabuki is largely hereditary, training in dance (especially for onnagata), singing, musical instruments (primarily the shamisen or lute), body language, voice, and expressions begin from early childhood. Only actors with a considerable amount of practice and experience may make slight changes to a character’s portrayal, as the roles themselves have been cultivated and preserved among kabuki families for generations.

Ichikawa kabuki lineage

The legacy and artistic mantle of renowned kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjuro I (1660-1704) has been diligently preserved and maintained by his descendants for 12 generations. Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Where Can I Watch a Kabuki Performance?

Today, you can watch kabuki all over Japan and even overseas. Typically, performances are divided into two segments, one in the afternoon and one in the evening. Each act is further divided into segments. It is not uncommon for tickets to be sold per segment, but in some cases, they may also be sold per act. The average price of a ticket for a full segment is around ¥250,000 ($2,250) for a full act; depending on the seating, a whole act can cost up to ¥22000 ($18). Attendees are not required to wear a kimono or formal attire, but very casual or revealing clothing and shoes are considered inappropriate.

Kabukiza; Tokyo's premier kabuki theater.
Kabukiza, Tokyo’s principal kabuki theater. Image Credit: Wikipedia.
  1. Tokyo: There are three kabuki theaters in Tokyo: Kabukiza, Shinbashi Enbujo, and the National Theater. The oldest is Kabukiza, originally opened in the early 1900s, but recently renovated to reflect its original design. You can rent English audio guides at Kabukiza and the National Theater, but Shinbashi Enbujo doesn’t usually provide them.
  2. Kyoto: The birthplace of kabuki, Kyoto is home to the famous Minamiza Theater. The original building was erected in 1610, but was later reconstructed in 1929, overlooking the same riverbank where Izumi and her troupe entertained their first audiences. English pamphlets and audio guides are provided upon request.
  3. Osaka: Osaka’s kabuki theater is the Shochikuza Theater, which first opened its doors in 1923. Like Tokyo and Kyoto’s theaters, English pamphlets and audio guides are available for non-Japanese speakers.
  4. Fukuoka: The Hakataza Theater in Fukuoka was constructed in 1996, making it the youngest of Japan’s major kabuki theaters. English pamphlets are available for rent during most productions.

More information on overseas kabuki performances can be found here.

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

Kabuki performances have become increasingly popular since World War II, and the Kabukiza Theater, one of Tokyo’s most prestigious kabuki theatres, has begun to show them all year round since 1991. 2005 was also a year for marketing Kabuki cinema films. Today, several kabuki troupes tour Europe, Asia, and North America.

Kabuki‘s impact is well-known internationally, as Thuring (2018) notes. This cultural practice’s diverse performance styles and unique characteristics have led to its inclusion on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Watching a live kabuki performance is something one should not miss while in Japan. Kabuki is undoubtedly unlike anything else, and watching and enjoying the performance is a memorable experience.

Kabukiza Theater interior.
The interior of the Kabukiza, the premier kabuki theater in Tokyo. Image Credit: Kabuki Theater – Japan Guide.


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