An Introduction to Japanese Kabuki Theatre, Featuring 20th-Century Masters of the Form (1964)

The Eng­lish lan­guage has adopt­ed kabu­ki as an adjec­tive, applied to sit­u­a­tions where exag­ger­at­ed appear­ances and per­for­mances are every­thing. Busi­ness, pol­i­tics, media: name any realm of moder­ni­ty, and the myr­i­ad ways in which its affairs can turn kabu­ki will spring to mind. A high­ly styl­ized form of dance-dra­ma orig­i­nat­ing in the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, it con­tin­ues to stand today as a pil­lar of clas­si­cal Japan­ese cul­ture — and indeed, accord­ing to UNESCO, one piece of the Intan­gi­ble Cul­tur­al Her­itage of Human­i­ty. The world­wide regard for kabu­ki owes in part to self-pro­mo­tion­al efforts on the part of Japan, whose Min­istry of For­eign Affairs com­mis­sioned the half-hour intro­duc­to­ry film above.

Pro­duced in 1964, Kabu­ki: The Clas­sic The­atre of Japan holds up as a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the art, as well as a view of some of the mid-20th cen­tu­ry’s mas­ter prac­ti­tion­ers. These actors include Jit­sukawa Enjaku III, Naka­mu­ra Utae­mon VI, and Ichikawa Dan­jūrō XI, whose stage names reflect their place in an unbro­ken pro­fes­sion­al lin­eage.

In fact, Ichikawa Dan­jūrō XI is a pre­de­ces­sor of Ichikawa Ebizō XI, pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture for his work in kabu­ki Star Wars adap­ta­tions. The gen­er­a­tions shown here did­n’t go in for such pop-cul­tur­al hybridiza­tion, but rather plays from the tra­di­tion­al kabu­ki reper­toire like ShibarakuMusume Dōjōji, and Sukeroku, scenes from all three of which appear in the film.

“Through elab­o­rate cos­tumes and vivid make­up, through beau­ti­ful­ly styl­ized act­ing and exag­ger­at­ed vocal­iza­tion, and high­light­ed with pic­turesque set­tings and col­or­ful music, the kabu­ki actors cre­ate dra­mat­ic effects of extra­or­di­nary inten­si­ty with­in a frame­work of pure enter­tain­ment,” explains the nar­ra­tor. And as in the ear­ly per­for­mances of Shake­speare, all the roles are played by males, spe­cial­ists known as onna­ga­ta. “Because the empha­sis in kabu­ki is on artis­tic per­for­mance, not real­ism, the onna­ga­ta is con­sid­ered more capa­ble of express­ing true fem­i­nin­i­ty than is pos­si­ble for an actress.” This may have struck West­ern view­ers in the 1960s as an odd notion, but the sheer for­eign­ness of kabu­ki — cul­tur­al, geo­graph­i­cal, and tem­po­ral — must have been as cap­ti­vat­ing back then as it remains today, no mat­ter how long we’ve been throw­ing its name around.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Japan­ese Kabu­ki Actors Cap­tured in 18th-Cen­tu­ry Wood­block Prints by the Mys­te­ri­ous & Mas­ter­ful Artist Sharaku

Kabu­ki Star Wars: Watch The Force Awak­ens and The Last Jedi Rein­ter­pret­ed by Japan’s Most Famous Kabu­ki Actor

World Shake­speare Fes­ti­val Presents 37 Plays by the Bard in 37 Lan­guages: Watch Them Online

A Page of Mad­ness: The Lost, Avant Garde Mas­ter­piece from the Ear­ly Days of Japan­ese Cin­e­ma (1926)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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  • Carlos says:

    I like them. One thing though. My shoe size is 10&half I ordered 11&half and they feel small for me. The high­est num­ber is 11&half so for us 10 and big­ger I believe they won’t fit. Oth­er than that they are great. To bad I spent 20 dol­lars and the num­ber is not what they adver­tise

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