Kabuki is a traditional Japanese style play where actors dress in Japanese style clothing called kimono’s and wear white makeup on their faces. Usually during Kabuki plays, actors exaggerate their words and try to speak in old fashion Japanese. The Kabuki plays have been around since the 1600s and they are often compared to another similar play style called Noh. Recently I was able to go a Kabuki performance for JAS 435 exploring Tohoku Culture at Sakata-Kuromori. At Sakata-Kuromori, a series of Kabuki plays are performed on this day, and numerous people come to this area to watch people perform Kabuki. This was not my first Kabuki play, but compared to the one I went to in America, the actors at this Kabuki play spoke in Japanese instead of English. In addition, the first performance that I saw featured child actors instead of adults.
According to the website Japan-Guide, the Kabuki tradition first appeared during the Edo period. At first only female actors performed Kabuki but eventually women were banned from acting in Kabuki and replaced by men because a lot of the female kabuki actors were actually prostitutes. Due to the lack of females, men had to play female roles and men that played female characters had become known as “onnagata.” Before the Japanese government had begun trading with the west, Kabuki and other similar traditional Japanese art forms such as bunraku or noh were the main forms of entertainment in Japan. Noh is another type of Japanese play where actors also wear traditional Japanese clothing but wear masks instead of white makeup. Bunraku is a type of Japanese play where puppets are used instead of people.
Although neither Kabuki, Noh, and Bunraku are no longer as popular as before, they are still popular compared to other modern forms of entertainment such as movies, television, and video games. Today professional kabuki can be watched at places like Tokyo, Fukuoka, and Osaka. Usually in Kabuki plays such as the one I saw at Sakata-Kuromori, there are actors dressed in black called “kurogo.” These actors are supposed to be invisible during the performance and give out props or may change the scenery during the play. Even for Japanese people due to the plot and language, Kabuki can be difficult to understand. Kabuki actors speak in old fashioned Japanese which is very different compared to the modern Japanese language.
At Sakata-Kuromori, I had only seen two kabuki performances despite the area being known for having numerous kabuki performances on that day. Like I mentioned earlier, the first performance featured child actors and the second performance featured older actors possibly professionals. Based on what I read from the website JapanTourist, it seems like at Sakata-Kuromori, young actors are recruited by the Kabuki community so that they can dedicate their lives to continuing the Kabuki tradition. Also in order to perform a good performance, the children actors usually practice for at least a year for this performance. Despite their young age, these child actors are very serious about their roles, and they speak in the same exaggerated speech pattern as their older counter parts. These child actors speak in a very low pitch and loud voice.
Child Kabuki actors performing on stage
In addition, it seems like these performance are held outside with the snow near a shrine around the middle of February every year despite nearby in-door stages in order to celebrate the New Year and increase the town’s chances of having a good harvest for spring. By making this event public, anyone can go to this event, and vendors sell food and drinks to both locals and guests. Some of these food assortments are given away for free such as warm amazake or sake. Amazake is a Japanese drink that looks like milk but contains rice.
The plot of both plays were difficult for me to understand, so I had to get a Japanese friend to help translate the plot for me using the brochure I received from the Kabuki festival at Sakata-Kuromori. With my friends help, I was able to translate the name of one of the play that was performed on that day which was Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami. The play is about an advisor to the emperor named Sugawara no Michizane. Sugawara is falsely accused of plotting the Emperor’s overthrow with the help of another member of the royal family. As punishment, Sugawara is banished to the Japanese island Kyushu and spends the remainder of his years writing about his homesickness and innocence. Shortly after Sugawara’s death, lightning stroke the Emperor’s home constantly so a shrine is built for Sugawara and Sugawara becomes known as the God of Calligraphy. This play originally originated as bunraku and it is one of the three most commonly performed Kabuki plays. This play consisted of five parts but I also only saw two of the five parts.
The play Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami consisted of multiple parts so during the break, I had explored the area and noticed some of the young actors posing for a photo. The actors appeared to be very shy to be surrounded by all of the people and nearby the actors, was a shrine where they could rest, change, or prepare for their performance.
After exploring the area, I watched the start of the second performance where an old man at the festival treated some of the other students and me by buying Japanese food for us at the festival. The old man was curious to see the huge amount of foreigners at the festival, and was interested in learning about the foreigners backgrounds. The old man spoke only in Japanese, but based on what I could understand, it seems that like many other people here, he is interested in not just Kabuki, but also sharing his experiences with new people that are curious about visiting Sakata-Kuromori to watch Kabuki. Even though the Kabuki was difficult to understand, I would recommend that anyone that is interested in Kabuki or Japanese culture should come to Sakata-Kuromori to explore the Kabuki within the area.
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