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Kabuki (歌舞伎) is a form of traditional Japanese theatre. The individual Kanji characters, from left to right, mean sing (歌), dance (舞), and performer (伎).

The history of kabuki begins in 1603, when Okuni , an attendant from Izumo Shrine , began performing a new style of dance in the dry river beds of Kyoto. In recent times a statue of Okuni has been erected near Kyoto's Pontochō district. The style was instantly popular, and kabuki was born as ensemble dance performed by women. The appeal of the style was largely due to the ribald, suggestive performances put on by Okuni and her troupe; the actresses were also available for prostitution, and those male audience members who could afford to availed themselves freely of the women's services. The attention of the government was attracted, and in 1629 women were banned from the stage. That was the reason kabuki was also written as "歌舞妓" (singing and dancing prostitute) during the Edo period).

Since kabuki was already so popular, young male actors took over. Their performances were equally ribald, and they too were available for prostitution (also for male customers). Audiences frequently became rowdy, and brawls occasionally broke out, sometimes over the favours of a particularly handsome young actor, again leading the shogunate (幕府) to clamp down. As a result, the style developed into a sophisticated, highly stylized form called yarō kabuki (roughly, "fellow's kabuki," or "guy kabuki"). Today the "yarō" has been dropped, but all the roles in a kabuki play are still performed by men. The male actors who specialise in playing women's roles are called onnagata (女形). Onnagata typically come from a long line of onnagata specialists. The other two major types of role are oregata (masculine) and wagata (comical).

Though it was heavily influenced by noh (能) drama, with the government restrictions came changes to the style of kabuki performances. One of the major changes was to the stage itself, to which was added a projection called a hanamichi (花道; literally, flowery path), a walkway which extends into the audience and via which dramatic entrances and exits are made. Kabuki stages and theatres became more technologically sophisticated, and special effects such as revolving stages, trap doors and other innovations became possible, and added greatly to the staging of kabuki plays.

In kabuki, as in some other Japanese performing arts, scenery changes are sometimes made mid-scene, while the actors remain on stage and the curtain stays open. Stage hands rush onto the stage adding and removing props, backdrops and other scenery; these stage hands, always dressed entirely in black, are traditionally considered "invisible."

There are three main categories of kabuki play: jidai-mono (時代物, historical), sewa-mono (世話物, domestic), and shosagoto (dance pieces).

Important characteristics of Kabuki theater include the mie (見得), in which the actor holds a picturesque pose to establish his character.

Keshou, or makeup used in kabuki, provides an element of style easily recognizable even by those unfamiliar with the art form. Rice powder is used to create the white oshiroi base, and kumadori enhances or exaggerates facial lines to produce dramatic animal or supernatural masks for the actors.

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45