Kabuki (̕) is a traditional Japanese form of theater with roots tracing back to the Edo Period. It is recognized as one of Japan's three major classical theaters along with noh and bunraku, and has been named as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

What is it?

Kabuki is an art form rich in showmanship. It involves elaborately designed costumes, eye-catching make-up, outlandish wigs, and arguably most importantly, the exaggerated actions performed by the actors. The highly-stylized movements serve to convey meaning to the audience; this is especially important since an old-fashioned form of Japanese is typically used, which is difficult even for Japanese people to fully understand.

Dynamic stage sets such as revolving platforms and trapdoors allow for the prompt changing of a scene or the appearance/disappearance of actors. Another specialty of the kabuki stage is a footbridge (hanamichi) that leads through the audience, allowing for a dramatic entrance or exit. Ambiance is aided with live music performed using traditional instruments. These elements combine to produce a visually stunning and captivating performance.

Plots are usually based on historical events, warm hearted dramas, moral conflicts, love stories, tales of tragedy of conspiracy, or other well-known stories. A unique feature of a kabuki performance is that what is on show is often only part of an entire story (usually the best part). Therefore, to enhance the enjoyment derived, it would be good to read a little about the story before attending the show. At some theaters, it is possible to rent headsets which provide English narrations and explanations.

Kabuki conventions

When it originated, kabuki used to be acted only by women and was popular mainly among common people. Later during the Edo Period, a restriction was placed by the Tokugawa Shogunate forbidding women from participating; to the present day it is performed exclusively by men. Several male kabuki actors are therefore specialists in playing female roles (onnagata).

One of the things that will be noticed are assistants dressed in black appearing on stage. They serve the purpose to hand the actors props or assist them in various other ways, in order to make the performance seamless. They are called "kurogo" and are to be regarded as non-existent.

If you come across people from the audience shouting out names at the actors on stage, do not mistake this for an act of disrespect: all kabuki actors have a yago (hereditary stage name), which is closely associated to the theater troupe which he is from. In the world of kabuki, troupes are closely knit hierarchical organizations, usually continued through generations within families. It is an accepted practice for the audience to shout out the actors' stage names at an appropriate timing as a show of support.

Formal dress code is not required when attending a kabuki play, although decent dress and footwear are recommended. Sometimes, often on the first day of a run, some ladies may attend the show dressed in traditional kimono.

Where to watch it

In the olden days, mainstream kabuki was performed at selected venues in big cities like Edo (present day Tokyo), Osaka and Kyoto. Local versions of kabuki also took place in rural towns.

These days, kabuki plays are most easily enjoyed at selected theaters with Western-style seats. A day's performance is usually divided into two or three segments (one in the early afternoon and one towards the evening), and each segment is further divided into acts. Tickets are usually sold per segment, although in some cases they are also available per act. They typically cost around 2,000 yen for a single act or between 3,000 and 25,000 yen for an entire segment depending on the seat quality.

Below are some venues where kabuki can be watched:

Kabukiza Theatre

Above Higashi-Ginza Station (Hibiya/Asakusa Subway Lines)
The Kabukiza in Tokyo's Ginza district was reconstructed and reopened in 2013. It closely resembles its predecessor except for a skyscraper that now stands above it. It is the most accessible theater for foreign tourists, staging plays almost everyday and offering single-act tickets and rental monitors that provide English subtitles and explanations. Single-act tickets are only available on the day at a dedicated ticket window, while regular tickets can be booked online in English.

National Theatre

5 minute walk from Hanzomon Station (Hanzomon Subway Line) or 10 minute walk from Nagatacho Station (Yurakucho/Hanzomon/Nanboku Subway Lines)
The National Theatre offers kabuki performances during many months of the year. English information devices are usually available for rental.

Minamiza Theater

In the Gion district, just next to Keihan Gion-shijo Station or 5 minute walk from Hankyu Kawaramachi Station
A couple of runs per year, each lasting between three to four weeks, are usually performed at the Minamiza Theater. English information devices may or may not be available, depending on the performance.

Shochikuza Theater

In the Dotombori District near Namba Station
A few runs per year, each lasting between three to four weeks, are usually performed at the Shochikuza Theater. English information devices are not usually available.

Hakataza Theater

Next to Nakasu Kawabata Subway Station
A couple of runs per year, each lasting between three to four weeks, are usually performed at the Hakataza Theater.

Historical Theaters

These theaters no longer primarily serve as venues for performances, but are maintained for visitors to experience the feel and structure of a traditional kabuki theater. One distinct feature of traditional theaters is the absence of Western-style seats. Instead, the audience is seated on cushions laid on the floor within squarish areas separated by wooden beams.

Kanamaruza Theater

15-20 minute walk from JR Kotohira Station or Kotoden Kotohira Station
This wonderful, historic theater is open to tourists to explore on their own. Kabuki performances are held only for a couple of weeks in April. The Kanamaruza stands just a few steps away from the main approach towards Kompira Shrine.

Uchikoza Theater

5-10 minute walk from JR Uchiko Station
Also located on Shikoku, the Uchikoza Theater used to stage both kabuki and bunraku performances, but these days only bunraku performances are held infrequently. For most of the year, the theater is open for tourists to explore.