Kabuki performers during the earliest years of the genre were primarily women. Kabuki is thought to have originated in the dances and light theater first performed in Kyoto in 1603 by Okuni, a female attendant at the Izumo shrine. The word kabuki had connotations of the shocking, unorthodox and fashionable, and it came to be applied to the performances of Okuni’s popular troupe and its imitators. Because an important side business of the onna (women’s) kabuki troupes was prostitution, the Tokugawa shogunate disapproved, banning the troupes in 1629 and making it illegal for women to appear on stage. Wakashu (young men’s) kabuki then became popular, but in 1652 it was also banned because of the adverse effect on public morals of the prostitution activities of the adolescent male actors.
With both women and boys banned, kabuki became a theater of mature male performers, although before yaro (men’s) kabuki was permitted to continue performing, the government required that the actors avoid sensual displays and follow the more realistic conventions of the kyogen theater.
The century following the legal mandating of male performers saw many developments in kabuki. Onnagata (female impersonator) roles became increasingly sophisticated, and Ichikawa Danjuro I (1660・704) pioneered the strong, masculine aragoto (rough business) acting style in Edo (now Tokyo), while Sakata Tojuro I (1647・709) developed the refined and realistic wagoto (soft business) style in the Kyoto-Osaka area.
The kabuki stage gradually evolved out of the noh stage, and a draw curtain was added, facilitating the staging of more complex multi-act plays. The hanamichi passageway through the audience came into wide use and provided a stage for the now standard flamboyant kabuki entrances and exits. The revolving stage was first used in 1758.
In the merchant culture of the eighteenth century, kabuki developed in both a competitive and cooperative relationship with the bunraku puppet theater. Although he concentrated on writing for the puppet theater after 1703, Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653・724) wrote some plays directly for kabuki and is considered one of Japan’s greatest dramatists. Around this time, kabuki was temporarily eclipsed in popularity by the puppet theater in the Kyoto-Osaka area. In an effort to compete, many puppet plays were adapted for kabuki, and the actors even began to imitate the distinctive movements of the puppets.
The fall of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1868 resulted in the elimination of the samurai class and the entire social structure that was the basis for the merchant culture, of which the kabuki theater was a part. There were failed attempts to introduce Western clothes and ideas into kabuki, but major actors such as Ichikawa Danjuro IX (1838・903) and Onoe Kikugoro V (1844・903) urged a return to the classic kabuki repertoire. In the twentieth century, writers such as Okamoto Kido (1872・939) and Mishima Yukio (1925・970), who were not directly connected to the kabuki world, have written plays as part of the shin kabuki (new kabuki) movement. These plays combine traditional forms with innovations from modern theater; a few of them have been incorporated into the classic kabuki repertoire.
While remaining true to its traditional roots, both in the staging of the plays and in the closely knit hierarchy of acting families that define the kabuki world, kabuki today is a vigorous and integral part of the entertainment industry in Japan. The star actors of kabuki are some of Japan’s most famous celebrities, appearing frequently in both traditional and modern roles on television and in movies and plays.