The Resilience Of Tradition
When examining theatre and the various forms it has been subject to over the course of human history, it would be difficult not to mention the work and art of the Japanese theatre. Japan's stylized kabuki form is a timeless practice in the theatre that began in the early 17th century and continue still today. This ability to preserve a form of theatre for hundreds of years, definitely highlights Japan as a unique locale for theatre. Although, when looking at all the elements that surround and make up kabuki theatre, it is rather easy to understand why the form sill exists and is appreciated today. And through investigating the history of kabuki theatre, we can discover why it is as relevant today as 400 years ago.
The specifics around the origins of kabuki theatre are a little muddled, but there is enough information to know that it arose indirectly from a female performer. Around 1603 Okuni began to give public performances in Kyoto. The performances consisted of short plays punctuated with dance.1 When kabuki theatre was developing amidst the Edo Era, discrepancies between the upper class and the lower class were more strictly observed than at any other point in Japanese history. At that point though it was more so the merchants who developed the kabuki theatre. Although they were gaining power economically, they still retained their lower social status. They essentially used kabuki as an artistic median to articulate their thoughts and feelings under the existing conditions. Therefore, one of the underlying themes of the kabuki works is about the struggle between humanity and the feudal system. It can mainly be attributed to this humanist trait of the style and work, as to why it gained a most favorable response from the majority of people back then and why it remains an appreciated form today. Its worth mentioning that before the kabuki form was adopted into a full-fledged theatrical style, it actually began to take shape as a somewhat sexual show since it featured only women. It wasn't until 1629, when the Shogunate had decided there were tones of prostitution in the work that women were banned from performing in the theatre.2 In fact something that became a trademark of kabuki theatre would arise from this. Onnagata. Onnagata were male actors who played all the female roles. Since the society already accepted kabuki, male actors easily took charge as performers of these works . On the other hand, the ban on female actresses stayed in effect for the next 250 years. From that point on kabuki brought to perfection the onnagata and what's more, the art of the onnagata had become such an important part of the kabuki that if they were to suddenly lose it, the form would be missing its unique characteristics.
Another element that makes kabuki theatre so accessible is how it borrowed a lot from other forms that were currently being explored in Japan. When it started at the beginning of the 17th century, the kabuki form combined parts from all the preceding theatre styles in Japan. Amongst some of the arts which kabuki had drawn from, were the noh drama and the kyogen play. The kyogen plays are the comic interludes presented between the noh performances. A third performance style from which the kabuki had borrowed certain aspects was the bunraku. Bunraku were essentially puppet plays. The progression of bunraku roughly mirrored the development of earlier kabuki. With kabuki work, the central focus had always been found on the actor as opposed to any other element of the work, like the thematic elements of the writing or the writing itself. It was due to this lack of literary appreciation that some of the better writers of the 17th century left kabuki and instead turned to bunraku, where the mastery of their writing flourished and could be much more easily witnessed. In turn there was a length of time when the puppet theatre became more popular than the kabuki theatre. To deal with...
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