This should probably be the number one reason, but I think there are many, many ways to learn about Japanese culture while in Japan-- I have more specific reasons why I think Kabuki is worthy of attention which get a higher ranking. That said, learning about Japanese culture and history is the most valuable thing you can get out of going to see Kabuki. You will encounter many of Japan's most fundamental beliefs, discover how they see their heroes and villains and get a glimpse into Japan's past. The best thing I got out of studying Japanese theater was a deeper understanding of Japan itself.
4. The Costumes
As a costumer, one of my favorite things about Kabuki are the incredible costumes. Some of the most stunning kimono you will ever see are on the Kabuki stage. Many western stage theater costumes are all about being big and impressive from afar and often lacking in detail up close. Generally they tend to be made from inexpensive materials. There's nothing wrong with that; when done right they serve their purpose well. But the costumes used in Kabuki are not only big and bright but also made of high-quality material and full of many small details. Many of them are covered in gorgeous embroidery. Additionally, you see some really fascinating costumes for characters like gods, Buddhist lions, etc.
3. Horror Kabuki
|Oiwa, from "Yotsuya Kaidan".|
On my list of things I must do while in Japan is go see Kabuki. And not just Kabuki; I really, really want to go see a Kabuki horror story. Kabuki stories cover a wide range of topics, including revenge, murder, love, etc., but one of the genres that has caught my interest the most are the ghost stories. Not only is it a fantastic way to get a deeper look at what Japanese traditionally believe about life and death, it's also a fun glimpse into their view of the supernatural. Japanese people adore ghost stories and have developed many interesting beliefs about them. Japanese theater already has an atmosphere of the surreal, even feeling a little eerie at times- as a result, I think it's really well-suited to telling stories about the supernatural.
One of the most famous ghost stories in Japan is "Yotsuya Kaidan", which has been adapted many times and has influenced many Japanese horror movies (including "The Ring" and probably "Ju-on") and may also have influenced some of the female revenge stories common in martial arts/action movies in Asia. It's the story of a woman named Oiwa who is disfigured by a rival, and is consequently abandoned by her husband in favor of the rival. Without going into all the details, she goes mad from the betrayal, dies and comes back as a ghost to get revenge on her husband.
2. The Fight Scenes!
Fighting in Kabuki is more like a choreographed series of acrobatic tricks than it is similar to an actual fight. Actors do flips and cartwheels, stop for special poses (called mie), use poles to do lifts, etc. Many fight scenes also involve special tricks like falling through a trap door in the floor. It's like watching a theatrical metaphor for fighting. I find it fascinating and the gymnastic tricks are really fun to watch!
1. The Revolving Stage (mawaributai)
|The rising pagoda scene from "Shiranami Gonin Otoko". Photo from here.|
Without a doubt, this has got to be one of Kabuki's most visually impressive features. It's also one of the most uniquely Japanese of all theatrical elements. The mawaributai basically works by having a large circular portion of the middle of the stage revolve, in order to smoothly change from one scene and one set to another. There are also some sets that rise up from the middle of the floor, and one particularly famous scene involving a building which falls backwards, revealing a new set attached to its base (previously hidden beneath the stage itself).
|Photo found here.|
This technology was used only in Japanese theaters, until the rest of the world discovered it after the Meiji Period (1868-1912). But not only was the technology unique to Japan, the use of it was also unusual. It's a well-known stereotype that Japanese love technology, but what I would argue is that Japanese people love flashy technology, as opposed to stuff that's more practical. This is really evident in their theater. During a Kabuki play, the curtains do not close for scene changes, especially not when the mawaributai is involved. The audience is just as interested in seeing this technology in effect as it is in the story; so while a western audience might find something like that disruptive to the suspension of disbelief during a play, the Japanese audience comes expecting to see how various tricks are done.
So, should you find yourself in Japan, those are my top 5 reasons why Kabuki needs to be on your must see list. It's definitely on mine.
Other posts on Japanese Theater: