Japanese Kabuki: The Globe Theatre of the East, Revealed!
So, what is Kabuki theatre, really? To the first timer, it is oftentimes remembered as a jumble of color, fast action and archaic language few can understand. Plots are mysterious and centered largely in the Japanese Edo Period (1603–1867). And as you may have heard, the actors are all male!
As new as you may be to Japanese Kabuki, however, dig a little and you will likely start to view it as a far-eastern Shakespearean troupe of sorts, intertwined with eastern drama and humor similar to classics such as Hamlet and Twelfth Night; the latter performed on the Kabuki stage in Japanese garb a few short years ago. Here’s a bit about the meaning of Kabuki—and why you should go out of your way to see it.
Japanese Kabuki Theatre: The Story behind the Story
Rowdy scenes depicting days filled with shows watched by an audience lubricated with cheap sake are the norm in old woodblock prints of Kabuki, which illustrates that normal folk viewed Kabuki theatre as a main form of entertainment in centuries past. Characters in many of these theatres became household names. Some sold their bathwater to female fans—who reported to have drank it! At least one actor was killed on stage in a real-life revenge plot played out before hundreds applauding the realistic death throes of the victim.
But the popularity was not to last. From 1945 into 1946, the occupation forces led by General Macarthur actually considered banning Japanese kabuki theatre entirely, thus consigning an ancient eastern art form to the annals of forgotten history. Fortunately for modern audiences, they decided against this course of action; but with Japan exposed to an influx of Western ways during both the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and up through the war, the popularity of Kabuki fell to its lowest ebb and has never recovered its former glory.
Kabuki was once as popular as our most explosive blockbuster books, movies and TV shows today, the human stories behind it just as vivid. Taken that way, the question of why you should care about Kabuki has a simple answer: Because it’s actually about us. That is especially true as Kabuki’s one remaining torchbearer helps continue to keep Kabuki theatre relevant in the 21st century.
Today, just one full-time company remains capable of bringing Kabuki to the masses. Said company, Shochiku, is the driving force behind today’s Kabuki shows and has over the years succeeded in blending old and new with performances based on old themes of love, revenge and loyalty dovetailing with modern-day references thrown in by actors (sometimes ad-libbed) reaching out to modern fans.
Today’s performances thus combine a nod of respect to the past, but focus primarily on modern-day fans, always looking to accommodate contemporary trends. There are even references to modern-day news events and gags at the expense of famous politicians!
You may never actually understand the above without living and learning in Japan for a while, but don’t worry about it. The point is that Kabuki is still connecting with modern Japan.
Tokyo’s Kabuki-za Theatre: The Place to See a Kabuki Performance
The home of Kabuki is the Kabuki-za Theatre near Ginza. Plays are performed there year round, usually between the 1st and the 26th of the month. Seeing a play is incredibly easy with a bit of planning.
A day of Kabuki can be broken down into matinee performances (from around 13:00–16:00 including breaks) and evening performances (16:30–21:00). Each performance is further broken down into scenes with both the matinee and evening shows usually containing three or four scenes each.
The reason for this is to allow fans the chance to get tickets for either a full-on show or just one particular scene. But be warned—tickets for the most famous scenes with the most popular actors are literal hen’s teeth!
Kabuki Tickets: Full Performances vs. Single Scenes
Tickets for full plays (budget at anywhere from 4,000 yen to 22,000 yen per person) can be purchased weeks in advance from the main Kabuki homepage in English, and then picked up on the day by showing the same credit card.
But single scene kabuki tickets (usually for between 800 and 1,400 yen and scenes lasting 55–90 minutes or so) involve lining up outside the theatre for at least one hour before, sometimes much longer.
Translation Headsets & Food
Once inside the theatre, regardless of ticket type, do definitely make sure you invest a few hundred yen (usually around 700) to pick up either the translation headsets or the newer interactive screens that will explain—either vocally or on the screen—exactly what is happening on stage while in perfect time-sync.
Oh, and if the belly rumbles, for those with access to the full theatre by way of full show tickets, snack stands and full on restaurants can be found on each of the three floors. For those in the single-scene rafters, only snacks are available.
Japanese Kabuki Theatre Is for Everyone
Be sure to experience this Japanese art at least once. Kabuki tickets are not that pricey for what is a form of theatre so uniquely Japanese, so steeped in history and so “different” yet ultimately so entertaining and so modern. To make the most of a day you will never forget, get your eats in the theatre like the locals in their kimono. Then sit down and enjoy an ancient story with a touch of today. Even if you don’t understand the language, just think of Kabuki as a Shakespeare play at the Globe Theatre, and let yourself be transported to another place and time for a few hours. Your eyes (not to mention your heart) will take care of the rest.
If you’re interested in discovering more about Japan’s rich traditional arts and culture during your stay in Tokyo, we invite you to read through our many Japanese Culture articles available on our Tokyo Guide for Expats.