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Kabuki, originally defined as 'to slant', or 'to tilt', is a dynamic theater form that emerged around 1600 during a period of rigorous social control and conformism. Although strongly imprinted with the aristocratic Noh, Kabuki developed as a popular entertainment for the masses. Kabuki presents swash-buckling tales of intrigue, revenge, supernatural events, high adventure, and complicated love affairs.

The "Golden Age" of Kabuki is the Tokugawa, or Edo, period (1603 1867), when Kabuki actors played to the new urban middle class audience comprised of merchants, artisans and low rank samurai. Elite samurai, at the pinnacle of social pyramid, were forbidden to participate in the "floating world" of the entertainment quarter. They were forced into disguise to enjoy theatrical productions often starring actors playing their own kind.

The actor Ichikawa Danjuro 1 pioneered the aragoto, or "rough style" acting closely associated with Edo (Tokyo) Kabuki. This bombastic approach, boldly embodied in the Shibaraku play (see Binnie print in the large gallery), involves exaggerated gestures and visually striking costumes and make-up. Aragoto-style plays frequently hinge on revenge and loyalty and are populated by valiant warriors, charismatic villains, beautiful maidens, wicked women, and powerful deities. Many plots came directly from Bunraku, a form of puppet theater.

Although Kabuki was "invented" by a woman, the shrine attendant Izumo no Okuni, Kabuki companies have been exclusively male for most of its history. Female roles are played by onnagata, or male actors transformed into embodiments of hyper-femininity through make-up, wigs, costume, and gesture. In contrast with the aragoto plays, wagoto dramas (wagoto means "tender business") often speak the language of love and romance, and provide star-turns for skilled onnagata.