In the country of Japan the art of Kabuki has been popular for centuries, dating back to the year 1603 when Izumo no Okuni started performing a new form of dance which was inspired by dramatic plays being written both by Japanese playwrights and which were being imported to the country through trade with the western world. Traditional Kabuki performances were highly dramatic and featured elaborate makeup and hairstyles for the actors and actresses. Usually the stories were tragic dramas told through interpretive dance numbers. Unlike other dramatic or dance forms currently available in Japan, Kabuki was a combination of artistry and entertainment. Originally, the Kabuki was performed primarily and in some cases entirely by women adding to its raucous reputation. Some disparaged the Kabuki theaters are referred to the actresses as "prostitute-singing and dancing performers." This dismissal and marginalization did nothing to dissuade people from attending performances; in fact the reputation may have increased the number of people in the audience. Demeaning Kabuki as the work of prostitutes ignored the imagination and artistry that went into every performance and each production. The term Kabuki is derived from the Japanese word "kabuku" which was a slang term in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries for "people who were out of the ordinary and preferred to dress in extravagant attire" (Martin 1). The actual kanji symbols in the Japanese language for Kabuki literally translate to mean "sing," "dance," and "skill" (Frederic). Kabuki was immediately popular throughout Japan, transcending social boundaries much to the chagrin of the shoguns who wanted a clearer delineation between upper and lower classes.
The period between 1673 and 1841 is considered the best age for Kabuki Theater as this is when the art form both gained its greatest popularity and when historians agree it reached its highest quality in terms of innovation and artistry. At that time the characteristics which would become synonymous with Kabuki first appeared and were crystallized. In a Kabuki production, the actors would wear "elaborate colorful costumes and bright face masks, and express the nature and meanings of their characters using exaggerated poses and gestures" (Kabuki-za). The actors in a Kabuki play are some of the most talented and accomplished artists in the world of theater, able to dance and modulate their voices to express themselves as either gender or any age. Part of the Kabuki performance was a highly decorated and stylized stage design featuring a projection known as a hanamichi which is a walkway that extends from the stage and into the audience so that the performers can exit and enter while interaction with the audience. Besides entrances and exits, the hanamichi is important because certain scenes would be played on the walkway itself, such as scenes which strove to separate a piece of action from another as if geographically (Scott 55-56). The stage, starting in the early 18th century, was often built to revolve on a system called a Mawari-butai. Other innovations and stage tricks were employed such as seri or stage door traps and chunori where an actor was lifted up into the air via wires under their costume. These would come to be utilized in other types of drama around the world. The key to any successful Kabuki performance or production was change and surprise, whether it be quick scene changes through the Mawari-butai or lightning fast costume changes, the endeavor was to surprise and delight the audience, allowing them to marvel at how quickly things have developed.
Kabuki would remain popular in Japan until the end of World War II, a period which was marked by American occupation and subsequent suppression of Japanese culture. This trend continued until director Tetsuji Takechi began creating modern interpretations of Kabuki plays for the modern audiences which were very successful and created renewed interest both nationally and internationally towards the art form. Although not nearly as popular today as it once was, Kabuki is still widely performed in both Japan and in parts of the western world with heavy Japanese immigrant populations. There are also Kabuki troupes which travel around the world performing traditional Kabuki dramas. Some groups have modernized the art form by creating Kabuki interpretations of western stories, such as the works of Shakespeare. In some regions of the world where there is little Japanese population, members of the Kabuki troupe are not even of Asian descent, such as in Australia.
There have been successful modern adaptations of Kabuki plays but they seem content to repeat the historical tradition of the art form rather than expanding it into something innovative which seem counter to the way the plays were originally perform. In older times Kabuki directors were always looking for new and interesting ideas which they could show to the audiences. These were not meant to be high-brow works of living art, but were meant to entertain. It seems that in a modern version, the best course of action would be to create a Kabuki performance which both honored the Japanese history of the form but also kept at its heart the desire to entertain. A modern production would need to have elaborate costumes and wigs, trying to honor the past and also to outdo it.
If granted the ability to direct and produce a modern Kabuki, the most interesting possibility that comes to mind is to present a version of one of the most celebrated and beloved traditional play which is called Sumidagawa or "The Sumida River," sometimes produced as Hokaibo after the main character but not often because there is another Kabuki production with the name Hokaibo which is a comedy about a rapist and murderer who disguises himself as a priest (Gurewitsch 1). In the narrative of the piece, a grieving and nearly insane mother has travelled a great distance searching for her son who has gone missing. The woman travels from Kyoto all the way to the Sumida River in hopes of locating her son. She finds a ferry and asks the boatman to take her across the river. During their journey he tells her of a boy who died one year ago and, as it turns out, this boy Umewakamaru was the woman's child. While giving the traditional prayer for the dead to console her son's soul, Umewakamaru appears to his mother and then disappears as quickly, leaving her heartbroken and crying even as the curtain falls. This story, though written a long time ago, is still emotionally relevant to modern audiences. Even centuries later there are still few greater pains in life than the suffering of losing a child. Every parent whether they have lost a child or not, can imagine the pain and misery they would feel in Hokaibo's shoes and can well imagine the ends to which they would go to find a child who had gone missing. The key to any successful production of a drama or comedy or any form of performance art is to create a real emotional resonance with the audience. Operas and other forms of performance which are performed in other languages are still understood by the viewing audience even if they cannot understand a word because the emotion of the story is honest and relatable. With such a dark piece for material, it is necessary to try to have moments to alleviate the pain. This could best be served by showing happy scenes at the beginning and end of the narratives. In the story, the association between mother and child is shown as painful but perhaps showing happy parent and child before and after the traumatic events would make the piece easier to accept for a larger audience. In modern audiences, there is less appreciation for solidly depressing dour pieces and so modulation and modification would be necessary to accommodate the spectator. Kabuki is…