Entertainment Around the World: Kabuki Theater

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Does your country have a special kind of theater? When did it develop? Bruce Gulland and Megan Nollet talk about Japan’s Kabuki Theater and its history.

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Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Bruce Gulland.

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And I’m Megan Nollet. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Click here to follow along with this program on YouTube

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A group of people sit in a theater. A curtain hangs across the stage where actors will perform. The people speak quietly.

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Suddenly, there is a loud noise. The people watching go quiet. There is another noise, and another. They come faster and faster. Then, just as quickly, they stop. The curtain opens. A man stands alone on the stage. He balances on one leg. His arms are above his head. He wears very bright clothing. His face is painted in strange black and white lines. Music plays. The man begins to speak.

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This is the beginning of a Kabuki play. Kabuki is a special kind of theater from Japan. It uses a very different style of acting than most people know. Today’s Spotlight is on Kabuki theater.

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Kabuki theater is an historic art from Japan. There are special theaters where people only perform Kabuki. Some actors are only Kabuki actors. They play the same characters that their family has played for generations.

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But Kabuki was not so ceremonial in the beginning. Instead, Kabuki began as a kind of street theater. The first actors did not even use a building. Instead, the plays took place on the banks of a dried river. Izumo no Okuni was a dancer who lived in the 15th century. She brought together these first plays. At first, Kabuki was mostly song and dance. And Okuni performed by herself. But next Okuni began to gather other women around her. Many of these women were sex workers. Or, they were people who did not fit into society. Okuni trained them to dance. She taught them to sing and act. Soon, these women created larger shows. The women would put on clothes to look like priests or soldiers. Sometimes they would make fun of these important people. Sometimes they would act out love stories.

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These plays became very popular. They were funny, bright, and often sexual. Other groups began to copy Okuni’s style. Soon, people all over Japan were performing Kabuki.

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Okuni retired from performing in 1610. She was like a film star. But her kind of Kabuki would not last. Even after it was popular, many kabuki actors were still sex workers. Many people did not like that these workers were performing. They believed it was bad for people watching. And that it would make the men who watched act badly. In 1629, the Japanese government stepped in. They banned women from performing in Kabuki.

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But Kabuki did not go away. Instead, men took on Okuni’s style. They built theaters. They began writing full plays. Slowly, Kabuki turned into a very particular kind of show. Actors would wear bright clothing. And they would paint their faces with bright colors. The clothing and face paint would show what kind of character they were playing. A characteristic of Kabuki actors is the use of white makeup base for the face. This makes the contrast with the other colors painted on the face more distinct. An evil person would paint themselves to look frightening. A funny character would seem like they were always smiling.

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Acting in Kabuki theater is also very stylized. If the play has a fight, it does not look like a real fight. Instead, the actors will dance. Kabuki also treats emotion differently. Today, many actors will try to show emotion as realistically as they can. They cry when their character is sad. They smile when the character is happy. But, in Kabuki, actors show strong emotions through their bodies.  To do this, they will make poses, called mie [mee-ay]. Each mie shows what the character is feeling. Some actors will use the same mie in many different plays.

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Kabuki theater also started using difficult stage tricks. In 1736, Kabuki theaters started using moving stages. These stages could go around in a circle, or move up and down. Some used trap doors. And, in the early eighteenth century, Kabuki theaters began using something called a hanamichi. A hanamichi is a raised bridge that goes from the back of the room to the stage. Many actors would enter over the hanamichi. They would act out scenes above people’s heads. Even today, most Kabuki theaters have a hanamichi. It is one of the most important parts of Kabuki staging.

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The stories told in Kabuki theater also grew more complex. There are many different kinds of Kabuki plays. Some are funny. Some are based on Japanese history. Others show religious stories.

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One of the most famous Kabuki plays is called “The Treasury of Loyal Retainers.” But many English translations call it “The Forty-Seven Ronin.”  

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“The Forty-Seven Ronin” is based on Japanese history. The play begins when an official of the Japanese ruler, or Shogun, insults a man named Hagan [hah-gahn]. Hagan is the lord of a small area of the country. But he is of lower class than the official. In his anger, Hagan attacks the official. Neither man is hurt. But the Shogun decides to punish Hagan. He orders Hagan to kill himself. He dismisses all of Hagan’s soldiers. And he gives Hagan’s land to another lord.

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Hagan does not believe this punishment is right. He believes the Shogun should punish the official, too. But Hagan is very loyal. He kills himself with his own sword. But, as he dies, he speaks to the head of his soldiers, named Yuranosuke [yura-nohskay]. Hagan tells Yuranosuke to make the official pay for his wrongs.

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The rest of the play follows Yuranosuke and forty-seven soldiers. These men have no master. But they are loyal to Hagan. They plan to kill the official who wronged him. At the end of the play, they attack the official’s home. They find and defeat him. The play shows this as a heroic act. The soldiers did not have to do what their lord asked. But they do what they believe is right.

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Today, Kabuki theater is not as popular as it once was. Most Kabuki plays use very old language. It is difficult for people to understand. Kabuki programs also last for a very long time. Originally, some plays could last for ten hours. Many theaters do not perform for this long now. But the plays still last for much of the day.

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Still, Kabuki theater continues to change. One Piece and Naruto are important Japanese comics, or Manga. They are popular all over the world. Some theaters have made Kabuki versions of these manga. Ebizo Ichikawa is a famous Kabuki actor. He has even written a Kabuki version of Star Wars. He spoke to Nippon.com about the changes happening in Kabuki:

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“Of course, it is still important to protect the good, old things in our culture. But we cannot let people believe that Kabuki is an art form locked in a box. You cannot view it calmly, without making a sound. To change how people understand our art will be very difficult, I think. But it is something that has to be done for Kabuki’s sake.”

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Kabuki is important because of its history. But it is also important because it is different.Kabuki offers a particular style of song, dance, and acting with colorful costumes, makeup, and specially-built theatrical stages. Kabuki maintains theatrical traditions that combine with new adaptations for modern storytelling. No other kind of performance in the world is like Kabuki. That, more than anything else, is what makes it leave its mark on the world.

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Does your country have a special kind of theater? When did it develop? Tell us about it! You can leave a comment on our website. Or email us at radio@radioenglish.net. You can also comment on Facebook at facebook.com/spotlightradio.

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The writer of this program was Dan Christmann. The producer was Michio Ozaki. The voices you heard were from The United Kingdom and the The United States. All quotes were adapted for this program and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at www.radioenglish.net. This program is called, “Entertainment Around the World: Kabuki Theater”.

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You can also get our programs delivered directly to your Android or Apple device through our free official Spotlight English app. We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.

Question:

Does your country have a special kind of theater? When did it develop?

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8 comments
  • Hello, Spotlight folks!
    I really enjoyed Episode “Entertainment Around the World: Kabuki Theater”. In this episode, you showed us the fascinating world of Kabuki and its history. There is no doubt that Kabuki is a part of Japanese traditional culture.

    In my country (Brazil), we also have a kind of theater called “Mamulengo”. It’s a form of traditional puppet theater from notheastern Brazil, especially in the states of Pernambuco, Paraíba, Rio Grande do Norte and Alagoas.

    In Mamulengo, the characters are puppets, which are controled by a mamulengo master, who is the artist in charge for bringing the puppets to life and giving them voices. Plays are often about popular, social and political themes, always with a satirical tone.

    Mamulengo Theater developed over many years and is a legacy from Portuguese colonization, also incorporating elements from Africa e indigenous culture.

  • Thanx for this paraghraf l’m very interrsting. sum word i dont anderstand what is meaning but i engoy. There is many theater in my cantry but i dont now where it is develop

  • I believe that we have a great and special kind of theater. actually, i don’t have enough knowlede about staegs and thearets but i watch some of famous theater in mdel eist , the name of one of the most renoned theater is (مدرسة المشاغبين) in english (School of rioters) i hope it’s good trasleation .
    So yeah i well searsh abuot theaters it’s relaey intreasting .

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