HOME CULTURE How to Go Watch Kabuki

How to Go Watch Kabuki

One part of Japanese culture some who visit Japan might like to check out is kabuki. Kabuki is an old form of Japanese entertainment first seen during the Edo period.  In this, all of the actors were men, since women weren’t allowed in theater. That element is still in Japanese kabuki today, with the movement of the female in the theater being more feminine and sensitive, with different eye movements, and even general movements.

It is known for their eye-catching costumes, elaborate movements, and outlandish wigs, each of which is used to convey to the audience the story that’s portrayed. It’s a cultural element many who go to Japan want to see, since it’s an age-old tradition and while it might be difficult for foreigners to understand, it’s still beautiful to watch. How to watch kabuki though?  Read on to find out.

How to get tickets

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Typically, obtaining tickets is simple.  You can  obtain tickets at Kabukiza itself from the box office, or you can call and make reservations over the phone. However, for foreigners that can’t call Japanese numbers, or don’t have access to the box office, you should check the website to find more information.
If you choose to go to the Kabukiza Center, there are green ticket stalls used to purchase. Once obtained, they’re avail be to use right away. Single acts may not be purchased at kabukiza, but instead online.
Tickets are obtained through the ticket web site ran by Shochiku. This is the company that runs kabuki shows in Japan. The Shochiku website also talks about different shows that are in the area.
You can also use the Kabuki Web to obtain tickets. There are show options listed here as well.

Things you should learn before going to watch

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There are a few things to learn before you go to a kabuki show.
The first, is they are quite elaborate. It’s a form of showmanship, so you may not understand what’s going on when you first watch it. In fact, many Japanese people don’t understand what’s going on, but can appreciate the aesthetics of this type of art.
You may notice as you enter the theater the presence of a handbridge, and various trapdoors. Actors utilize these to move on and off the stage, creating dramatic entrances and exits.
And of course, remember all of the parts are played by men.  Following traditional theater, every aspect is played by a male role.  So yes, they may be a female in terms of portrayal, but every actor is male.
Most kabuki theater plots involve love stories, tragedies, historical events, emotional conflicts, and dramas. There is usually traditional music accompanying each aspect of kabuki theater, so you’ll see traditional instruments. Ideally, if you know the story you’re seeing, read up on it. Some theaters do provide headsets with narrations for English-speaking audiences.

Place to watch

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Where do you see kabuki though? The answer, is in fact a few different places.
The most famous kabuki theater is Kabukiza in Ginza. This is a theater where it all started, with over 120 years of history. Currently, the Kabukiza theater you see today is the fifth generation of it, since it’s suffered fires, war, and even deterioration over that period of time. It combines contemporary with tradition.
Kabukiza is the ideal place for traditional showings of Kabuki. That’s because the actors there follow orthodox traditions, and most plays are well-known. While newer actors do perform there, most of them are veterans that have practiced kabuki for many years. Plus, it’s located in Ginza, which is a very popular shopping district. Kabuki shows do have breaks, so you can take a respite and go shopping during intermissions.
The National Theater is also a popular place. It does have kabuki shows, you’ll just need to check the schedule. They also provide beginner kabuki classes and appreciation workshops, and provide English headsets.
Minamiza Theater in Kyoto is another place, but the program only runs two weeks in the year, typically in spring and fall.
Shochikuza Theater is located in Osaka. There are 3-5 runs a year on average, and while they don’t provide English speaking headsets, there are program books in English.

Mannar while watching

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Typically, these shows are hard to understand.  If you’re confused about cues and such, consider buying a Sujigaki. It’s only 1300 yen, and provides summaries of the play for you to enjoy.  It also provides interviews and commentaries, and English versions if you’re confused.

There are men dressed in black on stage. They are the “kuroko” and are basically stage hands. If you see them moving about, you should ignore, since they’re not meant to be seen.

Also, consider investing in a G-mark guide. It provides an English translation of the play itself in order to help overcome the language barrier. Kabuki utilizes classical Japanese, which may be hard for foreigners, even if they know the language.  This provides the actors lines as they’re said too, so you can follow what’s going on.

If you’re seeing kabuki for the first time, consider going to a Hitomaku-mi Seki. This is a single-act of kabuki, and sometimes easier for first-timers, since the programs are long. Traditional kabuki performances are about 1-2 hours long, with a 10-35 minute break.  Usually these plays involve multiple acts, so it can be long. But, a Hitomaku-mi Seki is just one act, and you still can get headsets and programs in English, you just will be seated in the forth floor area the entire time.

If you see people shouting names at actors, that’s not disrespect in kabuki. They’re shouting out the yago, which is essentially the troupe name they originated from. Troupes usually involve a hierarchy, with some of them spanning familial generations. It’s seen by kabuki performers as a show of support.

Finally, while there isn’t a dress code, please dress nicely and wear shoes. You may see some women wearing traditional kimonos too.

As you can see, kabuki is a time-honored tradition many enjoy. It’s rich in dynamics, history, and storytelling. If you’ve ever considered seeing a kabuki show, definitely go to a traditional one in Japan. They’re quite interesting, although you may not understand what’s going on the first time. It’s a part of Japanese tradition and culture many enjoy seeing when they go, and if you’re going as a tourist, it’s something worth checking out.

There are shows every day excluding the new years holiday: last week of December and the first week of January, so if you’ve ever wanted to see kabuki, now is the time to go.