Kabuki is a famous type Japanese traditional theater, but some might find it a little difficult to approach. Here is some guidance on how to enjoy kabuki.
What is kabuki?
Kabuki is a style of play which became popular in the Edo era (1603 to 1868). It has more than 400 years of history and a variety of themes. It began as "onna kabuki," featuring only actresses, but was banned by the government of the time due to moral controversy. It then turned into "wakashu kabuki," featuring only young boys as actors. Finally it developed into the current style, "yaro kabuki," played only by adult males. Kabuki is very stylized, unlike the realistic performances of most modern theatre styles.
Where can I watch Kabuki?
There are various venues that show Kabuki plays including Kabukiza (Ginza, Tokyo), Shinbashi Enbujo (Ginza, Tokyo), The National Theater (Hanzomon, Tokyo), Asakusa Public Hall (Asakusa, Tokyo), Osaka Shochikuza (Namba, Osaka), Kyoto Shijo Minamiza (Gion Shijo, Kyoto), Hakataza (Nakasu-Kawabata, Fukuoka), and Kanamaruza (Kotohira, Kagawa).
For newcomers and travelers from overseas we recommend theaters offering simultaneous audio guide interpretations. These theaters are Kabukiza, Shinbashi Enbujo, The National Theater, Asakusa Public Hall, Osaka Shochikuza and Kyoto Shijo Minamiza. Shinbashi Enbujo and The National Theater have English audio guides, and Kabukiza has subtitled guidance in both Japanese and English.
What kinds of stories do they perform?
There are 4 common styles of kabuki. One is the historical drama, in which they illustrate the society of courtiers, priest, and samurai of times before the Edo era. There are contemporary life dramas, often plays concerning life, news, and gossip during the Edo era. Shosagoto is a style of kabuki that consists mainly of dancing. Finally there is "shin-kabuki," which was created after the Meiji era. Shosagoto is recommended for newcomers as it has less dialogue.
Generally, kabuki has a day performance and a night performance, although sometimes they do three showings in a day. Each of these shows has a different program, and the usual running time is 4 to 5 hours.
How can I buy tickets?
Ticket prices (approximately from 4,000 JPY to 20,000 JPY) will differ depending on the seating. Purchases are available on the internet, by phone, or at the door. There is an English website for ticket purchase on the Ticket WEB Shochiku official homepage.
Hitomakumiseki, a per-act ticket, is popular as it is cheaper than seeing the whole performance, and you can choose to only see the act you are interested in. The price of tickets varies with each act, and tickets are sold on a first-come first-served basis, so we suggest arriving at the theater early.
Before Going to the Theater
There is no dress code, so casual and stylish everyday clothing will be fine.
We highly recommend the audio guide system or subtitles (for an extra charge) introduced earlier. Please do not forget to ask for this service before the performance. Kabuki is made more enjoyable by reading the available sujigaki, a synopsis (available in Japanese and English). This is available at the sujigaki store or a kiosk, often located on the 1st floor of the theater.
Before the Performance
It is best to be seated 5 minutes before the performance.
Please enjoy the unique and powerful performances of the actors.
Food and drinks are not allowed during the show. There are common manners to be followed like turning off your phone, refraining from talking, sitting still, not filming or recording, and taking off your hat if you wear one.
The intermission after an act is called makuai. The intermission is held for approximately half an hour (subject to change). This is the time to visit the restroom, and to eat at your seat or in the lobby. A restaurant is available in the theater, but it is better to purchase or bring your own food as there won't be enough time to dine. We recommend the popular unagi and anago bento (1,200 JPY *Available from 11:00 am, limited quantity), available at Yagura on the second basement floor of Kabukiza.
There are many interesting factors in a kabuki performance. Acting, costumes, and the stage set are all powerful and unique. Traditional music played with the shamisen, taiko, Japanese flute and traditional singing are breathtaking. Another fun aspect of kabuki is the cheering by the audience at particular scenes. This cheering excites the stage even more, though it is practiced so as to be perfectly timed. It is better to leave this cheering role to a veteran audience.
Why not bring home some mementos of your kabuki experience? There are many fun items like confectioneries and miscellaneous goods with kabuki-style art. A popular item is the face pack with an illustration of kumadori, the famous kabuki makeup. Please find your favorite kabuki item.
Kabuki is not too difficult if you understand the basics. You can even try seeing an act first before watching the whole show. We hope you will be able to get the most out of your experience watching kabuki.
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.