Created around the year 1600, around the same time the English began to form colonies on the American continent, the history of Kabuki is as long as that of the United States and just as multi-faceted. While it barely scratches the surface, the brief description of the history of Kabuki that follows will attempt to give a general overview of the theater.
Kabuki was created by Okuni, a shrine maiden from Izumo Shrine. Her performances in the dry river beds of the ancient capital of Kyoto caused a sensation and soon their scale increased and a number of rival companies arose. Early Kabuki was much different from what is seen today and was comprised mostly of large ensemble dances performed by women. Most of these women acted as prostitutes off stage and finally the government banned women from the stage in an effort to protect public morales, just one in a long history of government restrictions placed on the theater.
This ban on women, though, is often seen as a good move because it necessitated the importance of skill over beauty and put more stress on drama than dance, putting Kabuki on the path to become a dramatic art form. Another development was the appearance of onnagata female role specialists, men who played women.
The last quarter of the 17th century is referred to as the Genroku period and was a time of renaissance in the culture of Japanese townspeople. As the main form of theatrical entertainment for commoners, there was a great flowering of creativity in Kabuki. It was during this period that the stylizations that would form the base of Kabuki were created. The playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon and actors like Ichikawa Danjuro and Sakata Tojuro left strong legacies that can still be seen today. It was also during this period that the close relationship between Kabuki and the Bunraku puppet theater began and the two would continue to grow while influencing each other.
The decades after the Genroku period saw numerous cycles of creative periods followed by refinement. In the early 18th century, the rise of skilled playwrites in the Bunraku puppet theater helped it to briefly eclipse Kabuki in popularity. Indeed, it was remarked by one observer that it seemed as though "there was no Kabuki." Actors responded by adapting puppet plays for the stage and creating stylized movements to mimic the puppets themselves. The late 18th century saw a trend towards realism and the switch of the cultural center from Kyoto and Osaka to Edo. One consequence of this was the change of tastes in onnagata acting. While onnagata trained in Kyoto who had the soft, gentle nature of that city had been valued before, now audiences preferred those who showed the strong pride and nature of Edo women. An increasing audience desire for decadence as seen in the ghost plays and beautification of murder scenes marked early 19th century.
The opening of Japan to the West in 1868 affected Kabuki and the rest of the country profoundly. Though it was freed from numerous government restrictions, Kabuki was faced with the important challenge of how to adapt to a changing world. Actors like Ichikawa Danjuro IX strove to raise the reputation of Kabuki, which since its beginning had been seen as base by the upper classes, while others like Onoe Kikugoro V worked to adapt old styles to new tastes. The defining moment of the period, and a symbol of the success of their efforts, was a command performance before Emperor Meiji.
Though Kabuki survived government oppression during the Edo period, the loss of many young actors in World War II and censorship by occupation forces after the war, it faces its most difficult enemies in modern forms of entertainment like movies and television. Its position as a "traditional" form of theater often makes it seem stuffy, and people are not as familiar with the special peculiarities of Kabuki as they used to be. Still, popular actors continue to bring audiences into the theater and there has recently been a "Kabuki boom" centered around young people. Kabuki continues to be a form of entertainment enjoyed by a wide range of people, just as it has been for 400 years.