Kabuki History: The Genroku Period [HOME PAGE] [Kabuki for EVERYONE] [Kabuki History]


The Genroku period was a time of great renaissance in Japanese culture, a time when both aristocratic and common arts flourished. Having been cut off from the outside world for over 50 years, a native stamp was placed on may art forms introduced during the previous period of frequent contact with both the West and China.

The Genroku period was also the time when most of the conventions and stylizations of Kabuki, including play structure, character types, the art of the onnagata, took form.

Actors were arranged in a strict hierarchy, a hierarchy that determined which sort of character they would play each month. The head "tachiyaku" actor at the theater received the main role, while the star onnagata played the main woman role. Beneath came the waka-onnagata, or young onnagata, the villains and the comic actors.

Among "tachiyaku" male character roles, two prominent acting styles emerged in this period. In Edo, presently Tokyo, Ichikawa Danjuro I created "aragoto," or rough style. This bombastic, exaggerated style of acting was often used for characters of superhuman strength and Danjuro developed a specialized form of make-up, known as "kumadori," as well as movements and ways of delivering lines to emphasize their might. Also created by Danjuro were "mie." These poses, where the actor glares fiercely with one eye crossed, became a trademark of Kabuki and are often used to dramatic effect in ukiyoe woodblock prints of actors. These "aragoto" characters had a strong sense of justice and fought against strong villains that advanced their own causes at the cost of those too weak to protect themselves. In this sense, "aragoto" was seen as an embodiment of the animosity of the commoners towards the ruling samurai class, and actors where often thought of as gods when they played "aragoto" roles.

In Kansai, Sakata Tojuro perfected a style of acting known as "wagoto" or soft style. While the "aragoto" of Danjuro was a hit in Edo, still very much a frontier town with a large military presence, Kyoto and Osaka, collectively known as "kamigata," had histories of over a 1000 years and were dominated by merchant culture. "Wagoto" appealed to the refined tastes of the kamigata audiences. "Wagoto" characters were often the sons of rich merchants that had fallen in love with beautiful courtesans. Having spent mast amounts of money to visit their lovers, they would be disowned by their families and forced to wear kimono made of paper. Despite their sunken state, though, they never lost their own self-perception of living in the lap of luxury, giving the role a comic touch as well.

The art of the onnagata was perfected in this period by the actor Yoshizawa Ayame. In its early days, Kabuki plays usually had heroes, whereas the roles of women were almost always supportive. As a matter of fact, alluding to Kabuki's earliest days when it was a series of dances performed by women, the most important part of a whole program for the onnagata star would be the centerpiece dance. Yoshizawa Ayame changed this with his great acting skill. In plays such as "Keisei Asamadake" he used his skills to actually create how an onnagata acted, becoming the standard that all other onnagata copied and strived for. Ayame's popularity was so great the books that ranked actors had to create new categories at the top of the list just for him. Through Ayame's efforts, onnagata began to receive stronger roles in plays while retaining their claim to Kabuki dance.

Kabuki's greatest playwright was one of its earliest. Chikamatsu Monzaemon is often referred to as the "Shakespeare of Japan" and this title fits in the sense that he brought a literary and philosophical touch to what had been simple stories and that every playwright who came after him was inescapably influenced by his work. Chikamatsu was one of the first professional playwrights in Kabuki, that is until then most plays had been written by actors, often in a make it up as you go style. In Kabuki he worked mainly for Sakata Tojuro in Kyoto, writing plays to fit Tojuro's "wagoto" style. His most famous works, though, are for the Bunraku puppet theater, in which he specialized in for many years. During this time he created the "sewamono" genre, or plays about members of common class of Japanese society. Especially popular were his love suicide plays, in which a young couple would decide to take their own lives when social pressures kept them from being together. Chikamatsu's works for the puppet theater were often adapted for the Kabuki theater, and he repeatedly used stylizations from Kabuki in his Bunraku scripts (the best example being the use of "aragoto" in his play "Kokusenya Kassen"). This trend of borrowing between the two theaters continued and spurred the growth of both Kabuki and Bunraku (For more information about the Bunraku Puppet theater, please visit the Puppetry WWW Home Page).

For those interested in learning more about this period of Kabuki, please refer to the following books.

In English

Studies in Kabuki
Brandon, Malm, Shively, University of Hawaii Press, 1978.

In Japanese



Various Editions

ˆäŒ´•q˜YAOut of print, but can be found in used books stores specializing in Kabuki books.

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