The Game of Kabuki Theatre

I feel like in America (and perhaps the West entirely) there is a perception that anything form of art that both has a long history and is suitably “ethnic” can be regarded as outdated, inscrutable and most importantly, static. The perception seems to be that once they become old enough, art forms don’t change. Their rules are solidified and they simply exist to remind people of the past, not to be relevant to today. This, of course, is an inane view. Art is always dynamic, and one needs only to look at Kabuki to see how a long history and “static” rules can help make sure a medium remains relevant. Helpfully enough for my purposes on this blog, Kaubki also shows how using a medium as a game can not only keep it relevant in new ways, but can also be used for activist purposes.


Kabuki was founded by a woman named Okuni sometime in the early 1600s. Okuni may or may not have been a priestess of the Izumo Shrine, but what is known is that she performed a kabuki odori (Kabuki dance) to raise funds along the dry bed of the Kamo River in Kyoto. This riverbed has an interesting history itself. As the river receded, it left a large dry riverbank. While Kyoto was heavily regulated, this temporary dry spot was not, and so all kinds of unregulated shops, entertainment, and activities were set up when the tide was out. In addition, people from all walks of life mingled in this no-man’s land. It is not surprising that the area became known for being the hangout of the “kabukimono”, a large collection of hip, sullen teenagers who bucked authority, dressed flamboyantly, and basically behaved like teenagers are want to do.

Okuni rather brilliantly saw the untapped energy and potential in these listless, disenfranchised youths, and recruited them into her performing troupe. Whether or not she started as a shrine priestess, Okuni would end up the most infamous and profitable performer of her day. Kabuki takes its name from the outcasts and drop-outs she recruited, it literally means “strange”, “inclined” or “far out” and kabukimono means “those who lean a certain direction” referring to the youths placing themselves perpendicular to the status quo. The first kabuki performances were variety acts: singing, dancing, short comic vignettes. Okuni introduced several innovations that set her act apart from the other entertainment found along the Kamo. Performers would leap between the stage and the audience during performances. Occasionally audience members would even enter on stage to disrupt the show, only to be revealed that they were actually performers all along. You could not always be sure that the actor you were watching was even really that actor. In her most famous performance following the death of her creative partner and lover, Okuni emerged on stage to perform a scene, only to be interrupted by a swaggering samurai who pushed his way on stage and drunkenly harassed the poor woman and claimed to be possessed of the spirit of her departed lover. The audience was aghast, until they noticed that this samurai was actually Okuni dressed in drag, and the “Okuni” they had been watching was another actress entirely.


Okuni routinely performed male roles, her favorite being foppish samurai decked in Christian crosses (Christianity was a forbidden cult at the time and hip teens would appropriate Christian imagery to freak out their parents and the other squares). These foppish samurai, equally quick-witted and foolish, formed the basis of the keiseigai or “prostitute-buying” play. Okuni’s samurai would approach a brothel and sing with the prostitute they were attempting to haggle with. These comic, light-hearted scenes were typical of Okuni’s style: short stories of real people performing mundane activities to high-light their humanity. Okuni and her early imitators also performed shows about common townspeople. At a time when official theater was nothing but approved samurai stories about brave, historical, unemotional men doing manly things, kabuki was a shock. So much of a shock that it terrified the ruling class.

We don’t know if Okuni was a prostitute or not. Most accounts of her come from long after her death and were written by people actively trying to downplay her role in kabuki’s creation, or from those trying to justify the government crack-downs and censorship. We know that brothels created their own kabuki troupes to cash in on her popularity, and we know that these troupes would use their performances to advertise the performers’ erotic services for after the show. Also, at the time entertainment and prostitution were officially linked. Both were considered to serve the same function, and so both had to be regulated the same way. If you wanted to get a musician for a party or even learn to play an instrument, you would have to go to the red-light district. This is one of the reasons Geishas are so poorly understood in the West, because when Europeans first saw these entertainment districts they assumed everyone there was a prostitute, but I digress. The existence of prostitution was used as a pretext for shutting down and controlling kabuki, but the truth is that the status quo was terrified of it. Kaubki theatres and performances not only glorified common people and the humanity of the samurai class, but also offered a place where people of all backgrounds rubbed elbows and boundaries broke down. Men and women switched places, audiences could become actors, a samurai could become no more than a common man, and a prostitute could hold more power than an official. After Okuni’s death, women were banned from the stage. Ironically, this actually led to an INCREASE in kabuki prostitution as young men (already trained in drag from Okuni’s days) replaced women on stage. Homosexuality was in fashion at the time among the samurai and monks, and kabuki’s popularity or subversivity was not affected by the banning of woman. Shortly after, young men were banned from the stage as well, and the government also decreed that kabuki could no longer be a variety act. Only full length, approved plays could be performed.


Was kabuki muzzled now that it was being so heavily watched and regulated? Hardly. The actors simply got more creative. Writers began stitching the old vignettes and variety acts together to create full length performances from multiple short life events. Kabuki still glorified the “mundane” world, and now used it to comment further on the system itself. Plays began featuring current events and became known as kiwamono “living newspapers” or ichiyazuke “overnight pickles”. In some cases, a writer would dash off a new play based on a recent town scandal or gossip in a single night. Chikamatus Tokusan wrote his famous play Sounds at Ise and the Sleeping Sword of Love which told the true story of a series of grisly murders in just three days. The most famous of these plays came in 1703 after the famous incident of the 47 ronin. Perhaps the most famous story in Japan’s history, 47 retainers of Lord Asano of Ako conspired to illegally execute a corrupt high official of the Shogun’s court who had been responsible for their master’s disgrace and death. After they succeeded, they gave themselves up to the Shogunate, and were ordered to carry out mass seppuku, which they did willingly. The populace’s imagination was captured by the salacious details of these events, as the ronin had spent years preparing their mission in secrecy and violated the official law in order to follow the more important law of bushido. There was no question that public sympathy lay with the 47 ronin, who even in death displayed more honor than the corrupt court official and were willing to violate the Shogun’s law for a higher morality. Just twelve days after the samurais’ death, a kabuki play opened in Edo detailing the event. Three days after it opened the government shut down the theatre and began a new campaign of censorship.


When the government is obsessed with controlling the narrative of events, the most subversive thing you can do is tell the truth, or worse tell the truth your own way. The Shogunate once more cracked down hard on kabuki, banning plays which detailed current events and especially plays about either lovers’ suicides or scandals in samurai families. This ban circumvented by the invention of mitate, perhaps the most interesting innovation in kabuki’s history. Mitate or “matching” was the practice of telling the story of a current event through the guise of telling the story of a historical event. Contemporary figures would be disguised (yatsushi) as famous historical figures, and at crucial moments the story or the actor would slip clues to reveal who they were in reality (jitsu wa). Anyone familiar with current events would be able to tell what the story was REALLY about, but the letter of the law was maintained and the squares in the Shogunate rarely even noticed.

Academics describing mitate as a game goes back quite a ways. I’ve found references in kabuki discussion explicitly referring to kabuki as a form of activist game at least as early as the 1970s. The performers must follow the rules of mitate, yatsushi and jitsu wa to convey the story without being discovered, and the audience must use their own version of the rules to decode the true story. As time went on and the censors’ attention drifted to other mediums, actors and writers began crafting tougher challenges for the audience, who in turn delighted in attempting to decode them. Even today, the playful elements of kabuki-as-game have gone on to influence Japanese art. This includes “traditional” games like video games. You think it’s coincidence that, say, the SMT games use ancient mythology and history to tell stories of a corrupt cyberpunk and post-apocalyptic Tokyo? Or that a game like Shenmue or Rune Factory combines its action-packed story with slow moments of mundane life and reality? Kabuki was game that could be played to learn the truth about events, themes or ideas, even when the status quo actively worked to squash alternative views. Through play, the population learned to connect across official lines and social barriers and discover the humanity these all shared.

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