Kabuki Pathfinder


Introduction and Scope

Kabuki is a traditional form of Japanese theater that emerged at the beginning of the Tokugawa era (1600-1868).  It was founded in 1603 by Okuni, a Shinto priestess in Kyoto, and was performed initially by ensemble of women. 

As seen at the right, the Chinese characters used to write the word "kabuki" mean "song," "dance," and "craft," but the word "kabuki" is derived from the Japanese verb "kabuku," which means "to tilt" or "to set off kilter."  The storylines of kabuki were considered quite racy, with wild dancing and stories set in bathhouses and red-light districts, differing from the staid movements and more classical storylines of its predecessor, Noh, a theatrical style that used distinctive masks. Kabuki grew in popularity found audiences at all levels of Japanese society. 

The Tokugawa government found these productions to be dangerous to public morals and banned women from the stage in 1629, in hopes of quashing kabuki altogether.  Kabuki troupes replaced the women with young men – this drew fire from the government again, with a ban on young men from the stage in 1652.

Kabuki then developed into a sophisticated, highly stylized and all-male form. The men who play the roles of women are referred to as onnagata. The other two major styles are oregata (masculine) and wagata (comical). Important characteristics of kabuki include the mie, in which the actor holds a picturesque pose to establish his character, and the hanamichi, an entry path for the actors. Kabuki continues to be a major force in modern Japanese theater, with many contemporary actors tracing their lineage back to the Tokugawa era.

This pathfinder is aimed at university undergraduates who haven’t studied Japanese theater traditions, history, culture, or literature. The resources provided herein will introduce these users to the historical and cultural background of kabuki, as well as its literature and staging.

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Library of Congress Subject Headings

  • Kabuki
  • Kabuki -- Costume.
  • Kabuki -- Dictionaries.
  • Kabuki -- Handbooks, manuals, etc.
  • Kabuki -- History. 
  • Kabuki -- History -- 18th century.
  • Kabuki -- History -- 19th century.
  • Kabuki -- History -- 20th century.
  • Kabuki in art. 
  • Kabuki in art -- Catalogs. 
  • Kabuki in art -- Exhibitions.
  • Kabuki -- Japan.
  • Kabuki -- Japan -- Fiction. 
  • Kabuki kyogen.
  • Kabuki kyogen plays.
  • Kabuki music. 
  • Kabuki -- Periodicals.
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    Library Browsing Areas

    PN 2824.5.K3   Go here for general works and those that deal solely with the presentation of Kabuki plays on the stage.
    PL737; PL767   Here, you'll find the texts of kabuki plays and works treating them from a literary point of view.
    DS821; DS 871; DS881    This is the section on Japanese history in the Tokugawa era (an era also known as the Edo era); you will find books that deal with the context of kabuki in Japan.

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    Encyclopedic and Bibliographic Guides

    Brandon, James R., Elizabeth Wichmann, ed. Asian Theatre: A Study Guide and Annotated Bibliography. Washington, D.C.: University and College Theatre Association, 1980.

    This annotated bibliography provides an exhaustive list of important resources on various traditions of Asian theater.  The section on Japan has a brief overview of theater traditions. The accompanying bibliography is divided up into sections "History, Theory, and Practice," "Plays," "Audio-Visual Materials," and "Reference Works." Within some of those sections you'll find sub-categories on kabuki; each entry is annotated.  This is a good source for students who have already done a little research on the topic -- it will help them advance their research.

    Brandon, James R., ed.
    The Cambridge Guide to Asian Theatre. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Davis Reference, non-circulating PN2860.C35 1993.

    This is the perfect starting place for anyone who wants to get a handle on what kabuki is. Written by a prolific scholar of Japanese theater, the entry on Japan is thorough and places kabuki and other types of Japanese theater in historical context.  The list of biographical entries and the photos enhance this resource.  Although the bibliography is not annotated, it is more up to date than Brandon's Asian Theatre

    Leiter, Samuel L. New Kabuki Encyclopedia: A Revised Adaptation of Kabuki Jiten.  Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997. Davis Library, PN2924.5.K3 L44 1997 c.1.

    Revised edition of earlier English translation of the major Japanese encyclopedia on kabuki, Kabuki Jiten, by Yamamoto Jirô, Kikuchi Akirai, and Hayashi Kyôhei.  This edition is organized in A-Z fashion, updated from its 1979 edition, and includes more expansive and inclusive coverage of plays.  The entries are in romanized Japanese, followed by kanji (Chinese characters) for those with a reading knowledge of Japanese.  Includes a selected bibliography, subject guide to main entries, and five appendices.

    Although this source may seem intimidating to novices, as all the entries are in romanized Japanese, there is cross-indexing for English words (e.g., the entry "stage" directs readers to go to the Japanese equivalent, "butai").  Also, the subject guide to main entries gives Japanese alternatives for English words (e.g., the Japanese word "keshô" is given for "makeup" and additional Japanese words related to "keshô" are given).

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    Brandon, James R. William P. Malm, Donald H. Shively.  Studies in Kabuki: Its Acting, Music, and Historical Context.  Honolulu:  University Press of Hawai'i, 1977. Davis Library, PN2924.5.K3 B7 c.1.

    This book is made up of three monographs that examine acting, music, and context. Excellent for students who have focused their research onto one of these topics.

    Gunji, Masakatsu. The Kabuki Guide. (Translated by Christopher Holmes) (Tokyo, New York: Kodansha International, 1987). Davis Library, PN2924.5.K3 G785 1987

    This is a short, illustrated guide to kabuki theater, introducing kabuki's history, staging, acting, and costumes; includes a guide to 36 of the most commonly performed plays.

    Keene, Donald. World Within Walls:  Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867. (NY:  Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1976). Davis Library, PL726.35 .K4

    Keene, a renowned critic and translator of Japanese literature, discusses the roles that the plays and playwrights of kabuki had in the Edo era. 

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    Dunn, C. J. "Episodes in the Career of the Kabuki Actor Nakamura Utaemon III, Including His Rivalry with Arashi Rikan I,"
    Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4, Special Issue: Edo Culture and Its Modern Legacy. (1984), pp. 711-723.

    This fascinating account takes the reader deep into the world of kabuki actors of the late Tokugawa era.  Explores not just the craft of kabuki acting, but the social setting in which kabuki actors lived.

    Gunji, Masakatsu. "Kabuki and Its Social Background," in Tokugawa Japan: The Social and Economic Antecedents of Modern Japan. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1990.  Davis Library, DS871.T658 1990.

    Provides an excellent introduction to the place of kabuki in Tokugawa-era Japan.  While the emphasis here, as in most articles on kabuki, is on urban Japan, Gunji touches on the role kabuki played in provincial Japan.

    Mishima, Yukio. "The Flower of Evil: Kabuki," in My Friend Hitler and Other Plays. New York:  Columbia University Press, 2002.  Davis Library  PL833.I7A6 2002.

    In this poetic and wide-ranging essay written soon before he committed suicide publicly in 1970, Mishima, the renowned 20th-century novelist describes the allure kabuki had for him.

    Nishiyama, Matsunosuke.  "Theater and Music:  From the Bakufu to the Beggar," in Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600-1868.  Honolulu:  University of Hawai'i Press, 1997.  Davis Library, DS822.2.N558 1997.

    This chapter in Edo Culture describes the diffusion of theater in urban Tokugawa Japan, from the bakufu (the Tokugawa government, headed by the shogun) to the poor. 

    Shively, Donald H.  "Bakufu versus Kabuki," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 18 (Dec. 1955), 326-55.

    Discusses the effects of kabuki on the samurai and how the Tokugawa government attempted to restrict kabuki.

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    Web Resources

    The Kabuki Story 2001

    Award-winning site that aims to help students explore Edo Japan through kabuki.  Includes detailed sections on the "Anatomy of Kabuki" and "A Visit to the Kabuki Theatre."  Please note that there are some mistakes in this website's bibliography.


    A fun site with recent updates on contemporary stagings of kabuki plays in Japan.  Features synopses, pictures, and a photo essay showing the transformation of a male actor into his
    onnagata (female) stage persona.

    Kabuki-Za Theater

    The homepage of the main kabuki theater in Tokyo.  Provides information in English about plays that are currently being shown.

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    Visual Resources

    The Art of Kabuki  [video recording, NHK, Japan Broadcasting Corp].  Princeton, NJ:  Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 2003.  Call # 65- DVD1257 c.1

    Produced in 1988 by NHK, Japanís equivalent to PBS.  In a documentary style, it examines the tradition of kabuki, and explains its origins and purposes, literary sources, and symbolism.  It also includes a short section of a kabuki play.

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    Sources for Important Kabuki Plays

    Brandon, James R. and Samuel L. Leiter, eds. Kabuki Plays on Stage. Vols. 1-4. Honolulu: University Press of Hawai'i, 2002.  Davis Library PL 782.E5.K36 2002.

    This is one of the most accessible resources for students of kabuki.  Brandon and Leiter include modern and historical illustrations of the plays selected, as well as full translation of stage notes.  The essays at the beginning of each volume are particularly instructive on the historical development of kabuki themes from 1600 to the early twentieth century.

    Go here for a chart of key kabuki plays based on the themes that Brandon and Leiter have identified.

    Halford, Aubrey S. and Giovanna M. The Kabuki Handbook: A Guide to Understanding and Appreciation, with Summaries of Favorite Plays, Explanatory Notes, and Illustrations.  Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1956.  Davis Library PN2921 .H3

    Detailed summaries of 107 plays, including useful notes on aspects of kabuki plays.  This source is particularly instructive on the stage directions in kabuki theater.

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    This webpage was created by Alison Raab for INLS 111, at the  School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

    | contact me at araab@email.unc.edu

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