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Kabuki is the most famous of the forms of Japanese theatre. Spoken and sung in 'old Japanese', even the Japanese themselves find it difficult to understand. It is a little like a Japanese version of Shakespeare performed at the opera and the performances last a number of hours. The word 'kabuki' is made of three characters in Japanese: 'ka' meaning 'songs', 'bu' meaning 'dance' and 'ki' meaning 'skill'.

Kabuki is performed at a special theatre and the displays are usually overwhelming in their use of colour, makeup and stylised movements. The revolving stage and trapdoors mean that impressive entrances and exits occur throughout the performance.

The history
In 1603, the original kabuki players were all women who danced onstage and apparently performed other services offstage. As the 17th century progressed, women were no longer permitted to perform because it was thought that they were having a corrupting effect of the spectators. Young attractive boys began to play both male and female roles and caused as much havoc as the women had, so kabuki was actually banned for a time in the mid 1600s.

Finally, older men were allowed to perform although they had to shave the tops of their heads so that audience members would not be tempted by them. Ironically, this led to an enormous focus on the importance of skill rather than looks as these men played both male and female, young and old roles.

Towards the end of the 17th century, kabuki became much more dramatic and popular among townspeople, and the theatrical performances began to develop many of the features that still underpin modern performances.

As the 19th century began, class unrest was common and the kabuki stage became one arena where you could still speak out to some extent against the system. The ruling classes kept a close eye on kabuki to ensure no trouble would come from it and restricted the performances to big cities and non-contemporary events. Many of the plays got around this second restriction by transposing a current event into the past or different character names or a different location.

The performers
Kabuki performers are extremely famous in Japan and the skill is usually kept within families; son following father into the business. Some players concentrate on female roles while others usually play male roles, although there is some interchanging. The female specialists are called 'onnagata' and spend an incredible amount of time learning how to move, eat, talk, dress, etc., like a woman.

When a scene reaches its climax, the actor strikes flamboyant poses, overemphasising the emotion and drama of the moment and certain performers have become famous for their portrayal of a particular kabuki scene. Others strive to equal or surpass these exalted performances.

The performance
Eat, drink and be merry in a kabukiza. You can even call out the names of your favourite performers as they appear on stage and many spectators follow certain performers avidly. While certain stories are well known, headphones which translate the ancient Japanese into modern Japanese, English and other languages are available and do make it easier to follow the plot. In most performances you will see excerpts from a few famous plays usually followed by a play in its entirety.

The stories generally focus on some form of conflict whether between siblings, rivals or others and it often seems that they are fairytale-like renditions where people are either good or bad. The costuming and posturing make it easier to pick who falls into which category although there are some surprises where someone turns out to have another identity or some hidden secret.

Modern kabuki is a far cry from its original subversive roots, but still retains a general appeal. Visiting a kabuki performance is a must if you can manage it but they are quite expensive and it is a good idea to go with someone Japanese who is relatively familiar with it so that you can truly appreciate the dramatic artistry of this art form.