What does Kabuki mean?

Traditional Japanese dance has contemporary resonance.

Stylized Japanese dance drama

Kabuki theatre is a stylized Japanese dance-drama tradition that dates back to the early 17th century . It is characterised by melodramatic plot lines, masks and heavy make-up. Shouting at other actors is encouraged.

The word Kabuku derives word of katamuku (傾く), which means to lean. By the end of the Sengoku period to the start of the Edo period, people who dressed loudly and did unthinkable things were called kabukimono (かぶき者). The kabukimono people invented a dance with ‘flashy and loud movements and outfits’ called kabuki odori (かぶき踊り).

Originally, Kabuki had an unsavoury reputation in polite Japanese society, especially youjyo kabuki (遊女歌舞伎) which was performed by prostitutes.

すじにくシチュー/Wikimedia Commons

Though popular with audiences it was frowned upon by the authorities, who saw it as ‘actor prostitution’. In 1629 they banned female participation but the form that then emerged was associated with homo-erotic themes. That didn’t go down a storm with the Japanese Court either.

Today kabuki actors can breathe more easily. Modern Japan celebrates the tradition, which has become an important cultural export. In 2005, UNESCO announced kabuki as one of the 43 Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.” Whatever that means, it is clearly intended as as an official international seal of approval.

At the same time kabuki has retained its hipster credentials. In the late 1960s it became fashionable in avant-garde theatrical circles in the UK. David Bowie was an early enthusiast, particularly in the period where he worked with mime artist, Lindsey Kemp. He later borrowed heavily from the kabuki tradition in the creation of Ziggy Stardust.


Parliamentary kabuki, a specialism of former speaker, John Bercow

More recently, the term Kabuki is used in American politics as a synonym for theatrical. This is more accurate than the ubiquitous but often misused performative. The always informative Dot Wordsworth points out in her Spectator column that the correct usage of performative is as

She cites as examples:

Performative does not mean to play to the gallery (or TV cameras!) or act insincerely for public consumption. Kabuki better describes the type of theatrical behaviour that seems designed to get maximum media attention.



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