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Shunsho - woodlbock print depicting Japanese Kabuki actorsNakamura Sukegoro II Nakamura Nakazo I

Prints depicting Kabuki theater actors and scenes

Kabuki theater emerged as one of the three most popular forms of dramatic theater during the Japanese Edo period(1604-1868), the other two being Noh drama and puppet theater (bunraku). Singers and an orchestra of drums, flutes, wooden clappers, and samisen (a stringed instrument similar to the banjo) accompanied the highly stylized dialogue, lively and often violent action, and captivating dances of Kabuki.

The plays were all-day entertainments that included lunch and tea. Audiences in the capital, Edo (present-day Tokyo), were delighted by these powerful performances, and admiring merchants and artisans became patrons of theaters and their favorite actors. Kabuki emerged as a favorite among the highly literate samurai class and flourished in a culture hungry for art and entertainment.

The art form originates in comic dances performed in the early 1600s by groups of women on a bank of Kyoto’s Kamo River. Kabuki grew into a colorful theatrical art form in both Edo and Osaka. In 1629, the government accused these women of being prostitutes and banned all women from performing the dances. Male actors began to play both male and female roles.

Edo’s three Kabuki theaters—Nakamura-za, Ichimura-za, and Morita-za—were located in different areas of the “Low City.” In 1842, after a fire had destroyed much of the city, all three theaters were relocated to the Asakusa area near the new pleasure quarter.

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