Kabuki is a form of traditional Japanese theater. Kabuki theater is known for the stylization of its drama and for the elaborate make-up worn by its performers. A rich blend of music, dance, mime, and spectacular staging and costuming, it has been the chief theatrical form in Japan for almost four centuries.
The term kabuki originally suggested the unorthodox character of this art form. The individual kanji characters, from left to right, are ka, meaning “sing”; bu, signifying “dance”; and ki, meaning “skill”. Kabuki is therefore sometimes translated as “the art of singing and dancing.”
Kabuki’s lyrical plays are regarded, with some notable exceptions, less as literature than as vehicles for its actors to demonstrate their enormous range of skills in visual and vocal performance. The traditions of kabuki have been transmitted from one generation of actors to the next with only slight alterations. Traditionally, constant interplay between the actors and the spectators took place in the kabuki theatre. The programs incorporated themes and customs reflecting the changing seasons, or material derived from contemporary events.
Unlike in most Western theaters, where actors and audience have been separated by a proscenium arch since the late seventeenth century, the kabuki performers constantly intruded on the audience. When two hanamichi, elevated passage gateways from the main stages to the back of the auditorium, were used, the audience was literally fenced in by three stages.