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Kabuki Theatre Essay


Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura focuses on historic Genji and Heike conflict in the twelfth century due to a civil war period in Japan. The play was first performed in 1747, as Bunraku, traditional Japanese puppet theatre, however was quickly adapted into Kabuki theatre in 1748. In the 1740’s Kabuki theatre had already taken a very specific structure and form after a history filled with changes in power, revolts, and chaos. The style of theatre was easily noticed due to distinctive and elaborate make up and costumes, as well as, a very advanced stage design for the time period. In all Kabuki plays these aspects together lead to the plays success, ultimately leading up to the question of how the stage design impacts, influences, and enhances Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura (Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees) written by Takeda Izumo II, Namiki Senryu I, and Miyoshi Shoraku.

Kabuki and Kabuki History

Kabuki, literally translating into song (?), dance (?), and skill (?), is known as the art of singing and dance. It is a highly regarded classical Japanese form of theatre that originated in the early seventeenth century. Throughout the past four hundred years Kabuki has both thrived and struggled due to a chaotic Japanese History. However, Kabuki remains one of Japans most popular theatre styles because it appeals to all social classes.

Kabuki began as a style of dance and developed into a well-renounced style of theatre. First performed in 1603 by Izumo no Okuni and her dancing troupe it quickly caught the attention of many, especially women. It then became known as Kabuki Odori or Onna Kabuki, meaning eccentric dances typically danced by women. The dancing was extremely vulgar and turned out to be considered prostitution, which eventually lead to the banning of women’s participation in Kabuki in 1629 by the Japanese government. From 1629 to 1673 Kabuki was only performed by men, this period of time is know as yaro-kabuki. Men took the rolls of women, which led to the transformation of Kabuki from a dance to a drama.

During the late seventeenth century and all of the eighteenth century Kabuki developed its structure and form, because of Noh and Bunruka influence and also because Kabuki began casting both male and female roles together. The theatres prospered and Kabuki spread to the west, until the end of nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century, when Japan became full of chaos involving fires, falling empires, power struggles, and world wars. In the modern era, later twentieth and present day twenty-first century, Kabuki remains part of Japans culture and industry, as well as, a growing interest in the Western world.

Stage Design

There are many aspects that make Kabuki Theatre original. These aspects are unique costumes and extensive make up, however more impressively is Kabuki stage design. Thinking back to 400 years ago, there were not as many technological advancements when compared to today, more specifically absolutely no electricity. However, Kabuki theatre has innovated revolving stages, intricate trap doors for dramatic entrances and exits, interesting flying techniques and much more. This can be seen in Figure 2, which states “The kabuki stage is equipped with various mechanical contrivances for dramatic effect. One of these is the Seri, a platform that can be raised and lowered from below the stage to make actors appear and disappear Nowadays, this is motor-driven.” Figure 2 was a much earlier depiction of the stage, now it is much more intricate.

There are over fifteen aspects to the stage that make it unique to Kabuki theatre. Each one holds an important aspect. It is more in-depth in Figure 3. Primarily, when starting from the top left and working the way down comes the mawaributal, which is known as the revolving stage. The mawaributal used to be operated only using human power and provide for simple scene changes by simply revolving the center section of the stage. Not only does it allow all of the audience to view the scene it is also much more appealing then abrupt scene changes. Then comes the Hombutai and two Daijin-bashiras, the Daijin-bashiras are two black pillars on both stage left and stage right and between them like the Hombutai, which is the stage prop. Stage right is the Shimote, which holds the left side of the audience and stage left is called the Kamite and there sits the right side of the audience.

Audience’s sit all over the stage because of all the different places acting takes place. There is a little box in front of the Shimote called the Kuromisu, also known as the Geza and here Nagauta is sung in order to enhance the musical special effects. On the opposite side, but on the second floor is the Yuka, a stage when Takemoto is performed, the reciting of the Takemoto can be done with the Muso, the screen, either rolled up or down, the position of the screen effects the outcome of the screen and mood greatly. The stage curtain is called the Joshiki-maku and when closed this hides everything already described. Except the Naraku, which is never seen by anyone and was used back when the stage was solely operated by human power.

The only visible thing when the stage is closed is the Hanamichi, one of the most important aspects of Kabuki stage design. The Hanamichi is a passage, almost like a runway, on the side of the Shimote and it extends out into the audience. It is used for the entrance and exits of the actors, especially useful in the masses. Hanamichi translate into the flower path, which can be attributed to all of it various uses. On the Hanamichi is the Suppon, a smaller Seri. A Seri is that trap door that provides for quick and dramatic exits and entrances and the Suppon acts as the same thing. The final important aspect of the stage, also in the Hanamichi is the Agemaku, a huge curtain hung at the end, or beginning of the Hanamichi and is used to present characters.

Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura and Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura History

Now that Kabuki, its history and specific aspect of stage design are understood. It is time to understand Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura, also known as Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees written by Takeda Izumo II, Miyoshi Shoraku and, Namiki Senryu I. The play was originally for Banraku theatre, which is known to have heavily influenced Kabuki, but a year after its creation the original puppet show was transformed into Kabuki. The play is one of Kabuki’s most popular.

The play is made of five acts and consists of 15 scenes. Although different versions of the play are performed, the basic concept of each play remains the same. Simply the play is Minamoto no Yoshitsune versus Minamoto no Yoritomo. The two are brothers, who grew jealous of each other’s success. Yoritomo was self-appointed shogun yet turns against his more successful brother. Yoritomo, although he never appears in the play, seeks out the capture his brother, which force Yoshitsune to run away. The play typically has a cast of about twenty. Each Act is as follows: * Act One: Yoritomo’s envoy visits Yoshitsune’s mansion to question his loyalty to Yoritomo because Yoshitsune lead the Heike clan to dominance over the Genji and also because Yoritomo was jealous of the success of Yoshitsune his younger brother. Yoshitsune explains it was only for the benefit of Japan.

The real trouble is with Kyo no Kimi, Yoshitsune’s wife, who he soon finds out is Yoritomo’s daughter. This results in Kyo no Kimi’s death when Yoritomo’s envoy beheads her after she stabs herself. This begins an attack of Yoshitsune’s mansion but Yoritomo’s men. However Yoshitsune easily defeats them. * Act Two: Yoshitsune is forced to flee by ship but does not allow his mistress Shizuka to come. Before he leaves he gives her a drum and tries her to a tree. Yoroitomo’s men tease her but Tadanobu; one of Yoshitsune’a men saves her because he is the magical fox and desires to save the drum because of family history. Yoshitsune catches wind of this event before he leaves and rewards Tadanobu and also puts him in charge of Shizuka.

Yoshitsune gets the ship for Tomomri/Ginpei who appears to be on the side of Yoshitsune but in reality has a plan with his wife, Oryu, to have the ship attacked and if that did not work Oryu would go on board and kill the emperor and herself. However, Yoshitsune avoids the attack and when he returns to shore to see the nearly defeated Tomomri who he later forces to commit suicide and intense suicide. * Act Three: This act follows a very different story line not involving Yoshitsune but one of Yoritomo’s men is featured. It is about a Heike general, Koremori, who is missing and his family and one of their men (Kokingo) in search for Koremori in the Shimoichi Village. Kokingo comes in contact with Gonta, a villain, who switches their packs later to accuse Kokingo of stealing twenty gold coins, which the general’s wife makes him pay to Gonta. On their search the family and Kokingo get separated and Kokingo is brutally stabbed and killed.

In a nearby village the owner of a sushi shop, Yazaemon, coincidentally the father of Gonta, finds Kokingo dead, chops off his head hoping it could pass as Koremori who is disguised as Yazaemons apprentice named Yasuke. Later the family of Koremori comes looking for a place to stay. Gonta stole money from his mother and hides it in a sushi tub and Yazaemon puts the head of Kokingo in another. Gonta runs off with the head to alert authorities. Meanwhile Yoritomo’s men show up at the Sushi Shop because they believed he was harboring a fugitive (Koremori). As he opens the bucket with money, which he thinks is the head, Gonta shows up with two prisoners who he claims to be Koremori’s wife and child. He then shows the head to the authorities that they confirm to be Koremori.

Yazaemon is mad at Gonta until Koremori, his wife and child appear. Finally Gonta is reaccepted back into his family but he dies soon after. * Act Four: Returns back to the story of Shizuka and Tadanobu in search for Yoshitsune. On stage they preform a dance and beat the beloved drum that Yoshitsune gave to Shizuka and that Tadanobu desires to stay close to. When they reach Yoshitsune another Tadanobu appears, who is later figured to be the real magic fox. This is figured out by Shizuka’s beat of the drum and his transformation into a beautiful white magical fox. The fake Tadanobu confesses he only sought to be near the drum because it was made of his parents and because of this Yoshitsune gives him the drum where he exits in grand style.

Then comes more fighting with Tadanbu by the emperor’s side. * Act Five: Although there are alternate endings the final act is always short and sweet which is very common in Kabuki theatre. It either ends on n a mountain top where real Tadanobu stands challenging Yoritomo’s men until their defeat and all is right again just as it was in the beginning. Or it ends with Yoshitsune sending away Shizuka with Tadanobu because Yoritomo is still after him.

Stage Design in Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura

There are many cases throughout Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura that the stage is used to add to the complexity and entertainment factor of the play. Although a basic description of the stage was described it must be understood that because of the lack of electricity in traditional Kabuki, although very intricate for the time, Kabuki in modern times has changed. So after researching scenes that required special effects have changed over time. For example, in the final scene of act four when Tadanbu is present with the drum by Yoshitsune originally he would just danced along the path way that cuts through the center of the audience (hanamachi), however in more modern Kabuki the magical fox exits by flying over the audience, a style known as chunori, where he ultimately exits on the third floor of the theater house.

However, despite the development Kabuki has always been a type of theatre that the audience is very involved in. Because audience members are sat on either side of the stage and on different levels the experience is different every time the play is watched, yet amazing every time. Because Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura consists of so many battles and dances the hanamachi comes in handy a lot. It keeps the audience on their toes.

Another instance of the stages addition to the overall production is in act five when someone dies the body disappears and all that is left for the audience to see is a suit of armor. This is done with the use of the trap door, the Suki, used a lot in Kabuki theatre for dramatic entrances and in this case exits. It surprises and leaves audience members in awe.

Overall the stage design of Kabuki theatre is not only very pleasing to the eye but it adds a lot to the overall performance of any Kabuki play. Because of my research I noticed many instances in Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura when it was used. At the time when there is no electricity and everything is operated using human strength it is mind-boggling what the Japanese accomplished.

1. Cavaye, Ronald, Paul Griffith, and Akihiko Senda. ??????????: A Guide to the Japanese Stage. Kodanasha International, 2004. 287 pages. Web/Ebook. <> 2. Cavaye, Ronald. Kabuki: A Pocket Guide. Tuttle Publishing, 1993. 184 pages. Web/Ebook. <>. Published Sources

3. “Kabuki”. Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 19 Nov. 2012
<>. 4. Norihiko, Watanabe. “Invitation to Kabuki.” Guidance for Kabuki Appreciation. Japan Art Council. Copy Righted 2007. Web. 19 Nov 2012. <>. 5. Jones Jr., Stanleigh H. (Trans. and Ed.). Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. <> Online Sources

6. Shoriya Aragoro’s website
7. Jeffrey Hayes’s website

* Japanese Theatre 3: Kabuki

* Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura 01

* Kabuki Fight scene (Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura) Images
* Figure 1: Izumo no Okuni * Figure 2: Kabuki Stage * Figure 3:
The Kabuki Stage

Evaluation of Sources
1. Cavaye, Ronald, Paul Griffith, and Akihiko Senda. ??????????: A Guide to the Japanese Stage. Kodanasha International, 2004. 287 pages. Web/Ebook. <>

This book provided me with information about Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura and it’s scenes that apparently reappeared a lot in Kabuki theatre. It provided me with accurate background on what the play was based on. It was very credible because it is a published book and very well respected in the theatre community. Although I could not get my hands on the entire book the google books website provided me with very important pages that benefited my research greatly.

2. Cavaye, Ronald. Kabuki: A Pocket Guide. Tuttle Publishing, 1993. 184 pages. Web/Ebook. <>.
This book provided me with a very extensive understanding of the Kabuki stage. It provided me with each aspect, how it works and the effect it gives to the audience. Because my research was centered around the stage this book was very helpful. It is credible because it is a published book about Kabuki, everything Kabuki. Although similar to the other book I could not access all the information the information I did access was very helpful to my research paper.

Published Sources
3. “Kabuki”. Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 19 Nov. 2012
This website gave me a great understanding of Kabuki and all of it elements. It was from an encyclopedia therefore the information was published and very
credible. Although it was not directly related to the play it gave me background and added to my understanding of the stage desigb. 4. Norihiko, Watanabe. “Invitation to Kabuki.” Guidance for Kabuki Appreciation. Japan Art Council. Copy Righted 2007. Web. 19 Nov 2012. <>.

Without this website I would not have been provided with the fabulous stage visual I use and I would have been clueless about the way the stage worked. This website is another one that was all about Kabuki and it provided me with a lot of information I needed about the stage and how it is used. 5. Jones Jr., Stanleigh H. (Trans. and Ed.). Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. <>

This website was all about Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura and provided me with a lot of information about the plays history, Japans history and the play itself. It was very helpful in my summary of each act of the play. Although some of the information conflicted with other websites, a lot of it was credible and added to my paper a lot.

Online Sources
6. Shoriya Aragoro’s website
This website worked miracles. Anything anyone could possibly know about Kabuki was on this website and a majority of the information was credible and matched information and research I read on other sources. The website is updated monthly by a Japanese Kabuki fanatic. The website had information on any Kabuki actor, play, and every moment in history Kabuki was possibly affected by in the past 400 years. Because it is a website that’s purpose is to only give information it is in no way at all biased, the only thing that can be questioned is the information but it seemed to be relevant and very extensive in detail, especially the play Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura. The website had the play’s description down to every scene and character.

7. Jeffrey Hayes’s website
Jeffrey Hayes’s website was a brief synopsis of Kabuki Theatre, it’s history, aspects, actors and plays. The information on this website was compiled from many newspapers, academic journals and encyclopedias. It was updated less then a year ago and provided me with a lot of information that I could extensively research later. The credibility of the information can be questioned but a majority of it’s information was in accordance with other websites.

* Japanese Theatre 3: Kabuki

* Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura 01

* Kabuki Fight scene (Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura)

The videos I watched furthered my understanding of the Kabuki style and demonstrated the use of the stage in Kabuki and especially in the play Yoshitsine Senbon Zakura. It provided me with information on all areas of my paper. Primarily, Kabuki theatre, its history and important aspects. While watching the video’s of Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura I understood the story line more, simply reading a synopsis was not enough.

* Figure 1: Izumo no Okuni * Figure 2: Kabuki Stage * Figure 3: The Kabuki Stage

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