characteristics OF KABUKI THEATER and spatial analysis
During the height of the Edo period kabuki in Feudal japan (1603 – 1867), there were only 4 sanctioned Kabuki theaters allowed at one time. Like locations of Sumo wrestling, the hierarchy and authority of the theater was displayed on a tower outside of the theater called a yagura. Today, the use of the yagura is only officially used outside of places were sumo wrestling takes place, at kubuki theaters a temporary one may installed or a tower may be used simply as ornamentation to reference a past tradition. Kabuki theaters were modeled after Noh theaters in respect that you have a stage where the actors entertain the audience in front of an uncovered seating area for the patrons. While a roof was always provided over the stage and the box seats in the Edo period, the use of a roof over the general audience wasn’t common until the kyoho era (1716-1736).
Inside the Kabuki Theater, the most obvious characteristic you will notice will be the large wooden walkway on the left side of the stage known as the hanamichi. This stage had evolved from Noh theaters where the actors received hana, or flowers, from the warrior and noble class. Over time the flowers changed into various forms of gifts from coats to a monetary amount of money. In Kabuki Theater, the hanamichi started simply as the location where actors entered and exited the stage. In 1716, the hanamichi became used as an acting area where the presence of the actor became known using the shichi-san, or the seven-three. The shichi-san was a specific location on the wooden hanamichi that was seven-tenths from the back of the theater and three-tenths from the entrance to the stage where the actor gives his first impression to the audience. This first impression was displayed to the audience via the actor through poses, speeches, and dance. Occasionally, a kabuki theater would use a hanamichi on the right side of the stage, but this was based solely on the needs of the individual play, and would only be a temporary feature.
In Noh Theater, the use of curtains was rarely used as an element in the play. Starting in 1664, Kabuki Theater had started to employ the use of the curtain as a plot device rather than simply the beginning and ending of a scene. The evolution of this can be traced to early kabuki theater that was predominantly individual dances and dramatic sketches. Overtime, as kabuki started to combine all the individual performances into one cohesive play, the use of the curtain took shape and was used as dramatic effect. At the sanctioned kabuki establishments, the curtain, known as the joshikimaku, was often a made of bold vertical stripes of persimmon, green, and black where is was seen as a symbol of authority and pride. Unlike the unsanctioned theaters that had curtains called doncho that unrolled from the top, the sanctioned joshikimaku curtains unravel from the left to the right. At the back of the auditorium, a small curtain known as the Agemaku is used at the back of the stage for actors to enter and exit. Finally, a curtain called the asagimaku that may be dropped from the top or unroll from the side was used to change the background scenery in a fashion very similar to the way an editor cuts to a different scene in film.
Furthermore, the use of a revolving stage in Kabuki Theater can be traced to playright Namiki Shozo in 1758 where he used the revolving stage to dramatize two fight scenes in two different locations, utilizing the revolving stage and asagimaku curtains. While Shozo’s stage was a large wooden circle that moved independently of the main stage, there were other revolving stages developed such as the bull’s eye stage that was two independently revolving wooden rings that were capable of moving in opposite directions. The modern day revolving stage is very similar to shozo’s revolving stage due to the fact that both stages are flush to the main stage and hidden from view of the audience. Most modern stages also incorporate trap lifts inside the revolving stage and at the intersection of the hanamichi used exclusively for entrances to actors portraying ghosts, magicians, and other supernatural roles.
In addition to the revolving stage, temporary rectangular stages made of cypress placed on top of the main stage and along the hanamichi were also used in Kabuki Theater. The reason for cypress wood was due in part to the acoustical properties of cypress the accented the stomping sounds that were commonly used. The stages were also used depending on different typologies of plays. Normally, the background music to plays is in a separate room in the back left corner of the stage. Occasionally the need for the musicians to be in full view of the audience during dance or singing routines are required. For these routines, a tiered rectangular stage is covered in felt and placed at the back of the stage facing the audience. The other instance of musicians to be on stage is for narrative plays that require a space for the narrator and musicians. Usually this raised stage is placed on one side of the stage and place at an angel to the audience.
Now that the characteristics of a typical kabuki theater have been clarified, the importance of position in space not only for the actors but also the audience should be explained. As the audience looks at the stage, the audience’s right is called the kamite also known as the upper-hand. This is the direction of hierarchy inside the kabuki theater. On stage, men playing roles of women, and those of lower hierarchy sit to the left of those of higher class. Also, in the audience, the seating for those of honor such as the noble and warrior class are to the right of the audience known as the kami-za. Conversely, the left side of the stage is called the shimo-te which means the lower hand. It should be noted that the hanamichi where actors enter the stage is traditionally placed on the left side of the stage for this reason. As a result, psychological tension can be created within the play by an exchanging of place on stage by two different characters.