Around 1603 a priestess from the Izumo Grand Shrine began dancing not in the temple, but in a dry riverbed in Kyoto, Japan. This remarkable woman, Okuni, seems to have single-handedly launched a new art form, adding songs and narrative interludes to her dancing. Other women began joining Okuni, and she directed them in a new style of drama. Unlike Noh, Okuni's plays used no masks, had a whole ensemble of dancers, and aimed to please the masses rather than the elite. This new style of drama came to be known as kabuki.
Originally, female dancers performed kabuki, frequently cross-dressing to take on male roles. Though the first performers came from the temples, prostitutes from nearby brothels began to join in the performances, and kabuki gained a reputation for intense sensuality, a reputation aided by the lush costumes performers employed. By 1616, there were seven licensed kabuki theatres, usually near or connected to teahouses. These theatres were located in the entertainment district, where pleasures of all kinds were available, especially prostitution. The government was scandalized by this new art form, but kabuki was too popular to ban outright, so officials decided upon a different path of action.
In 1629, the government forbade women from appearing onstage, transforming kabuki from a female-dominated to an all-male art form. Boys provided the majority of actors, but attractive youths proved to be just as erotic and troublesome to the authorities. Especially problematic were the onnagata roles, where men dressed as women. The government tried to ban the portrayal of women on stage, but since kabuki was now seen as inherently erotic, this just led to plays featuring male homosexuality. In 1652, the government declared that only adult men could perform kabuki, banning teenage boys from the stage. Moreover, onnagata performers had to shave the fronts of their heads to make sure they did not resemble women. Onnagata performers simply began covering the fronts of their heads with scarves, which became erotically fetishized objects.
Instead of the hashigakari bridge in Noh, a kabuki stage has a path known as the hanamichi, which extends out through the audience. While a hashigakari supposedly connects the Noh stage to an invisible spirit realm, the hanamichi simply connects one geographic location with another. Noh is concerned with spiritual matters, but kabuki is more likely to deal with political issues, such as wars among nations or great feuds between families. Spectacle is very important in kabuki, and Japanese theatre artists developed important stage technologies later adopted by the West. In the eighteenth century, the playwright Namiki Shozo invented a special trap door called a seri through which actors or scenery could be elevated up onto the stage. Even more importantly, he introduced a revolving stage (known as the mawari-butai) in 1758, long before such devices were available in Europe.
Unlike Noh, kabuki uses elaborate scenery, changing it (frequently by means of elevator or revolving stage) whenever the action of the play moves to a new location. Though performers do not wear masks, they use stylized make-up and frequently hold their faces in dramatic positions. During emotional moments, a leading actor will work himself into a seeming frenzy, then snap into a pose known as a mie. Actors hold the mie for several moments, during which the audience marvels at their skill. When actors exit, they might also perform a roppo, holding several mie in rapid succession.
In spite of the humble origins of the art form, kabuki actors have traditionally enjoyed a star status. Their popularity allowed them to mingle with members of the upper classes, sometimes with disastrous results. In 1714, the theatre world was rocked by a scandal known as the Ejima-Ikushima affair. Ejima, a high-ranking lady in the court of the shogun, was caught out late with the kabuki actor Ikushima Shingoro. Ejima returned home to find the gates had already been locked, yet went from gate to gate trying to gain admittance.
Ejima had met Ikushima the previous year, and the two were reputed to be lovers. Her late-night antics caused a furor, and after an investigation Ejima and Ikumisha were separately exiled. The government closed all four kabuki theatres in the capital of Edo, though all but Ikushima's were eventually reopened. Officially, kabuki actors were considered little better than thieves and prostitutes, but as the Ejima-Ikushima affair illustrates, they could rise to very high places.