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Back to classics: Exploring the art of kabuki with Shochiku

Back to classics: Exploring the art of kabuki with Shochiku

Have you ever watched a kabuki performance in Japan? Kabuki (歌舞伎) is one of Japanʼs revered forms of traditional theatre, alongside noh (能) and bunraku (文楽 puppet theatre), and is now regarded as one of the worldʼs greatest theatrical arts. With a history stretching back over 400 years, kabuki is essentially a popular theatre that has developed flexibly and vigorously over time, capturing the zeitgeist and fashion of the locals while combining essences of other performing arts. It is often characterised by dramatic storylines, elaborate costumes & make-up, as well as stylized acting performances.


Amongst Japan’s many kabuki practitioners, Shochiku Co., Ltd. (松竹株式会社 Shōchiku Kabushikigaisha) has paved the way of kabuki performances since its formation in 1902. With four major theatres under its belt, let’s explore the brilliant art of kabuki and how this traditional art form is still making waves today.


Origins of kabuki

kikubatake.jpg (329 KB)

“Kikubatake” (菊畑 The Chrysanthemum Garden) is the 2nd scene of 3rd act in the play "Kiichi Hôgen Sanryaku no Maki". (Image credit: National Diet Library Digital Collection)


The word kabuki is made up of three kanji characters that mean "song" (歌 ka), "dance" (舞 bu), and "acting skill" (伎 ki), indicating the composite nature of this art which includes elements of music, dance, and drama; disciplines that would in most other cases be performed separately.


Although kabuki today is an all-male theatre, it was said to be originally invented by Izumo no Okuni (出雲阿国), a miko (巫女 shrine maiden) and dancer who lived between the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (安土桃山時代 1568–1600) and Edo Period (江戸時代 1603–1868). During this period of peace, there was a group of people known as Kabuki-mono (傾奇者 lit. translated as “strange things”) who wore extraordinary clothes with eccentric hair styles, whose gestures and styles were said to be the “latest fashion” of that period. Izumo no Okuni imitated this style on stage and called it “kabuki-odori” (歌舞伎踊り), and began performing shows along Kamo River in Kyoto with her female dance troupe. The performances were enthusiastically received by the people, and the audience expanded to include not only the common people but also warriors and aristocrats.


“Sukeroku” (助六由縁江戸桜) is one of the more popular sewamono plays belonging to the “Kabuki Jûhachiban” (歌舞伎十八番) collection. (Image credit: National Diet Library Digital Collection)


There are a wide variety of kabuki plays. Jidaimono (時代物 historical plays) and sewamono (世話物 domestic plays) are the two main categories. While jidaimono depicts events that occurred among the nobility and samurai classes during the pre-Edo Period often incorporating historical legends, sewamono plays portray the ordinary lives of townspeople during the Edo Period, which have been considered realistic and modern at that time.


Origins of Shochiku

While the history of kabuki can be traced back over 400 years, it was Shochiku that brought all the kabuki actors under the same management and raised the position of kabuki in the turn of the 20th century.


Twins Ōtani Takejirō (大谷竹次郎, 1877–1969) and Shirai Matsujirō (白井松次郎, 1877–1951) were drawn to kabuki as children. After Ōtani Takejirō became a promoter of the Shinkyōgoku Sakaiza Theatre in 1895, the two founded the Shochiku General Partnership Company in 1902. Apart from the promotion and production of kabuki shows, Shochiku was also involved in film production and distribution, making it a top contender in the entertainment business in Japan.


Merging and acquiring theatres all over Japan—one of which was Minamiza Theatre, the most venerable theatre in Kyoto—and developing various entertainments such as kabuki, comedy shows, and new types of stage performances, the company brought excitement to the lives of people in Japan. 


While maintaining tradition and saving many classic kabuki works, it continued to develop the art form, always taking on new challenges such as collaborations with world famous modern playwrights, adaptations of comic books and picture books, and productions that use the latest technology—as exemplified by the “Super Kabuki” or “Chōkabuki” (超歌舞伎), which are kabuki performances that combine traditional movement with modern technology and music. In 1928, the first overseas kabuki performance was staged in the Soviet Union, and today, the number of overseas kabuki tours has reached over 110 in 35 countries and 90 cities.


Kabukiza Theatre, Ginza, Tokyo

(Image credit: ©SHOCHIKU Co., Ltd / KABUKI-ZA Co., Ltd)


Opened in 1889, Kabukiza Theatre (歌舞伎座) is the largest theatre for kabuki in Japan and the only one that actively presents kabuki plays every month throughout the year. Kabuki actors have regarded it as the most prestigious theatre to perform in. The magnificent façade combines the architectural style of the Nara Period (710-794) and Momoyama Period. Currently in its fifth rebuilt, the theatre’s beautifully decorated interior also provides traditional box seats, fine dining, and various souvenir shops.


Kabukiza Theatre (歌舞伎座)
Address: 4-12-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061
Nearest station: Higashi-Ginza Station (東銀座駅) 
Access: Direct access from Higashi-Ginza Station (via Exit 3)
Opening hours: Refer to schedule
Tel: +81 3-3545-6800


Shinbashi Enbujo Theatre, Ginza, Tokyo

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(Image credit: ©SHOCHIKU Co., Ltd)


Shinbashi Enbujo Theatre was originally built as a stage for showing Azuma dance in April 1925. It was rebuilt in 1982 into the structure that we see today. It presented various genres of plays including kabuki, straight plays, musicals, and "Super-Kabuki”, which takes inspiration from manga and anime.


Shinbashi Enbujo Theatre (新橋演舞場)
Address: 6-18-2 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061
Nearest station: Higashi-Ginza Station (東銀座駅) / Tsukijishijo Station (築地市場駅)
Access: 3-minute walk from Higashi-Ginza Station (via Exit 6) / 2-minute walk from Tsukijishijo Station (via Exit A3)
Opening hours: Refer to schedule
Tel: +81 3-3541-2600


Osaka Shochikuza Theatre, Dotonbori, Osaka

(Image credit: ©SHOCHIKU Co., Ltd)


Modeled after the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Osaka Shochikuza Theatre (大阪松竹座) is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2023 since its construction in 1923. Once a cinema, it is now used to hold kabuki shows, musicals, and shingeki (新劇), which is a form of theatre in Japan based on modern realism. The theatre has 1,033 seats spread over three floors.


Osaka Shochikuza Theatre (大阪松竹座)
Address: 1-9-19 Dotonbori, Chuo-ku, Osaka, 542-0071
Nearest station: Namba Station (なんば駅)
Access: 1-minute walk from Osaka-Namba Station (via Exit 15B)
Opening hours: Refer to schedule
Tel: +81 6-6214-2211


Minamiza Theatre, Shijo, Kyoto

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(Image credit: ©SHOCHIKU Co., Ltd)


With a history that traces all the way back to the beginning of the Edo Period, Kyoto’s most venerable theatre is built and located in the same region as where Izumo no Okuni performed and introduced kabuki odori in Kyoto in 1603 which attracted great attention. After undergoing several major reconstructions, the new Minamiza Theatre (南座) is fitted with the latest stage technology, enabling a wide variety of spectacular effects to be achieved. It will stage a wide range of productions throughout the year, from traditional Japanese performing arts to the newest live entertainments.


Minamiza Theatre (南座)
Address: Shijo-Ohashi Higashizume, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto 605-0075
Nearest station: Gion-Shijo Station (衹園四条駅) / Kyoto-Kawaramachi Station (京都河原町駅)
Access: 1-minute walk from Gion-Shijo Station (via Exit 6) / 3-minute walk from Kyoto-Kawaramachi Station (via Exit 1)
Opening hours: Refer to schedule
Tel: +81 75-561-1155


“Back to Classics” Omiyage Box by JAPAN RAIL CLUB (March 2023)

Shochiku Kabuki-ya Honpo, a store specialising in kabuki goods and snacks. (Image credit: ©SHOCHIKU Co., Ltd)


Shochiku’s profound establishment in the kabuki realm has made it a household name, so much so that snack makers would make exclusive confectionery for the kabuki theatres. To get your hands on kabuki goods and merchandise in Tokyo, you can visit either of the souvenir shops located within Kabukiza or Shinbashi Enbujo Theatre in Ginza. Especially for JAPAN RAIL CLUB members, this month’s omiyage box is curated by courtesy of Shochiku with snacks from the store! Alternatively, the Shochiku Kabuki-ya Honpo (松竹歌舞伎屋本舗) store in Tokyo Station also sells a variety of kabuki-exclusive snacks from well-known brands all across Japan. 


Find out more about Shochiku through our Omiyage Box today!


Kabuki | Shochiku 


Editorial supervision by Shochiku Co., Ltd.

Images reproduced from the National Diet Library Digital Collection.


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