Kabuki is a comic book by David Mack set in a future Japan. Very cyberpunk and violent, with remarkably good characterization. Although his symbolism and panel progression are among the best in the American comic industry, Mack thinks he knows a lot more about Japan than he actually knows, in a very William Gibson-esque fashion. His ideas about the Ainu, in particular, annoy me no end.

Kabuki theater

Kabuki theater is one of Japan's native theatrical traditions. It is characterized by elaborate set and costume design, and the fact that all the actors are male, even for female roles (unlike, say, Takarazuka).

Dave Barry describes watching kabuki as being less enjoyable than eye surgery, and for once I disagree. Kabuki is an amazing spectacle, and has influenced much of subsequent Japanese theater. Considering its gaudy aesthetic, the origins of kabuki are hardly surprising - it was originally invented by a woman named Okuni, who (WARNING: Oversimplification imminent!) developed it from various existing theatrical traditions (like Noh) as a way for prostitutes to advertise their wares. A lot of historical stuff happened, and women were banned from the stage entirely. So therein lies the origins of the onnagata, the male actor specializing in female roles.

Onnagata are very good at what they do. With all their makeup, espcially from a distance, their body language conveys femininity astoundingly well. Onnagata are not always bishounen, but it helps.

Another unique characteristic of kabuki is a kind of audience participation - and I don't mean the Rocky Horror Picture Show variety. Essentially, the actors feel free to step out of character, address the audience, compliment another actor's performance, whatever - and the audience gets to respond. Kind of fun, really, and completely different from western theater.

So kabuki is not boring. At all. Seriously, that's what Noh Theater is for (Sorry, Noh fans, it's just not my bag. I do know people who can get into the Noh Groove, though, so you shouldn't let me pass judgement on it). In any case If you get a chance, go see a kabuki play. Even with no knowledge of Japanese, the glitz alone should be enough entertainment value.

Kabuki is a traditional form of Japanese theater. It was founded early in the 17th century by Okuni, a shrine maiden who brought her unique and lively dance style to the dry river beds of the ancient capital of Kyoto, and over the next 300 years it developed into a sophisticated, highly stylized form of theater.

Though Kabuki was created by a woman, since early on all roles have been taken by men. Men who play the roles of women are referred to as 'onnagata', female role specialists.

Kabuki plays and dances may be about grand historical events or the everyday life of people in the Edo period(1600-1868).

One of the major art forms of Japan, the Kabuki play evolved from the older Noh Theater, in which elaborately costumed performers, nowadays men only, use stylized movements, makeup, dances, and songs in order to enact tragedies and comedies.

I will quote from liveforever for the meaning of Kabuki, as he sent me a definition I couldn't paraphrase better. "Re: Kabuki, kao (w)o tsukuru", in fact, literally does mean "making a face" - the verb "tsukuru" is the same one you use when preparing a meal or carving a figure out of wood, or any other process of physical creation." (Thank you, liveforever.) Unlike the western dramatic goal, which (in most cases) is to portray a realistic life picture, kabuki differs mostly in that it has no pretenses of being a realistic portrayal. Only one character speaks at a time, and all actors face the audience when speaking, even in intimate conversations.

The main themes include both tales of war and of psychological conflict. Its most widely known characteristic is its use of men for all roles in the play, although this has not always been the case. The theatre form went through a few stages - there was onna kabuki, in which women danced provocatively; then wakashuu kabuki, where young men replaced the women; then yaroo kabuki, which was performed by older men and viewed as the most artistic.

Some key ingredients...

Dances are usually done solo, and are again different than the western counterpart. It's considered inartistic to synchronize your dancing exactly with the music.

The actors refer to the application of makeup as kao o tsukuru - making a face. The traditional "look" of kabuki results from social standards and defintions of beauty. The face is powdered white, symbolizing delicate skin. The lips are painted into a "strawberry" because this small pucker-mouth is a symbol of refinement. The most common make-up pattern is basically coloured lines around the face, usually following the facial structure, and more pronounced in dramatic or supernatural characters. The colours each have their own unique significance.

Costumes in Kabuki are usually extravagant and complicated. They were used to attract wealthy patrons to the theatre. The costumes were works of creative genius for many reasons, including the fact that there were strict laws about the allowance of certain materials and fabrics to be worn.

A fascinating art form which, like other art forms, had a close relationship with social movements in it's development. Japanese fashion was highly influenced by the theater. As well, the conclusions reached in kabuki plays are reflective of the general code of ethics at the time of kabuki's development.

I learned about some of the different forms and themes at:
I learned about some of the characteristics, etc. at this really good site (go here to learn lots more!):

David Mack's Kabuki is a very interesting and immersive comic book tale. The initial story, titled "Circle of Blood", is about one young Ainu woman (named Kabuki), who is a member of a secret government organization called the Noh whose aim is to wipe out the criminal underworld in Kyoto. There are eight of them: Kabuki, Scarab, Ice, Tiger Lily, Snapdragon, Butoh, and Siamese, who are two siamese twins joined at the shoulder and given a mechanical limb when separated by surgery. They receive their orders from Oni, who wears the mask of a demon and whose face they never see.

The story is largely concerned with Kabuki's mother, who, as a girl, was abducted by Japanese soldiers during WWII to be sent to a military outpost to live as a "comfort woman", essentially a slave to the soldiers. But the wise and respected general at the outpost she is sent to prevents the soldiers from using the women for sexual gratification. Instead he has them perform Kabuki dramas for the soldiers.

Circle of Blood is a beautifully rendered and wonderfully intricate comic story with elements of many different genres of story added in. Part sci-fi and cyberpunk, with the future Kyoto looking like everything it should be. Part ghost story, with echoes of Kabuki's past and her mother rising to the surface of the tale more frequently as the plot moves along. It is also a brutally violent and hypnotic drama, with layers of intrigue and action scenes that leave walls and floors of buildings soaked in blood.

As stated in the original writeup, there is also an enormous amount of symbolism. From the story's opening lines ("The rainy season has begun") to the repeated images of suns and moons flowing into other objects, the seasonal / astrological metaphor is used extensively. The way David Mack plans out and combines his writing with symbolic and powerful imagery is amazing to behold. While I don't know enough about the aspects of Japanese culture used in the story to criticize Mack's work, I believe, from what I do know about Japanese culture, he captures the spirit fairly well.

Overall, Kabuki: Circle of Blood is an incredible story that I think everyone should read. It is readily available in graphic novel format - I bought it for $14.95, an excellent price considering the length and scope of the brilliant story. It's one of those books that reaffirms your faith in the comic medium.

    For the commoners of the isolated, early 17th century Japan, Kabuki theatre offered an outlet of escapism. Merchants were the most frequent patrons of this art. The government prohibited merchants from wearing lavish clothing or changing jobs. These rigid rules forced on their lifestyle starved them for excitement. Some looked to kabuki productions as a substitute for the lack of the bright and bizarre in their own lives. The costumes in kabuki were colorful and extravagant. Scenes that presented clever commoners outwitting their social superiors in love or physical feuds were also a welcomed detachment from reality. Sukeroku, from the production Sukeroku is a young commoner and an otokodate. An otokodate is a man ready to defend the middle class against warrior bullies. Sukeroku battles with a mean Samurai for the attention of a beautiful consort. Sukeroku wins the consort’s love.

    The consort, in any production of Sukeroku after 1629, had to be played by a man. In 1629, when the government found out that many actresses had been prostituting themselves off-stage and noted that their dances were very suggestive, the authorities banned women from the stage. The government worried that these performances would cause a decline in public morals. Men who act and dress the part play women’s roles.

    Kabuki plays are extremely stylized, traditional and well choreographed. When the minor characters are not involved in a scene, they group in a strategic area so the audience focuses on the major characters in the particular scene. Fighting scenes are very dance-like. Every motion is precise and in slow motion. Sometimes the action freezes when the actors are in dramatic poses. Frozen action is designed to draw attention to a significant turn of events. Even simple props can be symbolic. The fan, a frequently used stage prop, can be used to express many emotions or stand for objects like a sword, chopsticks, fluttering leaves, wind or waves.

    Unlike Western productions, in Kabuki the audience chats with each other. They do not just come to watch the show, they also come to eat and socialize. Most of the plots are well known, so the audience can miss details. Plus, the plots are not the main appeal of kabuki. The allure of kabuki is the actors’ skill of obtaining mie. Mie is a beautiful and forceful pose. Great poses are applauded with shouts of approval.

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