As drama, kabuki has its roots in kabuki dance (see the section on kabuki odori in this history of Japanese music).
Kabuki is now written with the characters for " Song Dance and Acting," but originally it comes from the word "kabuki" which means "to lean" and in the 17th century, meant something not quite straight and was used to describe the swaggering movements and outrageous costumes of young people entering a period of peace after many decades of war. Their appearance and way of speaking was transformed into a stage show as "kabuki odori". Gradually dances and short sketched grew into complicated dramas, called "kyogen," the word used for the farces that accompanied the serious Noh dramas. Type of roles and actors also became elaborated and solidified with different actors playing male roles (tachiyaku), female roles (onnagata), villains (katakiyaku) and clowns (dokeyaku). The plays became more complicated, with many acts pursuing the same theme. In its earliest days, kabuki was tremendously popular and soon, the shogunate felt that it needed to be controlled since it feared that this sensuous art form was a threat to public order. The dances of Okuni were copied by prostitutes and soon women were banned from the stage. Then the dances and sketches continued with beautiful boys in the key roles and boys were banned from the stage. Finally, kabuki continued with adult men in all the roles and this is the beginning of kabuki as we know it today.
In the period of warring states there was strong influence from abroad and this exoticism is reflected in early kabuki, but soon after the beginning of the Edo period, the shogunate established a policy of exclusion and for some two hundred years, kabuki grew within the secluded precincts of Japanese culture. More than the contrast of Japanese culture and foreign culture, kabuki and other popular cultural forms were invigorated by the cultural contrasts within Japan. Since Kansai was the seat of the emperor, it was called Kamigata or "the upper side" and Kyoto was the home of traditional crafts and Osaka a the bustling city of merchants. By contrast, in the east, Edo was a bustling new city of samurai and the seat of the shogun. Each city developed a style of kabuki appropriate to its own culture.
The Genroku period (1688 - 1704) marks the first flowering of commoner culture. Prosperity in the merchant class supported a rich culture in theater and literature. In Kyoto and Osaka, the attractive young sons of fabulously wealthy families that threw away their fortunes for love, became the heroes of kabuki plays. The gentle style of acting such characters was known as wagoto and such actors as Sakata Tojuro (1647 - 1709) became famous for their charismatic, realistic acting of such characters. Osaka was also the home of Chikamatsu Monzaemon who transformed the puppet theater into sophisticated, adult drama. He combined Noh plays to create the worlds of larger-than-life period pieces and also created realistic dramas of commoner life which are respected around the world today as classics of drama. On the other hand, Edo was a new town, full of samurai who wanted more vigorous stuff and such actors as Ichikawa Danjuro I (1660 - 1704) created a new, vigorous style called aragoto or "rough stuff" with florid red lines of kumadori make-up and exaggerated movements to show super-strong characters to meet the tastes of that city.
In the mid-18th century, the puppet drama became so popular that the kabuki theater almost seemed to disappear. There were long complicated epics like "Chushingura (The Treasury of Forty-Seven Loyal Retainers)" and "Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees" that were such good plays that they were immediately copied by the kabuki theater. In addition, a technique of using three puppeteers for major roles was developed that allowed extremely subtle and complex movements for the puppets.
The narrative singing of Gidayu narrators and shamisen players supported all the movements of the puppets, but these techniques influenced kabuki as well and all the dramatic movements of kabuki became even more dance-like than before.
Then, in the early 19th century, the Bunka and Bunsei periods (1818 - 1830, finally the center of Japanese moved from its ancient seat in western Japan to Edo, and just as Edo kabuki reached its period of greatest development, it began to be overripe and decadent as well. The plays of this period are exemplified by Tsuruya Namboku IV (1755 - 1839). His plays are full of sex and violence, with ghost plays full of sensationalism and a kind of sardonic attitude to the entire tradition of kabuki. But at the same time, he is regarded as the creator of "kizewamono (raw domestic play)" which not only showed the problems of the commoner class like ordinary sewamono, it also dwelled on low-class prostitutes, thieves and beggars, realistic portraits of the lowest classes. In this period there was also a craze for hengemono or "transformation dances," series of dances each focusing on a different character, with the entire set usually played by a single star, moving from role to role with a series of fast changes. Many of the dances that are preserved today in the repertory of kabuki and Japanese classical dance began as individual links of these dance series.
Then at the end of the Edo period, when the old Tokugawa state began to shatter under pressure from the black ships of the foreigners, the last genius of kabuki appeared, Kawatake Mokuami (1816 - 1893). He took the entire tradition of Kabuki and presented into the form we know it today. He also pioneered a genre of plays about thieves, sexy, handsome speaking lines in poetic rhythm, for example Shiranami Gonin Otoko about five thieves focusing on the image of Benten, the thief, a young handsome man with a body covered with tattoos that disguises himself as a woman to steal.
The single most important style of Kabuki music is the lyrical Nagauta style. The vast majority of dances use Nagauta as accompaniment and all of the background music is provided by the Nagauta ensemble. Nagauta grew up together with Kabuki. In the beginning, the music of Kabuki were the medieval Kouta with shamisen and the flute and percussion ensemble of the Noh theater as accompaniment. These were short songs which could be used to accompany all kinds of dances. In the 18th century, these songs became longer and more elaborate and were composed for specific dance dramas. But they remained true to their lyrical origins and so, instead of telling a story, long Nagauta pieces were composed as a series of short sections, each a kind of poetic fantasy on a certain theme. The perfect example of this type of piece is Musume Dojoji (1753) which describes a young woman in love with sections including a bouncing ball song counting out the pleasure quarters of Japan, a popular song about flowers and a description of all the feelings of a young girl as she learns what it means to love. Many more popular Nagauta pieces come from the early 19th century since a craze for long series of dances starring a single dancer in many contrasting roles left a legacy of short vivid dances. Pieces of this kind include Echigo Jishi (The Lion Dancer from Echigo, 1811) and Fuji Musume (The Wisteria Maiden, 1826).
One of the oldest Edo narrative styles in Kabuki is Ozatsuma Bushi and many of the aragoto plays of Danjuro I were accompanied by Ozatsuma. But by the early 19th century it became difficult to maintain Ozatsuma as an independent style and so, in 1826, Ozatsuma became the province of Nagauta musicians and the pieces from this time use a combination of the lyrical style of the Nagauta tradition and short narrative sections with spectacular shamisen playing which come from Ozatsuma. This mix of lyrical and narrative styles can be heard in such pieces as Kokaji (1831) and Kanjincho (1840). But Nagauta was not only popular as music in the theater, it also was practiced and sung by amateurs and in the early 19th century, this led to the development of concert pieces which were composed entirely independent from the Kabuki theater. These concert pieces include Aki no Irogusa (1845) and Matsu no Midori.
Tokiwazu - Tomimoto - Kiyomoto - Shinnai
Even though Miyakoji Bungo-no-Jo was banished from Edo, he left a rich legacy in several different styles of narrative music which are referred to as Bungo Bushi Joruri. They all share roughly the same technique, but are very different in mood. The distinctive pieces of the different genres are different depending on the tastes of the audiences in the ages in which they flourished and the characteristics of the actors and musicians that created the pieces. Perhaps trying to avoid the sensuality that resulted in the banishment of Bungo-no-Jo, Tokiwazu is the most square and formal of these styles. Tokiwazu is the music of some of the greatest dance plays in kabuki, with long and complex plots. These include dances created by Nakamura Nakazo I like Seki no To (The Snowbound Barrier, 1784) and Modori Kago (The Returning Palanquin, 1788) and the late classic Masakado (1836). But there are also many short pieces from the early 19th century from the time of series of transformation dances, some showing historical figures and others showing commoners.
A student of Tokiwazu Mojitayu I split off and took the name Tomimoto Buzen-no-Jo and started the Tomimoto style of music. This style is grand and elegant with many passages of high singing. It is more fluid and sensuous than Tokiwazu and was immensely popular in the late 18th century. However, in the age of Tomimoto Buzen-no-Jo II, a Tomimoto singer split off to found the Kiyomoto school in 1814 under the name Kiyomoto Enjudayu and the fortunes of Tomimoto declined after that. Today Tomimoto has virtually disappeared, but many of its greatest classics continue to be performed today in Tokiwazu or Kiyomoto versions.
Kiyomoto is even more supple and sensual than Tomimoto as can be seen in the nervous eroticism of a piece like Yasuna (1818). Although there are some long dance plays, for the most part Kiyomoto pieces are short, created in the age of transformation dances. Many of these pieces incorporate other styles of music that could be heard in the streets including folk songs and popular Hauta. Other styles incorporated include Chobokure, a kind of fast, rhythmical patter sung by street performers that is the ancestor of Rokyoku ballads and Kiyari, a kind of ceremonial chanting preserved today by traditional Edo-style firemen. At the end of the Edo period, Kawatake Mokuami made a new convention for naturalistic plays by presenting the Kiyomoto ensemble as though they were performing in a house nearby the scene of the dramatic action. The music of the recital seems to just happen to express the emotions of the characters. This includes such pieces as Michitose (1881) about the love between the thief Naozamurai and the courtesan Michitose.
Although Shinnai is one of the oldest of the Bungo Bushi styles, it soon separated from the Kabuki theater and became a recital style. The singing is the most intensely sensual and the stories sensational of the styles. It was performed largely in party rooms and Shinnai performers would walk down the street in pairs, playing the shamisen style called Shinnai nagashi, and from time to time, someone would invite them in and have them perform one of the proper pieces, a ballad like Akegarasu or Rancho. Street performers have disappeared, but Shinnai continues to be popular as a recital form.
Kokyoku ("Old Styles")
Aside from the styles that continue to be used in the theater and for Japanese classical dance, there are a number of old styles that are preserved largely as recital music, although they are used in the theater from time to time. These include Itchu Bushi (the style in which Miyakoji Bungo-no-Jo was trained), Kato Bushi and Ogie Bushi. Kato Bushi is one of the oldest Edo narrative styles and its most famous piece is Sukeroku, music accompanying the entrance of the gallant, handsome Sukeroku into the pleasure quarters. This role was created by Ichikawa Danjuro II (1688 - 1758) and perfectly captures the witty, leisurely and sensuous atmosphere of the mid-18th century. Even today, when a member of the Danjuro line appears as Sukeroku, the music is Kato Bushi and it is performed by amateurs, wealthy enthusiasts of this style of music. Ogie Bushi is a chamber music style related to Nagauta, with a very intimate and delicate sound. Another style is Miyazono Bushi, founded by Miyakoji Sonohachi, a student of Bungo-no-Jo. This flourished in the Kansai region during the 18th century, but gradually declined so that by the 19th century, only some ten pieces remained, but one of these pieces is Toribeyama, an exquisite portrait of a young couple about to commit love suicide.