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Kabuki - the ultimate in accessible theatre? / 10 September 2013

Colourful photo of the promotional leaflet featuring close-up portraits of the seven main actors in costume, wigs and the traditional white face, red and black make-up.

Leaflet featuring the seven main characters from 'The New Light-Snow Story'

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The day for Kabuki arrived and we took the metro to Higashi-Ginza; my Kabuki experience began at the station. Getting off the train at Kabuki Plaza there are pillars of wonderful posters and folk in various degrees of finery. There are stalls with food, souvenirs and people milling about everywhere. We collected our tickets and strolled around a little before taking the elevator to ground level to enter the theatre. We were met and escorted to the counter for renting the English audio description/translation and on to our seats/space which was right next to the hanamichi (catwalk stage stretching from the main stage to the back of the auditorium) where important entrances are made and traditional poses created and held for the audience to admire.

Four single rows with 20 seats in each, on ground and first floor level, lined walls of the theatre left and right. Each row faced into the auditorium and had a long counter, with thermo cans of hot water and space to eat. Some people had ordered in food, the red and black lacquered bento boxes with a selection of sushi. The majority of seats in the gently raked auditorium were more like those of a western theatre with no table for eating. A Kabuki play will often last four or more hours, but many people just come for one or two acts. There is also the supplementary piece which can add on another 20-30 minutes.
Today the first act lasted for two hours and then came the eating interval. Everything I had read about Kabuki warned that it was incomprehensible and boring after the first 30 minutes. Not so. 

Following traditional lines and referencing other traditional forms of entertainment such as Noh, this piece was originally performed as Bunraku (puppet theatre). The New Light-Snow Story, was performed by an all male company. The majority of characters were women, some more believable than others, and this story of young love (Light-Snow being the heroine) and parental devotion was certainly moving enough for me to mind not getting the whole tale. As Bunraku the play had four acts, as Kabuki it finished with act three. It still lasted four and half hours and without the translation might have been incomprehensible, but certainly not boring. 

The first act, introducing the story, contained dancing and acrobatics; the supplementary piece was narrative dance. The chobo, the chorus (one vocalist, one instrument player), became more significant as the drama progressed. Beginning hidden behind the slatted screen in the upper alcove, stage left, with description and explanations, for acts two and three they moved to the open alcove below. Increasingly, the dialogue and accompanying description/explanation bounced between the actors, the vocalist and the instrument, with a complex interplay of musical sounds, spoken words and 'almost sung' drawn out utterances.
Fragments of complimentary music/sounds came infrequently from (special effects) musicians - the geza - usually, but not always, visible on stage.
While the presentation was quite elaborate, utilising  mawaro butal (a revolving stage) and seri  (a trap door to bring dancers up from below), the complex scenery was unfussy and the painted backdrops naive in style. I enjoyed the very traditional pacing of the piece, the significant Kumadori (Kabuki make up), the impressive, elaborate costumes and the stylised sound 'effects' from the geza. And of course the prancing, posing and impressive entrances and exits on the hanamichi.

The tale, building slowly and formally, ended dramatically at a tragic point in the story, so the quiet postures of the final dance piece served to let the audience leave in a happier, more peaceful state.

Kabuki seems to me to be
the ultimate in accessible,
integrated audio described
every detail signalling a way
into appreciation,
understanding, inclusion.
Significant colours speak
emotion, make-up and hair
spell character and intent.
Sound stylised, shorthand
to comprehension. Body-
sign language open
subtext to depth and clarity.