Ghosts of Kabuki

Table of Contents

What is the “ghostly body” in kabuki? In this essay, the theater director and researcher Yuichi Kinoshita considers the “ghostliness” residing in the “audience,” “actors,” and “plays” of kabuki.
First, who are the ghosts residing in the audience? Among kabuki fans, there are those who superimpose their own lives as fans upon those of kabuki actors. Kinoshita focuses on the gaze of the audience, which overlays on the bodies of the actors’ unseen vestiges, aspirations and illusions.
Kinoshita states that kabuki has two factors that serve to invite this type of gaze from its audience. First, kabuki utilizes a shumei system of stage name succession. Because the actors inherit the stage name of a parent or master across multiple generations, their bodies present on the stage are strongly tied to the spirits of those who came before them. The second factor is kata (form). In kabuki, not only the text and direction but also the characters and interpretations of the story are inherited as part of the “form.” For example, the scene “Kumagai jinya” in the play Chronicle of the Battle of Ichinotani has two forms that bear the name of actors: the “Danjuro form” and the “Shikan form.” The Danjuro form is characterized by sensitive expressions of emotion, whereas the Shikan form might be described as ensemble theater. Through the so-called ghostly elements of name and form, the spirits of the past are personified in the bodies of contemporary actors.
What role do ghosts play in the kabuki play itself? In Tokaido Yotsuya kaidan and Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees, characters who wish to communicate with later generations appear as ghosts. Kinoshita argues that ghosts in the classical performing arts appear in order to reenact history.
Kabuki is a multilayered art, and the audience travels along various temporal axes within the multiple layers that are manifested on the stage. Kabuki speaks to us in the same manner in which ghosts transmit their message to the living.