History of Kabuki Sets / 歌舞伎大道具の歴史
Introduction to Kabuki Sets by Kanai Shun'ichirō
The origin of kabuki is traced back 400 years to when Idzumo Okuni performed dances in the riverbed at Shijo in Kyoto. After that, women's kabuki and young men's kabuki took up the tradition, but both were prohibited by the bakufu government because the performances were seen to corrupt morals. At that point, what we know today as kabuki began with what was called yarō kabuki (野郎歌舞伎 / "hoodlum kabuki"). Both women's and young men's kabuki did not use stage sets but were performed as single-act vignettes focusing on dance and using the bare stage of the public noh performances. However, in the Kanbun era (1660s), the theatre began stringing together two or three scenes into "continuing plays" (続き狂言), thereby taking on the character of actual theatre, where it was necessary to develop sets and the pull curtain in order to change sets between scenes. Yet the sets of that era were still crude painted backdrops in keeping with the open-air market nature of the theatre of the times. When the Bakufu in Kyoho 9 (1724) permitted the establishment of full public theatres for the first time, the first real wood and stone theatre buildings were constructed, and with them, more elaborate sets gradually began to develop as an integral part of the art form.
The appearance of the hanamichi passageway was a milestone in the kabuki theatre. There is no definitive explanation of the hanamichi's development, and its dating is not certain, but we generally understand it to have appeared along with the pull curtain around the Kanbun era (1660s-1670s). The main hanamichi extends from the back of the audience seating to the stage on the left side of the theatre as viewed from the audience, while the provisional hanamichi (kari hanamichi - 仮花道), when used, runs on the right. Though the single main hanamichi is the common setting, the use of both continues with several important pieces such as Imoseyama Tenkin's Yoshino River scene or Nozaki Village. In another technique, the main actor exits the stage on the provisional hanamichi and reappears on the main hanamichi while the stage set is changed. The main hanamichi also contains the most important lift, the suppon (スッポン / "snapping turtle"), a small lift about two-thirds of the way down the passageway where important characters often make their fantastic entrances.
The hundred years between the Kyoho era (1700) and the Kansei era (1800) are the most important for the development of kabuki as a theatre. In the Genbun era (1736-1741), we see the completion of the kabuki theatre stage. At this time, advancements of the kabuki stage were invented, such as the revolving stage and the tear-apart set, which are the primary techniques of kabuki staging today. The revolving stage was first used in the winter of Horeki 8 (1758) at the Osakakado Theatre for the performance of Sanjuseki motome mesume. It was used in the final scene "as a trick to change scenes according to Namiki Shozo's own entertainments" (citation needed). Four years later, in 1763, it was used in Edo at the Ichimura-za.
The revolving stage is certainly one of the greatest inventions of the Japanese stage. The first recorded use of the revolving stage outside Japan was a hundred years after its introduction in Japan, when it was tried at the Royal Theatre in Munich, Germany. The revolving stage was first electrified when the Imperial Theatre (帝国劇場) opened in March of 1911 (Meiji 44). Unitl then, the machinery was powered by men, known as anaban (穴番), who put their shoulders to the bars of the machinery under the stage.
This contraption can still be seen in the oldest surviving theatre structure in Japan, the Kanemaru Theatre in Kotohira, Kagawa prefecture (generally called the Konpira Theatre). The invention of the revolving stage came about not simply as a mechanism for changing the stage scenery in a smooth manner, but, more importantly, allowed the scenery to change right there, in front of the audience's very eyes, giving rise to that unique feature of kabuki called the "lights-up set change" (akaten / 明転). During this age, many other techniques were devised one after another, including the sets that come up on lifts (zeri age せり上げ), diagonally rising lifts (naname zeri age), overturning sets (gandō gaeshi), flipping flats (dengaku gaeshi) and others. A particularly spectacular set technique of the time was recorded in Meiwa 3 (1766): At the Takemoto Chikugo puppet theatre, a T-shaped platform lift rose up from under the theatre, splitting the onlookers into East and West. Certainly this is something we can hardly imagine today. Then, the Edo kabuki playwright Nakamura Denshichi came up with a number of extraordinary devices, such as the wheeled pull sets (hikidōgu) and the roll-out platform (hikidai). These rolling sets are famous for their use in the Enya Mansion scene from the play Kanadehon chūshingura. We can see the rapid development of kabuki set techniques in the work of the Nakamura-za playwright Kanai Shōzō, who devised the stretched bamboo screen backdrop, used the set-change curtain (dōgu maku), and is said to have devised the trick of changing locations on stage by breaking down the hanging scenic flats behind a drawn curtain. These techniques are used even today with the drop curtains (furikabuse and furiotoshi) in order to change the scene in an instant.