Acting for Kabuki
by William Lee

There are many different styles of acting employed by Kabuki performers. Two major role types, known as Aragoto and Wagoto, have produced actors with interesting historical significance. Aragoto can be translated as "rough stuff" and wagoto as "soft stuff". The acting style being used by the performer depends on the Kabuki text.

Aragoto characters are generally seen in Jidaimono Kabuki plays. These over-the-top, usually heroic characters are brought to life by exaggerated, strong performances with performers "bellowing and braying their often nonsensical lines" (Binnie, par. 16).

The first known aragoto actor was Ichikawa Danjuro I. An Edo native and resident, Ichikawa Danjuro I lived from 1660 until 1704. As devout a religious believer as his time knew, he sought from an early age to become the highest paid and most famous actor in Edo. His family was of the merchant class, and they took pride in their samurai ancestry (Kominz 36). This contributed to Danjuro I's intense personal determination.

Ichikawa Danjuro I

Ichikawa Danjuro has long since been a stage name for a family of Kabuki actors. Most of these actors were/are blood relatives, but some were adopted into the family. The name is quite famous and to receive it is an honor. There are certain roles that the Danjuro family specialize in, including a series of plays-- Kabuki Juhachiban (The Kabuki Eighteen).

Ichikawa Danjuro I through Ichikawa Danjuro XII

In 1629, women were banned from appearing in Kabuki performances. Onnagata is a term that emerged around 1629 to describe the group of men who cross-dressed as women to play female roles.

Kabuki performers tend to use an approach almost polar opposite to the style of aragoto when portraying Wagoto characters. These characters are usually played by onnagata and are much more subtle and restrained in their style. These sensitive characters are known to show more emotion than the aragoto counterparts. The Wagoto style was developed by Sakata Tojuro I, who lived from 1647 until 1709. The Wagoto style is based in Sakata Tojuro's native Kamigata region. This region includes Kyoto and Osaka. Unlike most Kabuki lineages, the name of Sakata Tojuro was not held for a span of over 200 years.
Sakata Tojuro IV, formerly known as Nakamura Ganjiro III

After Sakata Tojuro III died in 1774, the name and its lineage died with him. However, in 2005 Nakamura Ganjiro III changed his name to Sakata Tojuro IV to restart the lineage. Sakata Tojuro IV has no direct hereditary lineage with his name, but his family does trace back several generations in the Kabuki world. Sakata Tojuro IV, born in 1931, holds true to the Kamigata style and has been officially named a Living National Treasure.
Tojuro playing the courtesan Ohatsu opposite his son Nakamura Kanjaku as her lover Tokubei in "Sonezaki Shinju"

Binne, Paul. "An Introduction to the Japanese Kabuki Theatre"

Kominiz, Laurence R. The Stars who Created Kabuki -- Their Lives and Their Legacy. New York: Kodansha America, Inc., 1997.

Matazao, Nakamura. Kabuki: Backstage, Onstage: An Actor's Life. New York: Kodansha International, 1988.

Sasaguchi, Rei. "With new name, Sakata Tojuro free to revive kamigata-style acting." The Japan Times Online. 19 Jan 2006. Web. 29 October 2009.

Young, Margaret H. Kabuki. Indianapolis, IN: Eastern Press, 1985.