kata


   If you could read kanji, the Japanese writing system that is based on Chinese writing, when you read "kabuki," seen to the right, you are actually reading a word composed of three words: "song," "dance," and "actor" in order from left to right. The kanji, then, sums up the essential character of kabuki: it is a music and dance theater, but, above all, it is an actor's theater. The play itself takes second place to the performance; so important is the actor and his virtuosic display of skill, that early kabuki was not based on scripts but rather short scenarios. The actors would improvise all their lines and movements using only the barest outlines of a plot provided to them by a playwright.

   The actor's skill is comprised of a set of performance conventions in movement, voice, gesture, and dance. Kabuki consists of a finite repertoire of known movements and gestures as well as a repertoire of elocution, or the manner in which one speaks one's lines. These well-known and traditional conventions are called in Japanese kata, which means "pattern," "model," or "form." As an actor's theater, then, kabuki is a stage of "patterned acting." Each gesture, each movement, each way of inflecting or speaking lines, is highly formal and traditional. As a member of the audience, you know exactly what to expect, what kinds of movements will come where, and all the excitement of the play lies not in anticipation of the dramatic elements of the play, bu the expectation of the actor's execution of these movements, gestures, or speeches.

   These gestures embody most of the dramatic and cultural meaning of the play, and though they are highly formalized and take great skill, their subject matter is almost always human passion and the often fierce conflict between the inner passions and outer obligations and decorum. In general, you can say that kata are acting styles: each play can be characterized by an overall acting style. There are kata of dance; there are kata of movement and gesture; there are kata of speaking and dialogue (or vocal kata; and there are also musical kata . Each of these styles conveys a particular type of meaning. For instance, the most crowd-pleasing and universal of the movement kata is the mie. In mie , the actor, in an emotional high point of the play, winds up with a couple movements and freezes in a certain position for a length of time, often for a very long time. He distorts his face and may even cross his eyes, and holds this dramatic pose while the tsuke player slowly pounds out three beats (a musical kata called battari). This is the pose that wood-block prints (>ukiyo-e) of famous actors most frequently portray, and mie represents that moment in the play in which the characters inner passion, anger, despair, or madness is about to break through the surface. The mie pose represents that point where the conflict between inner passions and outward behavior can no longer be maintained and the character is about to explode with passion, anger, madness, or violence.