The Kabuki pose

At the emotional climax of a Kabuki play, performers will strike a stylised pose to drive home the drama of the moment.

Torii Kiyomasu, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I went to a Kabuki performance once in the Minami-za theatre in Kyoto, Japan. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, even though I don’t speak Japanese and so didn’t understand one bit of what was going on. Kabuki is a highly stylised performance, and one part in particular caught my imagination: the mie, the dramatic pose.

The mie happens right at a high point of the performance, the point in the plot when the character reaches an emotional peak. The actor will freeze, arms and legs outstretched in a configuration very specific to that play, that character, and that moment. The actor’s eyes will open as wide as possible to convey the drama of the pose; if they’re supposed to be angry, one or both eyes will be crossed. (Yup, it’s possible to cross one eye – if you’ve trained hard enough. And Kabuki actors train very hard.)

While the actor freezes, members of the audience will shout at them. These shouts, the kakegoe, usually include the name of the actor and praise for his performance. They are traditionally delivered by professional callers who get free tickets to each play – although the rest of the audience can join in if they’re especially taken with the power of the pose. It is rare but not unheard of for the kakegoe to be critical of the performance – saying something like “just like your father!” implies that you’re not adding anything new, just following your predecessors, for example.

You can see some nice mie here:

The most famous and influential Kabuki actor of the late 17th century, Ichikawa Danjūrō I, was the first to use the mie. I think of the mie as operating in a similar fashion to a Shakespearean soliloquy: it gives the audience an insight into the internal state of the character, and gives the performer a chance to show off their acting chops.

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