Kabuki is one of Japan’s three most famous indigenous drama forms; it’s more colorful and energetic than Noh, but shares many of the same stories and plays as the Bunraku puppet theatre.
In Japanese kabuki is written with three kanji that mean sing, dance and skill. But the word itself probably derives from the verb kabuku, which means unusual or surprising. Therefore, we might say that kabuki is a form of drama containing dance and music which has the power to surprise its audience.
Kabuki has its roots in erotic dances that were performed by traveling troupes of women in the early 1600s. When the shogunate government figured out that many of these dancers were also working as prostitutes they responded by banning all women from performing on the stage. But kabuki continued with male actors playing both the male and female roles. Kabuki eventually evolved into a dramatic form with plays based on historical events and heroes, with elaborate costumes and carefully choreographed dance-fights, and performances that featured very stylized gestures and movements. It’s still possible to see kabuki in Tokyo and Osaka, and it’s a wonderful spectacle.
I’m not sure whether the hashioki above is a tribute to kabuki or to the artist Tōshūsai Sharaku. It features a famous woodblock print by Sharaku showing a popular kabuki actor in one of his most renown roles. The print was featured on a postage stamp issued by Japan in the 1950s.
These tokkuri (sake flask) and sake cup sets also feature kabuki portraits by Sharaku. The one of the left appears to be the same actor or same portrait that is featured on the stamp hashioki, with somewhat different coloring. The one on the right shows a kabuki actor in an onnagata or woman’s role.
Attending a kabuki play is more than just attending a performance; people purchase box lunches (bento) from stalls outside the theatre or in the lobby to eat during intermission, and I’m sure some of those bento are washed down with sake. So it’s entirely appropriate to have tokkuri displaying the faces of famous kabuki actors.