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Traditional Theaters of Japan

Japan has three major forms of traditional theater still performed today, the oldest being Noh, from a word meaning skill or ability to perform. Noh is a musical dance-drama with most lines sung or intoned. Noh drama began in 1375 when Kiyotsuga Kan’ami and his son Zeami Motokiyo performed for the shogun with a new type of drama, introducing a sung narrative into the elegant dance spectacle of the court. The shogun was fascinated by the performance and fell in love with the young Zeami, and invited them to live at the palace. Zeami became known as the greatest of Noh dramatists, writing more than 100 of the 250 plays that still make up the active Noh repertory. His theoretical essays defined the goals and conventions of Noh plays which are still performed today, much as they were when first written. Five hereditary schools from the 15th century are dedicated to the detailed preservation of this dramatic art form.

Noh plays are short, usually consisting of two parts. In the first a character appears as a humble commoner such as a fisherman or old lady, sometimes the ghost of such people, who tells a story of former glory, then in the second he (all roles are played by men) returns in his true appearance as a mighty warrior or beautiful princess. Compared to Western drama, Noh plays are rather static with little action. The protagonist enters, has a brief dialogue with a supporting character, narrates through song or dance the theme of the play, then exits. Originally five plays were performed in one day, interspersed with short comic pieces called kyogen. The five plays are distinguished by subject matter and performed in order: a god play which praises Japanese deities; a warrior play which depicts the ghost of a slain samurai who tells of his death in battle; a play which features a woman; the fourth play portrays situations of extreme emotion such as characters obsessed with revenge or a mother driven mad with grief over losing a child; and a demon play featuring supernatural creatures.

Noh drama exemplifies the teachings of Zen Buddhism, that nothing in this life is permanent, and so individual desire for things or position or power must be overcome to achieve ultimate peace. For instance, the spirit of the dead warrior may realize the futility of war over trivial disputes; the third play may show a lovely woman whose vanity proves to be foolishness as her beauty fades with age. The style of Noh drama reflects the Zen values of simplicity and suggestion, preferring subtlety to direct statement, the small gesture to the large. The art of Noh exemplifies the quality of yugen, meaning quiet elegance or elusive beauty.

Three groups of performers are on stage: the actors, a chorus, and the musicians. The drama focuses on the main actor with one or two supporting characters to whom he reveals his story. Playing the major roles takes great skill and precision of voice and movement. Lead actors train from childhood and may work for 30 years before being considered a master. Gestures are highly stylized and symbolic; for instance, a hand slowly raised to the face may indicate weeping. Only the experienced spectator can truly comprehend and appreciate the fine points of a Noh performance. The main actor usually wears a painted wooden mask, thought to contain the spiritual essence of the character. Before putting it on, the actor will often bow to his mask as a sign of respect. A chorus of six to ten members sits at one side of the square stage and sings the character’s lines or narrates events. Musicians accompany the singing and dancing on two or three types of drums and a flute. Besides the performers, stage assistants bring and remove props and make changes in costume and makeup in front of the audience.

The Noh stage is a square, raised platform with a roof supported by four pillars. The audience sits on two sides of the stage. The shape and proportions were derived from ancient Japanese temple shrines. The stage floor consists of polished cypress wood allowing the performers’ feet to glide across smoothly. Under the floor are large, hollow pots which provide resonance when the actor stomps his feet. A bridge connects the stage to the dressing area, used for most entrances and exits which can be quite elaborate. Other than a painted pine tree on the back wall, Noh drama uses little scenery and few props which are often manipulated by the stage hands. A bamboo frame covered in cloth may suggest a boat or a hut; a hand fan may signify a sword, a writing instrument, or a fishing pole. A simple mat spread on the stage may indicate a mountain top or the sea.

See this video of a Noh performance here.

Whereas Noh was almost exclusively an entertainment of the aristocracy at the shogun’s court, the most popular form of classical Japanese theater is Kabuki. The word may derive from kabuku, meaning “to lean,” implying something strange or out of the ordinary. Kabuki began as a new style of dance drama in the early 1600s performed by women, featuring extravagant, revealing costumes and innovative music on a three-stringed instrument called the shamisen. Due to the erotic nature of the dances and the fact that some actresses offered more intimate services on the side, the shogun soon banned women from the stage and replaced them first with young boys (who proved to be just as enticing as the women), then adult men who played both male and female roles, thus establishing the practice for centuries of the onnagata (female impersonator) until recent times when some Kabuki performances have included women.

Most Kabuki plays have five acts, which begin slowly then build in intensity and action, ending with a quick and satisfying resolution. Like the Noh drama, Kabuki performances traditionally could last an entire day. Kabuki plays fall into three main categories: historical dramas, domestic dramas, and pure dance pieces. Strict censorship prohibited any depiction of contemporary events which might be critical of the rulers, so stories were taken from Japan’s early history, although crafty playwrights would often allude to current situations disguised as ancient tales: in the famous Kabuki play Chushingura (1748), first written for the Bunraku puppet theater, historical names from 400 years earlier were substituted for contemporary people to dramatize the recent events of forty-seven ronin warriors who took revenge on the enemy of their slain master before all committing seppuku (ritual suicide).

While historical dramas featured lords, princesses, and samurai, domestic plays depicted the common people, farmers, peasants, thieves, and prostitutes. One typical theme involved a love-suicide in which forbidden romance leads young lovers to seek eternal union in death; the master playwright Chikamatsu (1653-1724), whom some have called the Shakespeare of Japan, wrote several dramas on this topic. During the early 1700s these plays became so popular, they inspired a rash of copycat suicides, forcing the government to ban them from public performance.

The Kabuki stage features a walkway called the hanamichi which runs from stage right through the audience to the back of the auditorium, allowing for elaborate entrances and exits in close contact with the spectators. The actor enters from the back, giving a general sense of his character along the way, then stops at a precise spot three-tenths of the length from the stage, where he presents a formal pose indicating the attitude with which he will join the action on stage. Originally the performance space resembled the simple Noh stage, but by the 18th century technical innovations such as revolving stages and trap doors were introduced providing the means for the dramatic, sudden appearances and transformations frequently seen in Kabuki. Some plays call for supernatural characters to fly across the stage on wires, requiring sophisticated mechanical devices. Stagehands dressed in black and considered invisible assist in these effects in full view of the audience. They provide actors with props and remove them when no longer needed, and help with fast costume changes in which one costume is removed quickly to reveal another underneath. Before the invention of electrical lighting, the stagehands would hold candles on long poles near the actors’ faces. As these examples show, Kabuki staging is highly presentational, avoiding the illusion of reality, indicating locations symbolically such as a blue cloth for a river or branches held by stagehands to signify a forest.

Kabuki is known as the actor’s theater, whose flamboyant display of well-honed skills eclipses the importance of the literary text. Plays are often cut and adapted to feature the strengths of a particular actor. The complexities of Kabuki performance place great demands on the actor’s physical abilities. In earlier times an actor might spend an entire lifetime perfecting one role. Meticulous patterns of movement created centuries ago and passed down by generations of actors must be learned through observation and imitation of the masters. Unlike the naturalistic mimicry of Western acting, the Kabuki actor does not attempt to reproduce the appearance of normal behavior, but instead creates a sequence of stylized poses called mie. Building up to a dramatic moment, the actor strikes a conventional pose signifying a particular attitude; his body still, he rotates his head slowly then gives it a final snap and freezes his expression in an intense stare with eyes crossed. The well-executed mie will elicit shouts of praise from the audience. In addition to mie, the actor must master hundreds of acrobatic and martial arts techniques. The best Kabuki actors today, as well as Noh and Bunraku performers, are considered “living national treasures” and receive government subsidies.

Kabuki makeup consists of bold, dramatic lines applied over a white foundation. Colors have symbolic significance and help to identify a character’s age, social status, moods and dominant traits: red indicates passion, anger, or bravery, blue or black signifies villains or cowards, green represents a supernatural figure, purple stands for royalty. Famous actors often would press a silk cloth to their face to make an imprint of their makeup, and sell these as souvenirs.

In addition to the actors, a narrator-singer and shamisen player seated to one side provide musical narration called chobo. The chobo originated from the puppet theater where the story is almost entirely related by the narrator. The actor is the primary storyteller in Kabuki, but the chobo ensemble may supply additional information about the play. At times the narrator delivers the actor’s lines, freeing him to execute a particularly demanding dance or fight scene. In some ways the ensemble functions as a Greek chorus, setting the scene, commenting and moralizing on the action, establishing a reference point for the audience, but otherwise the two are dissimilar. The performers of the chobo do not enter into the action of the play as the Greek chorus frequently does; only musically and vocally do they participate in the drama (Ernst 117).

Besides the chobo, incidental music is provided by the geza, a sound effects room on stage but hidden by a bamboo screen. These musicians heighten dramatic scenes by providing a musical atmosphere for the events on stage. An ominous presence such as a demon or a murderer is accompanied by the rapid beating of the o-daiko, the principal geza drum. For more peaceful settings a flute and stringed shamisen suggest the idea of singing birds and chirping insects.

See a video of Kabuki here and here.

Bunraku, the classic puppet theater of Japan, takes its name from an 18th century master who helped to revive the craft during a low time in its history. From its origin in the 16th century to today, Bunraku, also known by its older name joruri, has established itself as one of the premiere forms of puppetry art in the world. In Bunraku the puppets, about half life-size, are manipulated by one or more puppeteers in full view of the audience. For the larger puppets in major roles, the primary operator, considered the master, controls the right arm and head of the puppet, which has levers and springs to move the eyes, eyebrows, and mouth; a second person controls the left arm, and a third moves the legs. A person may train for thirty years before becoming a master operator. A chanter narrates the story accompanied by a shamisen player in the background. Renowned playwrights such as Chikamatsu wrote many scripts for Bunraku which are considered literary masterpieces with intricate plots and complex characters. Today government-subsidized Bunraku theaters exist in Tokyo and Osaka.

See a video of Bunraku here.


Ernst, Earle. The Kabuki Theater. Oxford UP, 1956.

Ortolani, Benito. The Japanese Theater: from Shamanistic Ritual to Contemporary Pluralism. E. J. Brill, 1990.

Page 2: a brief overview of Modern Japanese Theater


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