Theatre of Japan

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Noh is one of the four major types of Japanese theatre.

Traditional Japanese theatre includes Kabuki, Noh (and its comic accompaniment, Kyōgen) and the puppet theatre, Bunraku.

Traditional forms of Theatre[edit]

Noh and Kyogen[edit]

Noh and Kyogen theatre traditions are among the oldest continuous theatre traditions in the world; the earliest existing Kyogen scripts date from the 15th century. Noh was a spiritual drama, combining symbolism from Buddhism and Shintoism and focusing on tales with mythic significance. Kyogen, its comic partner, served as a link between the theological themes of the Noh play with the pedestrian world by use of theatrical farce and slapstick. Noh theatre was generally performed for the elite aristocratic class, but there were occasions where Noh was also performed for common audiences. Noh and Kyogen plays were performed together in series of nine, alternating between the two styles, with short Kyogen plays acting as interludes between the lengthy Noh. Both men and women were allowed to perform Kyogen until 1430.


Kabuki combines music, drama, and dance, it uses wild costumes and intense choreography. Until the 1680s, real swords were used in sword fights. Kabuki grew out of opposition to the staid traditions of Noh theatre— dramatists wanted to shock the audience with more lively and timely stories. Tradition has it that Kabuki was first performed by Okunis in 1603. Like Noh, however, Kabuki also became a stylized, regimented art form and is still performed in the same fashion.


Puppets and Bunraku were used in Japanese theatre as early as the Noh plays. Medieval records prove the use of puppets in Noh plays too; the puppets were 3- to 4-foot-tall (0.91 to 1.52 m) and the dolls were manipulated by puppeteers in full view of the audience. The puppeteers controlling the legs and hands of the puppets are dressed entirely in black, while the head puppeteer in contrast wears a colorful costume . Music and chanting is a popular convention of bunraku, and the shamisen player is usually considered to be the leader of the production; the shamisen player also has the shortest hair.

Modern Theatre[edit]

Japanese modern drama in the early 20th century, the 1900s, consisted of Shingeki (experimental Western-style theatre), which employed naturalistic acting and contemporary themes in contrast to the stylized conventions of Kabuki and Noh. Hōgetsu Shimamura and Kaoru Osanai were two figures influential in the development of shingeki.

In the postwar period, there was a phenomenal growth in creative new dramatic works, which introduced fresh aesthetic concepts that revolutionized the orthodox modern theatre. Challenging the realistic, psychological drama focused on "tragic historical progress" of the Western-derived shingeki, young playwrights broke with such accepted tenets as conventional stage space, placing their action in tents, streets, and open areas located all over Tokyo.

Plots became increasingly complex, with play-within-a-play sequences, moving rapidly back and forth in time, and intermingling reality with fantasy. Dramatic structure was fragmented, with the focus on the performer, who often used a variety of masks to reflect different personae.

Playwrights returned to common stage devices perfected in Noh and Kabuki to project their ideas, such as employing a narrator, who could also use English for international audiences. Major playwrights in the 1980s were Kara Juro, Shimizu Kunio, and Betsuyaku Minoru, all closely connected to specific companies. In contrast, the fiercely independent Murai Shimako who won awards throughout the world for her numerous works focusing on the Hiroshima bombing, performed plays with only one or two actresses. In the 1980s, Japanese stagecraft evolved into a more refined into a more sophisticated and complex format than earlier postwar experiments but lacked their bold critical spirit.

Tadashi Suzuki developed a unique method of performer training which integrated avant-garde concepts with classical Noh and Kabuki techniques, an approach that became a major creative force in Japanese and international theatre in the 1980s. Another highly original East-West fusion occurred in the inspired production Nastasya, adapted from Dostoevsky's The Idiot, in which Bando Tamasaburo, a famed Kabuki onnagata (female impersonator), played the roles of both the prince and his fiancée.


The 1980s also encouraged the creation of the Sho-Gekijo, literally little theatre; this usually meant amateur theatrical troupes making plays designed to be seen by anyone and everyone — not necessarily as meaningful in nature as they were simply entertaining. Some of the more philosophical playwrights and directors of that time are Noda Hideki and Shōji Kōkami.

Popular sho-gekijo theatrical troupes include Nylon 100, Gekidan Shinkansen, Tokyo Sunshine Boys, and Halaholo Shangrila.

Recently, new generation of Sho-Gekijo artists who are labeled as the "Generation of the Lost Decade" or the "Generation of 2000s" have emerged. Principal artists among this generation are: Toshiki Okada, Shiro Maeda, Kuro Tanino, Daisuke Miura, Tomohiro Maekawa and so on.[1]

Western plays in Japan[edit]

Many classics of the western canon from Ancient Greek theatre, William Shakespeare, Fyodor Dostoevsky to Samuel Beckett are performed in Tokyo today . A large number of performances, perhaps as many as 3,000, are given each year, making Tokyo one of the world's leading theatrical centers.

The opening of the replica of the Globe Theatre was celebrated by importing an entire British company to perform all of Shakespeare's historical plays, while other Tokyo theatres produced other Shakespearean plays including various new interpretations of Hamlet and King Lear; the Globe Theatre, located in Shin-Ōkubo in Tokyo, now belongs mostly to Johnny's Entertainment and the promotion of pop idols in the acting field.

Yukio Ninagawa is an internationally known Japanese director and playwright who often turns to elements of Shakespeare for inspiration. In 1995 he performed the "Shakespeare Tenpo 12Nen", an interpretation of the wildly popular British theatre Shakespeare Condensed: all of Shakespeare's plays in two hours. Famous actors such as Natsuki Mari and Karawa Toshiaki were involved.

See also[edit]


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