Theatre of Japan
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Traditional form of theatre
Noh and Kyogen
The early existing Kyogen scripts date from the 14th century. Kyogen was used as an intermission between Noh acts—it linked the theme of the Noh play with the modern world by means of farce and slapstick. Noh played to the high level class, but there were occasions where Noh was performed for common audiences. Unlike Noh, the performers of Kyogen do not wear masks, unless their role calls for physical transformation.
Both men and women were allowed to perform Kyogen until 1450.
The best known form of Japanese theatre is Kabuki. It combines music, drama, and dance. It was performed by Okunis. Perhaps its fame comes from the wild costumes and sword fights, which used real swords until the 1680s. Kabuki grew out of opposition to Noh — they wanted to shock the audience with more lively and timely stories. The first performance was in 1603. Like Noh, however, over time Kabuki became not performing in a new way, but a stylized art to be performed only a certain way.
As a matter of interest, the popular Gekidan Shinkansen, a theatrical troupe based in Tokyo today, insists it follows pure kabuki tradition by performing historical roles in a modern, noisy, and outlandish way — to shock the audience as kabuki intended, if you will. Whether or not they are kabuki, however, remains a matter of debate and personal opinion.
Puppets and Bunraku were used in Japanese theatre as early as the Noh plays. Medieval records prove the use of puppets actually in Noh plays. The puppets were 3- to 4-foot-tall (0.91 to 1.22 m) dolls manipulated by puppeteers in full view of the audience. The puppeteers controlling the legs and hands are dressed entirely in black, while the head puppeteer is wearing colorful clothing. Music and chanting is a popular convention of bunraku, and the shamisen player is usually considered to be the leader of the production.
Japanese modern drama in the early 20th century, the 1900s, consisted of Shingeki (experimental Western-style theater), 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 theater. 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 and, at the extreme, in scenes played out 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 won awards throughout the world for her numerous works focusing on the Hiroshima bombing, which were frequently performed by only one or two actresses. In the 1980s, stagecraft was refined into a more sophisticated, complex format than in the 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 devices, an approach that became a major creative force in Japanese and international theater in the 1980s. Another highly original East-West fusion occurred in the inspired production Nastasya, taken 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" are emerging. Principal artists among this generation are: Toshiki Okada, Shiro Maeda, Kuro Tanino, Daisuke Miura, Tomohiro Maekawa and so on.
Western plays in Japan
Many Western plays, from those of the Ancient Greek theatre to William Shakespeare and from those of Fyodor Dostoevsky to Samuel Beckett, are performed in Tokyo. 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 theaters 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.
- This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the Library of Congress Country Studies. — Japan
- Japan Cultural Profile - national cultural portal for Japan created by Visiting Arts/Japan Foundation