JAPANESE TRADITIONAL THEATER

Author: Douglas Shachnow, CTC PATA-Florida co-chair, editor of THE CHAPTER
Posted: Fri 12 Feb, 2010 10:43 AM

For many Japan-bound travelers, attendance at one of the classical forms of Japanese theater performance will be a highlight of their trip. With the information provided in this article, you may be able to sell Japan just on the prospect of this kind of inclusion.

Of the four major traditional styles of Japanese theater, Noh, Kyogen, Kabuki, and Bunraku, Noh was the earliest to have been presented. Its history goes back to the mid 14th century (1334-1384) when it was presented by Kam’ani Kiyotsugu, and later further developed and refined by his son, Zeami. The style acquired a ceremonial and ritualistic quality under the patronage of 15th and 16th century feudal lords (daimyo). Noh was a very demanding theatrical discipline, not only for the performers but also the audiences whose tightly focused attention to the stage was necessary to fully understand and appreciate the proceedings.

There needed to be some relief from this. Thus there emerged a second form, Kyogen, which evolved from the Noh’s interludes of compic relief, thematically more focused on human failings and foibles. Kyogen relied much less on masks and lavish costumes. The Noh masks, worn only be the principal characters, were often the work of some of Japan’s most skilled and artistic craftsmen; today, those surviving have been given National Treasure status.

Kabuki stands apart from both Noh and Kyogen by its more grandiose stage spectacle. The casts are large, and the costume design and color rival anything Hollywood has ever present3ed. It even has a kind of star system with players from its own theater “aristocracy” establishing what we’d consider dynasties in western terms. Rather than masks, make-up is preferred, and a curtain conceals set changes, following western theatrical tradition. Today, all Kabuki roles are

played by men, interesting considering it was a woman who first created the genre.

Of the four styles, however, perhaps none are as intriguing as Bunraku, Japan’s traditional puppet theater.  The puppets themselves are about 4 feet tall, usually costumed lavishly, and have hollow carved wooden heads with movable facial features controlled from within by strings manipulated by the main puppeteer. He is assisted by two apprentices, persons who  remain apprentices for years, sometimes decades, before advancement. While the main puppeteer is dressed in conventional formal attire, the two assistants are draped entirely in black – with faces covered – making them all but invisible against a black curtain backdrop. Musical accompaniment is provided by a samisen (a Japanese lute-like instrument, though horizontal when played) player on the stage’s right side (audience’s view) and a narrator telling the story and speaking all the parts.

From what is known, Bunraku first appeared before Kabuki; much Kabuki drama is drawn from the Bunraku repertoire. The borrowing works both ways, of course, so many works written originally for Kabuki have been adapted for Bunraku.

This is all you really have to know of these styles. To fully appreciate the differences, consult theater schedules if you live in or near a large city where Japanese theater companies occasionally perform. Information is also available from the Asia Society in some large cities, and some large libraries have films of videotapes of performances for lending or on-site viewing. 

Comments

Author: Miss Wilson
Posted: Tue 13 Apr, 2010 3:50 AM

i wish you guys told me more about what the colors mean in relation to costumes and masks of japanese theatre...

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