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  • Silvia Valentini

The Traditional Theatre of Japan

Updated: May 12, 2021

The Japanese theatre has its roots in the primitive shamanic and magic beliefs, in the rites, music and dances spread in north-eastern Asia, under the influence of the two main heritage of tradition, Shinto and Buddhism. In Japan there are three main genres of traditional theatre: Nō, Kabuki and Bunraku.

The early forms of Japanese theatre were dramatic and derived from the ancient liturgical representations that were held on religious holidays. Some ceremonies known as Kagura (amusements of the gods) served to amuse the gods and were based on dances and music. These forms are also present in modern worship. Through time, part of these forms of art lost their purely spiritual value and became shows with a profane or amusing content.


Noh Theatre - charm and sophistication

The Nō theatre which developed in Japan in the 14th century, is a refined synthesis of theatrical representation, dance and music that boasts a tradition of over 650 years, placing itself among the oldest performing arts in the world. In 2003, it was designated as a UNESCO Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

On the stage there are very few actors but all are men. To interpret the characters of different sex, age and nature, the actors wear special masks typical of the Nō, the "No-men". The main actor is called Shite, and is generally the only one with the rare exception to wear a mask. However, sometimes even Tsure who is Shite’s companion, wears a mask. The secondary actor who supports Shite is called Waki and he does not wear a mask. The actors , even if they play with their face covered, trains for many years so that their body and movements become an integral part of the mask they wear.

Even the costumes and wigs, lavish and precious, are an integral part of the character. Some Nō schools have bequeathed their wardrobe for hundreds of years and some costumes are real historical relics.

The performance is accompanied by a small orchestra composed by four players, the Hayashi who accompany the dances of the actors with flutes "fue" and various types of Japanese drums, including the "shimedaiko", the "otsuzumi" and the "kotsuzumi". The lexicon of the theatre is erudite and the phraseology of the sung parts is very complex and, for this reason the representations were addressed to a very high audience. Despite the Nō is a theatrical genre very difficult to understand, it is undeniable that with its masks, its music and its elaborate costumes gives life to a truly evocative atmosphere. It is undoubtedly a unique spectacle, to be admired at least once in a lifetime. The current repertoire of the Nō theatre consists of 253 plays. These dramas that are actually monodramas centred around a single protagonist, are divided into two main categories: Mugen Nō (dream Nō) and Genzai Nō (Nō of present life).


Kabuki Theatre - overflowing audacity, sensuality and transvestism

The Kabuki Theatre's origin is traced back to a priestess of the Izumo Shrine, Okuni, who in 1603 in Kyoto, performed in songs and dances bringing to the stage the bold and overflowing aesthetics of rebellious and non-conformist individuals (kabukimono) playing on sensuality and transvestism. The word Kabuki means "being out of line" that is to assume behaviours and attitudes out of line, wearing flashy and bizarre clothes, out of the rules provided by the rank and social position, but today is transcribed in an equally appropriate manner with the characters of singing(ka)-dance(bu)-gesture-action(ki).

In the beginning, the Kabuki theatre was played exclusively by female actresses, even for male roles, and often, after the shows, some actresses did not disdain sexual favours. In 1629, this kind of spectacle was forbidden and women were replaced by young boys (wakashu), but they also were forbidden, because same as women, they were forced into prostitution. Kabuki thus became the sole prerogative of adult men who played all roles, both male and female. Thus appeared the Onnagata (or Oyama), male actors specialised in female roles. The Kabuki was the preferred theatrical expression of the emerging urban middle class, which included merchants and artisans and the novelty of these works consisted in the representation of facts, usually dramatic, really happened.

The Kabuki theatre are grouped into three main categories: Jidai-mono, historical-themed works, which mainly tell the myth of the ancient samurai, with stories often characterised by fantastic and legendary elements; Sewa-mono, the plays are set in the contemporary world in which they were written, telling stories of ordinary people; Shosagoto, the works of dance. Another peculiarity of the theatre Kabuki is the make-up that was carried out with a powder of white rice with a very pasty and dense consistency spread both on the face and on the neck, while lips and eyes were rigged with a red fire. The actors wore flashy wigs and flamboyant costumes. The latter are as striking as the higher the social status of the wearer.


Bunraku - sublime entertainment

The Bunraku is a traditional Japanese puppet theatre, with a 500-year history and a level of complexity that probably makes it the most fascinating puppet theatre in the world. The Bunraku is also called Ningyo Joruri, a name that refers to its origins and essence. Ningyo means "doll" or "puppet" and Joruri is the name of a dramatic narrative style, with songs about epic tales of great battles and love, accompanied by the shamisen, a three-stringed traditional Japanese musical instrument. The performances require close cooperation from the singer (tayū), the shamisen players and puppeteers. The singer does not just tell the story, but lends the voices to the various characters. From 1705 the puppeteer, who previously operated hidden from the public, began to maneuver on sight.

Following the increase in the size of the puppets (120cm~130cm in height) and their improvement, only one manipulator was no longer sufficient and in 1734 the current system of moving the puppets by a group of three men was introduced. The Omo-zukai, the main maneuver, wears an elegant ceremony kimono and his face is revealed; he moves the body, head and right hand of the puppet. His two assistants are dressed in black and have their faces covered by a black hood. They are the Hidari-zukai, which moves only the left arm of the puppet and the Ashi-zukai, which moves the feet. The result is extraordinary, the puppets come to life, and you can only yield to the power of suggestion of one of the most beautiful and refined Japanese arts.

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