Since, for most of history, education was limited only to privileged sections, theaters played a significant role in transmitting a message orally or through performance among the ordinary masses in most countries from ancient times. The same is the case with the land of the rising sun. Starting from the Heian period (794 A.D-1195 A.D), many forms of theatrical arts emerged in Japan due to their cultural exchange with the Chinese empires. Initially, the access to theater performances was restricted only to the wealthy nobles and the Imperial family as a source of entertainment. However, with the dawn of the Edo period (1603 A.D- 1867 A.D), many of these acts reached the regular people of Japan.
Noh and Kyogen
These two drama forms started simultaneously during the 14th century A.D, thus pioneering the Japanese theatrical forms in the country. Traditionally, dramas and plays in Noh took stories from Buddhist and Shinto lore and legends. A defining trait of Noh drama form is the expressive masks that the artists wear according to their roles (although in most plays, only the main characters wear a mask). Besides, actors often change befitting masks as per their roles on stage. Some of these masks are carved with such expertise that they show different emotions from different angles.
“Noh” means skill or talent, which these performers possess in ample amounts. Nohgaku, a Noh performance, is an ensemble of talented actor-dancers, narrators, and musicians. Plays are often slow-paced and aim to set a mood rather than progress the plot. A narrator explains the circumstances the characters find themselves in, while the music ensemble creates that required atmosphere with their drums and flutes. The masked main characters, called Shite, clad in many layers of silk, dance in a restrictive but elegant manner to these rhythms. Traditionally, women were not allowed to perform in the Noh and Kyogen theaters. And therefore, men wear wigs and kimonos to act like women.
Noh plays can sometimes last for hours. Traditionally, five plays are enacted in a day, and to lighten up the mood of the audience, Kyogen, comical and satirical relief sketches, are performed in intermissions. In stark contrast to Noh, there is seldom any music in Kyogen plays. Additionally, the performers also don’t wear elaborate costumes or masks. Though the language used in Kyogen is informal, the artists never speak or act inappropriately as Noh and Kyogen were performed for the elites and aristocrats.
Noh and Kyogen are still very much alive despite being the most ancient theatrical art forms and are preserved by at least 70 theaters across Japan that perform them regularly.
Kabuki, a kind of dance-drama, is another famous form of the Japanese theater world. Proclaimed as a UNESCO heritage in 2005, Kabuki theatre originated in the mid 17th century A.D. Kabuki traces its origins to the adult entertainers of the Edo period of Japan. Okuni, a shrine maiden from Izuno province, a well-known dancer and drama artist in the early 1600s, is believed to be the inventor of this style. Okuni’s drama troupe consisted mainly of prostitutes and women cast out by society. She trained them in singing, acting, and dancing. Her troupe would perform in different cities on makeshift stages and offered prostitution backstage. The Japanese government, at that time, was therefore not happy with many nobles, samurais, and middle-class merchants flocking to the pleasure districts to watch Kabuki. Consequentially, in the following years, stricter laws were imposed on Kabuki performers. Women and young men were prohibited from playing roles in Kabuki, and sexual innuendos and gestures, prominent till then in Kabuki, were removed from plays as well. Since then, Kabuki transformed into an art form strictly performed by men alone.
Some common themes for Kabuki plays were heroic stories, honor killings, stories of women, daily lives of Japanese people, and double suicide of lovers. These themes resonated with the lower and middle classes of the Japanese society of that time. As a result, Kabuki became famous as a theater form for the commoners.
Many aspects of Noh, including the Singer-actor-narrator ensemble, elaborate stage designs, beautiful costumes, restrictive but elegant dance moves, and rhythmic progression of the play, were inherited by Kabuki. However, unlike Noh, Kabuki actors do not use expressive masks. Instead, they use elaborate and exaggerated makeup to facilitate their performance. Powdered rice is applied to the face to create a white base on which colorful lines and patterns are drawn. When an artist wants to draw the audience’s attention towards his facial expressions, he pauses and poses. This pose is often facilitated with drum beats playing in the background. With a subtle quiver, the artist tilts his head and emotes an expression. Regular audiences of this art form claim this stance of an artist to be a beautiful and breathtaking thing to witness.
Over time, many new elements like trap doors, special effects, and elevators have been added to the Kabuki stage to make it more attractive. A ramp through which actors enter and exit the stage, goes right through the audiences, who love to get close to their favorite actors.
It is the extravagance, peculiarity, and opulence of Kabuki that differentiates it from the structured and spiritual Noh. Kabuki plays, being a national heritage, are watched and loved by the Japanese people even today.
Bunraku, a form of puppet theater, became popular about the same time as Kabuki. A Bunraku troupe consists of the puppeteer, Shamisen players, Taiko drummers, and chanters. The size of these Bunraku puppets could range anywhere from average to enormous. It takes up to three puppeteers to control a single puppet. A person has to train for several years to become the main puppeteer – the one who reigns the puppet’s head and the right hand. Similar to the other theater forms , Bunraku is also performed only by men traditionally.
The faces of these puppets are incredibly expressive, thanks to their clever construction and manipulation by the puppeteers. Puppets wear beautiful and heavy kimonos and are decorated with great attention to detail.
In Bunraku plays, a single chanter narrates the plot and voices the puppets by bending his pitch. The themes of Bunraku and Kabuki theaters are often similar in how they portray fairy tales, tales of suicide, daily lives of the late medieval Japanese people, stories of women, and stories of merchants. Puppeteers dressed in black robes control the puppets as the Shamisen player sets the mood of the scene. A rotating platform was added for the chanter and the Shamisen player to engage the audiences later on. When the performance finishes, this rotating platform turns around and brings the duo backstage.
Bunraku perfectly assimilates puppetry and music to convey a plot. Osaka, Bunraku’s place of origin, houses National Bunraku Theatre, which organizes Bunraku plays actively throughout the year. Bunraku, today is only a glimmer of its glorious past and is alive only because of a few regional active troupes.
Rakugo is a form of Yose, “spoken theatre.” It is performed by a lone storyteller who has only a paper fan as a stage prop. The performer sits on a raised platform and narrates the whole story without standing up. It is believed that Buddhist monks invented Rakugo to make their sermons more interesting in the 13th century A.D. However, it was not until the Edo period that Rakugo gained its popularity and contested with other emerging theatrical forms.
Rakugo performers tell the stories of regular town folks, heroic deeds of legendary figures, and comical instances. Rakugo shows are highly loved by the middle and lower classes of Japanese society because of their relatable themes. A Rakugoka, a Rakugo performer, expertly changes and tunes his voice, demeanor, body language, and sitting position according to the characters in the story. The stories in Rakugo are essentially a long monologue, often ending with a punchline.
Though comedy is a huge part of Rakugo, the art form demands strict discipline. Apprentices train under a Rakugo master for years before ascending the stage. Rakugo performers, unsurprisingly, were all men traditionally. Unlike other Japanese theaters, Rakugo performances are not accompanied by music, and performers wear no extravagant makeup or costumes. A drum keeps time, and actors grace and leave the stage to the drumbeat.
Although Rakugo struggles to stay relevant today, it is still popular among the Japanese masses, and many shows are held in a year. There is even an animated series called Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, which beautifully explores this art form.
Japanese theater is a unique and exciting world. Here one can enjoy over-the-top drama in Kabuki theaters and talent shining in absolute minimalism of Rakugo. One stays stunned by the beautiful costumes worn by Noh performers and Bunraku puppets while laughing heartily at the Kyogen and Rakugo skits. These theatrical forms have exerted a huge influence on the minds of the Japanese and the modern perception of entertainment in Japan, is deeply sculpted by these theatrical forms.