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att. Culture - BUNRAKU / NOH (& Kyogen) / KABUKI
att. Culture - BUNRAKU / NOH (& Kyogen) / KABUKI
att.JAPAN Issue 27, March 2006


A Noh mask Japan has many forms of theater - from the classical puppet or masked theater dating back centuries to the contemporary and sometimes adlibbed plays of the 21st century. Of the many though, perhaps three best serve to portray the Japan of today and to give an insight into the myths and stories of a proud island nation. They are Bunraku, Noh and Kabuki.

While all probably have their origins on the Asian mainland, the transformations and interaction with each other that took place once they reached Japanese shores produced the colorful and truly unique icons of the domestic stage they remain today.

Historically speaking, puppet theater was the earliest of the three to gain a footing in early Japan as it is mentioned in texts as far back as the Heian Period (794-1185AD). A type of puppet play, Bunraku as seen after the early 17th century is largely unrelated to the earliest demonstrations of the art. While puppets were once controlled by dedicated masters, only over a period of several hundred years did such entertainment link up with roaming story tellers to produce shows of puppets acting to dedicated commentary seen in the Edo Era (1603-1867) and up to and including the modern day.

The National Bunraku TheatreWhen narration or action takes place, it is often accompanied by the sounds of a stringed shamisen and due to the limited size of the puppets themselves, the theaters tend to be on a smaller scale to those seen in both Noh and Kabuki where human actors are far easier to watch. In addition, as the traditional heartland of Bunraku is the Kansai district around Osaka, it is in Japan's geographical center that the majority of shows are still performed. A male dominated theater type, although all female troupes do exist, the control of these hand-crafted and highly complex, multi-piece puppets can take years to learn and needs several pairs of hands working in unison to be effective.

By far, one of the more complex of such theater types, shows can be seen in the National Bunraku Theatre in Osaka for around 5 months a year (Jan, Apr, Jun, Jul - Aug & Nov) and in the Tokyo National Theatre for four (Feb, May, Sep and Dec). Show types and timings vary but on average a play of between 2 and 4 hours could be expected with a short intermission.

The National Bunraku Theatre in Osaka has a bilingual Japanese / English homepage at www.ntj.jac.go.jp and can be called in Japanese on (06) 6212-2531. (NB: the same homepage has useful links explaining Bunraku, Noh and Kabuki)

From April 1st to the 23rd, the April Bunraku Performance will be held. The scheduled program is: "Hiragana Seisuiki," "Kanjincho," and "Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami."

Noh masks NOH
Noh, the oldest form of masked theater anywhere in the world, is human drama with symbolism the key to truly understanding this slower but artistically refined type of theater.

As with Bunraku, Noh's roots lie in the Heian Period but it wasn't until the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) that Noh started to shape itself into a recognizable form for modern theater goers with separate groups of actors that would later form the famed schools of Noh.

Kanami and his son, Zeami are the names any Noh aficionado will mention as being the founders of the art and both lived over the hundred or so years from 1333 - c.1443. Almost single handedly creating most of the approximately 250 plays that remain in the modern repertoire, this father and son duo enjoyed the benefit of the then shogun's favor and could thereafter guarantee Noh would survive long after their own deaths. The Noh plays that still exist are performed around Japan, both indoors and outdoors, by natural light or firelight and are a must see if in Japan.

A blend of archaic language, brilliantly colored and exquisite costumes and gentle gestures, Noh is a visual treasure to behold and will remain fresh in the memory long after the actors have left the stage and the audience the theater. Majestic in its build up, the plays usually have a limited numbers of actors and are centered on five main themes, often reaching their peak with a performance of dance and song by the lead actor.

Tragedy reigns throughout in Noh dramas and sadness is a common theme but one that melts away when the beauty in which such sadness is displayed is taken in and understood.

Japan's main Noh theater is in Tokyo - The National Noh Theatre - and hosts various programs every month of the year. Well worth checking out if in the capital, the calendar of upcoming performances at this theater and others in Tokyo can be viewed at: http://www.ntj.jac.go.jp/nou/
Prefectures up and down Japan also have Noh theaters so checking with local ticket agencies about shows in a particular town on a particular date is recommended.

As Noh performances can be long, and sometimes feature a couple of plays in succession, to add a lighter note they are often broken-up by a performance of Kyogen - a brief comic skit closely related to Noh. Kyogen was once the lighter hearted spoken entertainment contained within Noh plays in the Middle Ages but over time it separated and featured actors dedicated solely to Kyogen.

Significantly different today as most Kyogen actors do not use masks, and for the serious observers, they wear yellow socks rather than the white of Noh performers, Kyogen is now popular in its own right today and some of its stars are household names.

Kabuki-za KABUKI
Arguably the most popular of the trio listed here in terms of audience numbers, Kabuki is known worldwide as being a 'male only' brand of stage acting although in the early days this was far from the case.

Believed to have originated on a river bank in 1603 in Kyoto when a female shrine attendant and her colleagues performed 'shrine plays', performers were then mostly female. Over time, as the shows were linked with the loosening of morals in society, female actors were banned and were subsequently replaced with groups of young boys. Again considered to be bad for the state of Japan, the boys were likewise prevented from acting in 1652 and this left just adult men to perform all roles - always remarkably made-up yet sometimes in very simple attire in playing both the roles of men and women - a tradition that continues to this day.

Oftentimes brash, an explosion of color and theatrical in the extreme, much of Kabuki is almost the exact opposite to Noh's subtle gestures and Bunraku's silent 'actors.' That said, an art that grew alongside the expanding city of Edo (now renamed Tokyo), Kabuki was enjoyed by the masses whilst Noh was more of an upper class pastime and thus reached the majority. As its actors became living legends, Kabuki secured its niche in the Japanese mind and remains the best known of these three arts on both the domestic and global stage.

Kabuki can be enjoyed around Japan but its heart beats strongest in Ginza, Tokyo where a large purpose built theater named the Kabuki-za has hosted plays (usually for around 26 days each month) since 1889. Plays and timings can change and as plays themselves can run all day, many fans opt to just watch a single act for a reduced fee.

For foreign visitors, earphones are available with English commentary although Kabuki is so dramatic that actions often speak louder than words.

Schedules, ticket information and a full introduction to the Kabuki-za and the world of Kabuki can be seen at
http://www.shochiku.co.jp/play/kabukiza/theater/ in English and Japanese.

From March 3rd to the 27th, the March Grand Kabuki will be performed. "Kichirei Kotobuki Soga" (The Soga Brothers on the Stone Steps), "Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura - Yoshinoyama," "Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami - Domyoji" (Sugawara and Secrets of Calligraphy - Domyoji Temple), "Chikagoro Kawara no Tatehiki," "Ninin Wankyu" (Wankyu and Matsuyama) and "Suitengu Megumi no Fukagawa" (Kobei, the Brush Maker) make up the month's program.

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