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Traditional Japanese Theater
Gorgeous costumes, sword fights and tearful reunions, acrobatics and magical transformations, spectacular makeup and masks, singing and dancing, ghosts and goblins, and star-crossed lovers: never let it be said that traditional Japanese culture is short on showmanship.
Tradition has it that Kabuki was created around 1600 by an Izumo shrine maiden named Okuni; it was then performed by troupes of women, who were often also prostitutes. The authorities soon banned women from the stage as a threat to public order. Eventually Kabuki cleaned up its act and female impersonators, who train for years to project a seductive, dazzling femininity, found roles as professional actors. Kabuki had spectacle; it had pathos and tragedy; it had romance and social satire. Though the Kabuki repertoire does not really grow or change, it still has superstars and quick-change artists. Stars like Ennosuke Ichikawa and Tamasaburo Bando still draw fans, who stay all day.
Noh is a dramatic tradition far older than Kabuki: it reached a point of formal perfection in the 14th century and survives virtually unchanged from that period. Many of the plays in the repertoire are drawn from classical literature or tales of the supernatural, and the texts are richly poetic. The principal character in a Noh play brings a carved wooden mask to life, conveying a considerable range of emotions. Some understanding of the plot of each play is necessary to enjoy a performance, which moves at a glacial pace. The major Noh theaters often provide synopses of the plays in English. The best way to enjoy Noh is in the open air, at torchlight performances called Takigi Noh, held in the courtyards of temples. Tickets to Takigi Noh sell out quickly and are normally available only through the temples.
Kyogen are shorter, lighter plays that are often interspersed in between Noh performances and are much more accessible.
The third major form of traditional Japanese drama is Bunraku. In the late 16th century, a narrative ballad form called joruri, accompanied by a shamisen (three-string banjo-like instrument), was grafted onto puppet theater, and Bunraku was born. The golden age of Bunraku came some 200 years later, when most of the great plays were written and the puppets themselves evolved to their present form. The most important Bunraku troupe is the government-supported National Bunraku Theatre in Osaka, but there are occasional performances at Tokyo's National Theater.
A rakugo comedian sits on a cushion and, ingeniously using a fan as a prop for all manner of situations, relates stories that have been handed down for centuries. With different voices and facial expressions, the storyteller acts out the parts of different characters. There's generally no English interpretation, and the monologues, filled with puns and expressions in dialect, can even be difficult for the Japanese. A performance of rakugo is still worth seeing, however, for a slice of traditional pop culture.
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