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: traditional Japanese arts are not short on showmanship.
The performing arts all have roots in the trade and exchange with continental Asia. Kabuki makeup as well as gagaku ceremonial court music and dance are Chinese-inspired; the four-string biwa shares a Silk Road ancestry with the Persian oud. Collectively the theater traditions generate work for artisans—weavers and dyers, instrument makers, wood-carvers, and more—who make a special contribution of their own. Common features aside, the differences among them are astonishing. Kabuki is great showbiz, translatable and appreciable pretty much anywhere in the world. Most of an audience that will sit riveted by the graceful, suggestive movements of buyo (traditional dance) will fall asleep at a dance-recitation of Noh.
The performing arts also have National Treasures, but filling the 70 allotted slots is easier than in the fine arts. The worlds of Japanese theater are mainly in the grip of small oligarchies (“schools”) where traditions are passed down from father to son. Some of these master performers are 9th- and even 22nd-generation holders of hereditary family stage names and specializations.
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 available as well for prostitution (the authorities soon banned women from the stage as a threat to public order). Eventually Kabuki cleaned up its act and developed a professional role for female impersonators, who train for years to project a seductive, dazzling femininity. By the latter half of the 18th century it had become Everyman's theater par excellence—especially among the townspeople of bustling, hustling Edo. Kabuki had spectacle; it had pathos and tragedy; it had romance and social satire. It had legions of fans, who spent all day at the theater, shouting out the names of their favorite actors at the stirring moments in their favorite plays.
Kabuki flowered especially in the “floating world” of Edo’s red-light entertainment district. The theater was a place to see and be seen, to catch the latest trends in music and fashion, where people of all classes came together under one roof—something that happened nearly nowhere else in the city. Strict censorship laws were put in place and just as quickly circumvented by clever playwrights; Kabuki audiences could watch a jidai-mono (historical piece) set in the distant past, where the events and characters made thinly veiled reference to troublesome contemporary events.
The Genroku era (1673–1841) was Kabuki’s golden age, when the classic plays of Chikamatsu Monzaemon and Tsuruya Namboku were written, and most of the theatrical conventions and stage techniques we see today were honed to perfection. The mie, for example, is a dramatic pose the actor strikes at a certain moment in the play, to establish his character. The use of kumadori makeup, derived from Chinese opera and used to symbolize the essential elements of a character’s nature, also dates to this period. The exaggerated facial lines of the kumadori, in vivid reds and blues and greens over a white rice-powder base, tell the audience at once that the wearer is a hero or villain, noble or arrogant, passionate or cold. To the Genroku also date revolving stages, trapdoors, and—most important—the hanamichi: a long, raised runway from the back of the theater, through the audience, to the main stage, where characters enter, exit, and strike their mie poses.
Kabuki traditions are passed down through generations in a small group of families; the roles and great stage names are hereditary. The repertoire does not really grow, but stars like Ichikawa Ennosuke and Bando Tamasaburo have developed unique performance styles that still draw audiences young and old. This ancient art now has a stylish home in the Kengo Kuma–designed Kabuki-za theater in Tokyo’s Ginza district, which opened in 2013. Recommended reading: The Kabuki Guide by Masakatsu Gunji.
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. Whereas Kabuki was everyman's theater, Noh developed for the most part under the patronage of the warrior class. It is dignified, ritualized, and symbolic. Many of the plays in the repertoire are drawn from classical literature or tales of the supernatural. The texts are richly poetic, and even the Japanese find them difficult to understand. (Don’t despair: the major Noh theaters usually provide synopses of the plays in English.) The action—such as it is—develops at nearly glacial pace.
The principal character in a Noh play wears a carved wooden mask. Such is the skill of the actor, and the mysterious effect of the play, that the mask itself may appear expressionless until the actor "brings it to life," at which point the mask can express a considerable range of emotions. As in Kabuki, the various roles of the Noh repertoire all have specific costumes—robes of silk brocade with intricate patterns that are works of art in themselves. Noh is not a very "accessible" kind of theater: its language is archaic; its conventions are obscure; and its measured, stately pace can put many audiences to sleep.
More accessible is the kyogen, a short comic interlude traditionally performed between two Noh plays in a program. The pace is quicker, the costumes (based on actual dress of the medieval period) are simpler, and most kyogen do not use masks; the comedy depends on the satiric premise—a clever servant who gets the best of his master, for example—and the lively facial expressions of the actors.
Like Kabuki, Noh has a number of schools, the traditions of which developed as the exclusive property of hereditary families. The major schools have their own theaters in Tokyo and Kyoto, with regular schedules of performances—but if you happen to be in Kyoto on June 1–2, don’t miss the Takigi Noh: an outdoor performance given at night, by torchlight, in the precincts of the Heian Shrine. There are other torchlight performances as well in Tokyo, at the Meiji Shrine (early October) and Zojoji Temple (late May), and in Nara at the Kasuga Shrine (May).
The third major form of traditional Japanese drama is Bunraku puppet theater. Itinerant puppeteers were plying their trade in Japan as early as the 10th century; sometime in the late 16th century, a form of narrative ballad called joruri, performed to the accompaniment of a three-string banjolike instrument called the shamisen, was grafted onto their art, 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, so expressive and intricate in their movements that they require three people acting in unison to manipulate them.
The puppets are about two-thirds human size and elaborately dressed in period costume; each one is made up of interchangeable parts—a head, shoulder piece, trunk, legs, and arms. The puppeteer called the omozukai controls the expression on the puppet's face and its right arm and hand. The hidarizukai controls the puppet's left arm and hand along with any props that it is carrying. The ashizukai moves the puppet's legs. The most difficult task belongs to the omozukai—a role it commonly takes some 30 years to master.
Creating the puppet heads is an art in itself, and today there are only a handful of carvers still working. As a rule, the heads are shaped and painted for specific figures—characters of different sex, age, and personality—and fitted with elaborate wigs of human hair in various styles to indicate the puppet's social standing. Able to roll their eyes and lift their eyebrows, the puppets can achieve an amazing range of facial expression.
The chanters, who provide both the narration of the play and the voices of the puppets, deliver their lines in a kind of high-pitched croak from deep in the throat. The texts they recite are considered to be among the classics of Japanese dramatic literature; the great playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653–1725) wrote for both Bunraku and Kabuki, and the two dramatic forms often adapted works from each other.
The most important Bunraku troupe is the government-supported National Bunraku Theatre in Osaka, but there are amateur and semiprofessional companies throughout the country.