Japanese theater history, what it is, origin and the four elements

What is Japanese theater?

Traditionally,  Japanese theater  is characterized by the combination of dance, performance and music (which includes the use of musical instruments and singing). It currently has four elements:   ,  kabuki,  kyogen  and  bunraku  . japanese theater history

Japanese theater history and origin

Mythologically, the origin of Japanese theater came from the dance of the goddess Uzume. Legend has it that, on a beautiful day, the gods Izanami and Izanagi sent their son Suzanoo to the so-called Land of Yomi (Land of the Dead), as a way of punishing him for his evil deeds.

However, before he left, he was said to have visited his older sister, Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess. Suzanoo played several pranks on her sister and, because she got angry, she took refuge in a cave, sinking into a world of extreme darkness.

To reverse the situation, the gods, who were worried, got together to think of a way to get Amaterasu out of there. So, astutely, they decided to have a party in front of the cave.

It didn’t take long before, at a given moment, the goddess Uzume, carrying a hood and a spear, began to dance on top of a barrel, in the midst of all the gods, making everyone there burst into laughter. With that, the movement and laughter attracted Amaterasu, thus bringing the sunlight back to the world.

After that, Suzanoo was punished for the annoyance caused. Uzume, in turn, descended to Earth and it is said that this gave rise to the imperial family and also to the first priestesses. The episode was described in the famous book  Kojiki  (Record of Ancient Things). japanese theater history

The origin of Japanese theater is directly linked to religion, both historically and mythologically speaking. So much so that the religious dances that were performed in temples, festivals and shrines, such as the kagura (Shinto dance), the bugaku and the gigaku (Buddhist dances originating in China and India, respectively), as well as the popular sarugaku and dengaku, originated the traditional forms of theater in Japan.

The Four Elements of Japanese Theater

The Japanese theater as we know it today has its origin in the second half of the 14th century. And it has very different characteristics from what we are used to seeing in theater here in Brazil, being known for the combination of dance, representation and music (which includes the use of musical instruments and singing). japanese theater history

Currently, there are four types of theater still performed in Japan:  Kyogen ,  No ,  Kabuki ,  and  Bunraku . Get to know each of them better below: japanese theater history

1 – Theater No japanese theater history

Japanese theater history

Also known as Nō, Noh or Nou, the No theater modality originated in Shinto rites. It was first introduced by Kan’ami Kiyotasugu (1333-1384) and years later developed by his son Zeami (1363-1444). Soon after, it was adopted by feudal lords, popularly known as Daimyo, becoming more ceremonial and ritualistic. japanese theater history

Among its characteristics are the combination of music, pantomime, singing and poetry, which is nothing more than one of the most important forms of classical Japanese musical drama. No theater and its art form progressed from other theatrical, popular and aristocratic strands, such as Shirabyoshi, Dengaku and Gagaku. japanese theater history

And, for the sake of curiosity, the term “No” derives from a word present in the Japanese vocabulary that means “skill” or “talent”. During the performances, the characters of the No theater usually wear masks, as is the case of the protagonists (shites) and their companions, but not all of the cast.

Traditional No is performed on an empty stage, with a shrine-like roof, three sides of cypress wood, and a ramped side entrance. There is also a tradition that all actors are male and that they wear masks to play demons and female characters.

During the presentation, these appear one or two at a time, always from choreographed and slow movements, called kata, and which are also used in martial arts, usually with musical background from the feudal era. japanese theater history

Another traditional feature of the No theater is that the actors wear heavy and decorated costumes, with several layers, to make them more imposing. japanese theater history

And if before, No’s performances used to last practically a whole day, with five pieces interspersed with short comic texts by Kyogen, currently, only two traditional  No pieces are presented  , interspersed with only one by Kyogen .

The current  No companies  are located in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto (Kyoto) and mix  No  with other theatrical traditions as well, in addition to the inclusion of women.

In summary, No Theater combines theatre, poetry, ballet, instrumental and vocal music and masks. The diverse musical elements within it are intertwined in a symbiosis of pantomime and singing. japanese theater history

Furthermore, the description of each scene in the plays relies exclusively on the text of the song and on the actor’s movements and gestures. The junction of these elements obeys the corporal and musical rules, the sophisticated theories, resulting in a presentation, aesthetically speaking, extremely refined, beautiful and unique. japanese theater history

2 – Kyogen Theater japanese theater history

Kyogen TheaterKyogen appeared in the 14th century and has the same origins as No theater, that is, sarugaku. It was from this period that the difference between the serious sarugaku, which is No itself, and the humorous sarugaku, the Kyogen, came into existence. In other words, it is a comic form of traditional theater in Japan.

However, they were seen as a unit and, because of this, they gained the patronage of the aristocratic elite centuries after their creation. japanese theater history

Kyogen is characterized by the simple structure of the stage, presented with interpretations without choreography, but in which current themes are worked, as is the case of the relationship between bosses and subordinates. And, to this day, it has kept its original format. japanese theater history

Considered a form of informal theatre, Kyogen highlights the fragility of man. The costumes used in the presentations are very simple and the masks are rare. Also, actors usually wear socks called tabi. There in Japan, two schools constitute the Kyogen theater: Izumi and Okura.

Interestingly, this theater format was widespread during the Muromachi period and later during the Edo period under the Tokugawa Shogunate. japanese theater history

3 – Kabuki Theater

Kabuki Theater

Already during the 17th century, theater lovers in Japan began to feel the need to watch a more entertaining and easy-to-understand plays. So, starting from No, came Kambuki, in Quito (Kyoto), sponsored by the Shogunate or Shogunate.

The regime was a type of feudal military dictatorship (samurai), which ruled Japan in the Kamakura (1185-1333), Ashikaga (1336-1573) and Tokugawa (1603-1868) periods. So, with the support of this government, Kabuki was founded by Okuni and Izumo. At that time, it was not common to see women work as actresses, but it was still possible to find some rare ones. These, unfortunately, were banned from performing in Kabuki during the Tokugawa period. japanese theater history

And, after this ban, male actors began to practice even more the so-called crossdresser, popularly known in Japan as oyama or onnagata (woman’s role). japanese theater history

Regarding the characteristics of Kabuki theater, the presentations are exuberant, formed by a grandiose cast and stage. If compared to the other modalities of Japanese theater, the masks gave way to super elaborate makeup. japanese theater history

The curtains gained prominence, serving for changes in the scenery, which traditionally use special effects, such as sectors that rotate, trapdoors and raised cables for the characters to “fly”. To give the audience even more fun, the choir and musicians are also present in the pieces, only behind a screen or on each side of the stage.

In addition, the dramaturgy uses the Aragoto style, which means “brusque style of acting”, usually used in presentations with male characters and stylized makeup. japanese theater history

Therefore, when watching Kabuki plays, it is common to see actors moving in an exaggerated way, with facial expressions and very flashy looks, which are crucial for a good performance in this style. japanese theater history

On the stage, the most important actors are usually on the right and the less important ones on the left. And for you to be able to identify this hierarchy, in addition to the position on stage, it is also possible to observe wig and costumes: the more elaborate and characterized the actors are, the more they indicate their personality and, therefore, the degree of importance within the presentations. japanese theater history

Currently, a well-recognized and consecrated artist within Kabuki theater is the young Chikawa Ebizo XI. And this modality within traditional Japanese theater is the most widespread and appreciated in the West. japanese theater history

For purposes of curiosity, it is known that Kabuki has a theater specially created to represent this art, as well as suitable to receive the public in a more traditional way, according to Japanese culture, that is, on mats.

In addition, Kabuki-za is the oldest theater in Japan operating to this day. Its foundation took place in ancient Tokyo, in the Edo period. japanese theater history

4 – Bunraku Theater

Bunraku Theater

With the same goal as Kabuki, Bunraku theater aims to entertain the audience. It is a type of puppet theater (a type of puppets). The puppets are usually 1.2 meters tall, with carved wooden costumes and heads, and movable hands.

Bunraku plays are usually performed by two assistants, who stand on either side of the “dolls” and, in order to go unnoticed by the audience, wear black clothing. Meanwhile, the puppeteer wears formal attire or according to the theme of the play.

The puppets can represent both animal and human characters. During the presentation, the story is narrated by an accountant. As he speaks, shimasen music accompanies the actions of the puppets in the scenes. japanese theater history

A very interesting curiosity is that several Kabuki plays were originally written for puppets. On the other hand, Bunraku also used a lot of Kabuki pieces in their performances.

Did you like to know more about Japanese theater and know its four elements? So share this post! japanese theater history

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