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The legendary origin of the Japanese drama is the sacred dance performed before
the heavenly cave, in which the great Ancestral Goddess had hid Herself in the mythological
age of the gods. In Japan one can experience not only the rousing, popular, and
well-known kabuki theater, but also the ancient noh theater as well as the entertaining
bunraku, or puppet theater.
Enjoy these excerpts from “Japanese Drama”
Ancient forms of drama, the forerunners of Noh
During the reign of the Empress Suiko, about 612 A. D., a naturalized citizen named
Mimashi introduced a musical dance from South China. This was greatly encouraged
by Prince Shotoku, the Prince Regent of that time, a man of profound wisdom and
deep faith. It was through him that this dance came to be conducted as part of the
religious ceremonies of Buddhism.
This form was called Gigaku. The masks used in this dance were artistically well
advanced, and may still be seen, preserved in the Shosoin at Nara. It would be an
interesting study to compare these masks with those of early Greece.
Masks, costumes, and musical instruments used in bugaku
This form appeared a little later than the Gigaku, though still in the period of
Prince Shotoku. Bugaku superseded the Gigaku, and achieved its highest development
in the Heian Period, about 850 A. D. Of course, during these long years there were
various improvements and new creations undertaken, similar to these original dramatic
forms. This Bugaku had two forms, the left and the right. The left form reflected
the traditions of the Chinese and Indian dance ; the right reflected the traditions
In general these may be described as being scenes from ancient tales. They may be
termed the silent drama. In some cases masks were used, in others not. There were
regular locations for the stage, set in the open air. The drama experienced varying
fortunes during these years, but holds a unique position in the world drama as having
survived from that early day. Its character is preserved today in the performance
given by the Music Department of the Imperial Household.
This term, like the two mentioned above, arose from the popular art introduced from
China, and for the most part it consisted of physical feats and humorous acts.
What had formerly been called Sangaku gradually came to be called Sarugaku, its
nature being almost the same as that of the Dengaku. The only difference , was that
in Dengaku the performers were priests, whereas the performers in Sarugaku were
other officers connected with the Shinto shrine. This Sarugaku, as well as the Dengaku,
took over the dramatic elements of Shirabyoshi and Kuse-mai, and made remarkable
progress, such as we can see in the Noh drama of today. That is, it purified itself
by discarding all irrelevancies and retaining its intrinsic elements. This was in
the Muromachi Period, about the year 1370, and was largely due to the efforts of
the father and son, Kwan Ami and Se Ami. What is still more remarkable, these men
combined in one the dramatist, the director and the actor. Se Ami's Dramatic Essay
may well be compared to the Ars Poetica of Aristotle. The comedy which is performed
between the acts of the Noh drama is called Kyogen. This also took on its form during
this period. This Noh and Kyogen became the progenitor of all forms of the later
Japanese drama. It is also a well-known fact that their influence may be seen in
the dramatic writings of Yeats, the British poet.
All the dramatic forms that led up to the above-mentioned Noh and Kyogen were developed
among the noble or the samurai classes ; but, on the contrary, it was the Kabuki
or Shibai, the modern Japanese drama, that had its place among the common people.
Let us remind ourselves that in contrast to the foreign drama, which developed under
the patronage of rulers and nobility, our Japanese drama had to meet the persecution
of the upper classes, reaching its highest development through the enthusiastic
endorsement of the common people.
O Kuni Kabuki and the origin of kabuki theater
The real originator of the Kabuki was a woman, O *Kuni by name. She was born in
Izumo Province, in Central Japan, and her father was a blacksmith connected with
the Izumo Shrine. It is quite likely that she ‘was a priestess to a deity of this
shrine. She was beautiful, clever and skilled in dancing. From about the year 1603
it was customary to erect a stage in the dry bed of the River Kamo, in Kyoto, then
the capital, or beside the Kitano Shrine, and to perform Nembutsu and Kabuki dances
there. As to the nature of O Kuni's dance, it must at first have been a very simple
movement, the dancer wearing a Buddhist garment, striking a gong, and singing Buddhist
chant. This was called the Nembutsu Dance.
But by degrees, and quite naturally, the garments became more ornate, the dancer
wearing a lacquered hat with silk tassels, an outer skirt of bright colour, with
a string of beads around her neck, and dancing to the accompaniment of flute and
Equally famous was Sanzaburo Nagoya, O Kuni's husband. He had been a ronin, or wandering
knight, leading a dissolute life, when he became attracted to O Kuni. He was himself
possessed of much dramatic ability, and assisted O Kuni to develop her talents to
the highest degree.
O Kuni also played the part of a man, with a sword in her belt, in company with
professional actresses. This was the beginning of modern drama, to which the name
Kabuki was applied. This O Kuni Kabuki was suited to the taste of the times, and
created a great sensation, so that the Shogun of that day (who was practical ruler
of Japan), and the feudal chiefs invited her to perform before them.
O Kuni Kabuki dance, from the “Nara Picture Book”
Suppression of the female kabuki
AFTER THE THEATRE IN SARUWAKA STREET, EDO
Theatre-goers leave for home under glorious moonlight (Painted by Hiroshige)
O Kuni, the originator of the Kabuki, was a priestess, but most of the Female Kabuki
players who followed her were courtesans. This was but a natural consequence of
that age, and beyond doubt, it had a demoralizing effect. The dancers came to wear
costumes more and more gay. The music advanced from the simple accompaniment of
flute and drum to that of samisen as well. The stories, too, became more involved,
and the performances more intensely dramatic. As a natural consequence many people
were led astray by these actresses ; fortunes were squandered ; quarrels ensued,
and the evil influences of the stage came to be quite generally recognized. The
Tokugawa Shogun- ate, then in power, could not be blind to this state of affairs,
and in June, 1629, the reigning Shogun, Iye- mitsu, issued a decree strictly prohibiting
all female dancing. Thus, the Female Kabuki came to an untimely end, within thirty
years of its creation by O Kuni.
To be strictly accurate, it must be admitted that actresses did sometimes appear,
but in such cases no male actors were permitted, the male characters being impersonated
by females. There was thus complete sex segregation on the public stage, by governmental
decree. The few female troupes were among the lower classes.
Youth (wakushu) kabuki
The Kabuki of young men came to take the place of the Female Kabuki. This Youth
Kabuki, in its evolution, became the Kabuki of today. Thus, if the Female Kabuki
is called the parent of modern drama, the Youth Kabuki must be called its foster
The Youth Kabuki had its origin even while the Female Kabuki was at its height.
It was in 1617 that a man called Dansuke began to perform in Kyoto. As the Female
Kabuki sought out the most beautiful women, and by their personal attractiveness
tried to draw great audiences, so this emerging Youth Kabuki sought out handsome
youths with which to attract their patrons. But, as had been the case with the Female
Kabuki, only a short time before this, the Youth Kabuki became exceedingly demoralizing
in its effects. Eventually the government of that day felt that it could be condoned
no longer, and in June, 1652, issued a decree suppressing the Youth Kabuki also.
The suppression decree, just mentioned, was aimed at the elimination of the moral
dangers occasioned by the participation of so many handsome young men in the dramatic
presentations. As these were now forbidden to appear, and as there was a strict
control in the matter of stage morality, the Kabuki Drama underwent a severe trial
at this time.
The authorities treated it like a naughty step-child, kept watch over it as if it
were criminal, and made it the object of petty as well as of major persecutions.
Because of this the history of the stage throughout the Edo Period (1603-1868)—that
of the Tokugawa Shogunate—is a fairly continuous record of hardships. Had it not
possessed the affections of the common people, it might very well have disappeared
along the way.
AGE, AUDITORIUM, AND OUTSIDE OF THEATRE, EDO (about 1764 A-D.)
Note the striking posters over entrance and Hana-michi (flower-way) on left in auditorium
The rise of bunraku, Japanese puppet theater
Bunraku puppets (Photo: Y. Watanabe)
While the Kabuki was passing through these experiences a new form of drama was being
born. This was the Puppet Drama. Both of these types had an independent origin,
and generally an independent development, but formed in some respects later a somewhat
intimate connection. It was the Puppet Drama which really invaded the territory
of the Kabuki, and in this form was first known as the Takemoto Drama, from the
name of its leading progenitor.
The Japanese Puppet Drama was performed to the accompaniment of the recitation of
stories, called Joruri. This drama began about the year 1595, but its epoch-making
year was 1685 or thereabouts, when the Takemoto Troupe was formed in Osaka. The
founder of this troupe was a famous story-teller, Gidayu Takemoto. At the time his
performances began he had no professional standing, but he soon gained an enviable
position, and joined forces with the great world-genius, Monzaemon Chikamatsu.
Another of the famous Puppet troupes, and the chief rival of the Takemoto Troupe,
was the Toyotake Troupe, founded by one of the disciples of Gidayu Takemoto, Uneme
by name. His troupe became the strong competitor of that of his former master. The
chief composer, belonging to this troupe, was Ki-no- kaion. He was a genius in dramatic
composition, and naturally enough was Chikamatsu's chief rival.
The fifty-year period from 1710 on, was the golden age of the Puppet Drama in Kyoto
and Osaka ; and during those days the Kabuki was completely overshadowed. Most of
the dramatists of that day allied themselves with one or other of these troupes.