Japanese Drama

Japanese Drama

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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.

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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
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 Bugaku superseded the Gigaku, and achieved its highest development in the Heian Period, about 850 A. D. Of course, during these long years there were various improvements and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 of Korea.
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 drum.
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
O Kuni Kabuki dance, from the “Nara Picture Book”

Suppression of the female kabuki

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 parent.
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.

Note the striking posters over entrance and Hana-michi (flower-way) on left in auditorium

The rise of bunraku, Japanese puppet theater

Bunraku puppets
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.