An Intro to Japanese Theater: Kabuki, Noh and Bunraku

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Have you ever heard of the word kabuki? What do you think it means? Is your answer “something Japanese with masks?” If it is, you are partially correct. Kabuki is a word a lot of people have been exposed to, but is not one a lot of people have an idea of what it actually means. Kabuki is one of the three main traditional forms of Japanese theater along with Noh and Bunraku.

Noh

Let me backtrack….Japan has a long history of performances and plays. Before kabuki, there was Noh (pronounced no as in the opposite of yes). Noh performances have roots dating as far back as the 1300s, but didn’t appear in its more recognizable form until the Tokugawa era (1603-1867). Masked performers would dance and act out traditional folk tales often involving a supernatural being and a hero who may be a warrior, maiden or even a ghost. Noh plays seldom have more than 2 or 3 characters.

Noh performances were performed on “auspicious” occasions for the top members of the Warrior class. The tales would be known to the educated members of the audience and would invoke a simple allusion or metaphor in the plays’ message. The best known playwright of Noh was Zeami. Think of Zeami akin to Shakespeare. Zeami wrote over 50 plays in 40 years and still has many of his works performed to this day.

Since Noh plays are deeply rooted in Buddhism, a Noh play often begins as a Buddhist priest enters the scene and explains the backstory as a sort of narrator. There are three main roles in a play: the principal actor (shite), the secondary (waka) and chorus. Noh actors do not speak, but have the chorus on the side of the stage chant and speak for the hero. The masks of the Noh actors display the emotions of the character. Actors use a combination of dance and pantomime to express a particular emotion.

Confused? I don’t blame you; Noh was pretty confusing for me to understand as well. Perhaps seeing a video may help…

Kabuki

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Image taken from Stock Photo

Now that you know a little bit about Noh plays, let’s move into the realm of the kabuki play! Kabuki is one of the eldest forms of Japanese theatrics. Kabuki’s history can be traced back to the dancing of the female actor, Izumo no Okuni and her “creative” style of dancing in 1603. She would perform parodies of Buddhist prayers and attract a number of commoners to watch. Kabuki caught on quickly and became immensely popular. By 1629, the Tokugawa government did not approve of the provocative the way in which female performers moved on stage and thus banned women from performing kabuki. Since 1629, all kabuki performers have been men!

Unlike Noh, kabuki is known for the colorful make up on the actors, wigs, costumes, dramatic movements and special exits and entrances onto and off the stage. Kabuki actors speak their roles and have traditional Japanese instruments, like the shamisen, accompany them. Kabuki plays were based largely on real life experiences, but could have a wide variety of real like and mythical characters. My personal favorite is Tadanobu, a mythical fox as pictured above. Most theater goers were lower and middle class citizens.

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Actors would try to interact with the audience when possible. Even today all kabuki actors have stage names that the audience may yell out to voice their support. You may see them stomp and hold a special mie poses as if they were posing for a picture along two of the hanamichi (bridge like side stages) surrounding the audience. During the mie is when you would want to shout out your support. Names are important and are passed down the lineage of actors from teach to student, father to son. Names may reflect a particular style of acting or role. It is a big honor to carry a name and it is not taken on lightly. Actors can change names over their careers as they refine their craft.

There is a nice video here to watch about kabuki:

Bunraku

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Bunraku (boon-rah-ku) is Japan’s puppet theater! This is one of my favorite forms of entertainment. The Japanese puppet theater cannot compare to any other type of theater.There are no strings attached, but rather three puppeteers who work together to control the eyes, mouth, and limbs to give the puppet a life like experience. Puppets are much large than you would imagine and take three people to operate. Attendants dress in all black in order to avoid serving as a distraction to the audience.

Puppeteers train for years; the principal operator controls the head and right hand, another the feet and legs, and a third the left hand. On average, a puppeteer will spend ten years in each position on a secondary character before being able to take control as the head of the main puppet character.

Other than the puppeteers, there is a narrator who will speak all of the roles of the puppets and be accompanied by a single shamisen player. The narrator will change their voice and pitch to fit that of the character they are voicing. The best known playwright of bunraku was Chikamatsu Monzaemon, who wrote over 100 plays. Classic love tales, historical figures and legends are the most popular themes. Monzaemon is similar to Zeami and again is referenced as another Japanese Shakespeare.

Bunraku takes its roots from the 1680s and was performed solely by men in Osaka and Tokyo. It’s popularity is dying out, but was once extremely popular among the merchants and lower classes.

Here is a clip of a bunraku performance:

Wrapping Up

I hope this brief introduction to Japan’s Noh, Kabuki and Bunraku theaters has helped make you eager to enjoy more of them. There are an absolute must see if you are planning to visit Japan. I always try to recommend kabuki for first timers as it is the easiest to follow along. Youtube is an excellent source for learning more about or serving as an introduction to each performance. If you like posts like this, let me know. I’ll try to do more on them in the future. Until we are about to go out an about, happy virtual travels!