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Drama: Noh & Kabuki

The main forms of traditional Japanese drama are Noh, highly stylised chanted drama; Kyogen, farcical and satirical comedies, and the dramatic and often sensational Kabuki.


This was developed in the 14th century. The Noh repertoire of today consists of more than 200 dramas. The plays are divided into five categories:
■ kami-mono (god pieces)
■ otoko mono (men’s pieces or fighting pieces)
■ onna-mono (women’s pieces)
■ kyoran-mono (mentally deranged pieces)
■ oni-mono (demon pieces)
The layout of the Noh stage is strictly defined, with four pillars at the back, a place for the chorus (jiutai-za) stage right, the orchestra on stage in front of the back wall, and a corridor on the left through which the actors enter and exit. The stage is neatly roofed, like a house, and the audience sits at a lower level than the stage and corridor. The floor is polished to enable the actors to move around with a gliding motion; under the stage, hollow bowl-shaped structures increase the resonance of the wooden stage, when the actors stamp heavily as part of their performance.
The Noh orchestra consists of a taiko (large or stick-drum), o-tsuzumi (medium-sized or hip-drum), ko-tsuzumi (small or shoulder-drum), and fue (transverse flute). The chorus (jiutai) consists of six to eight chanters.
The all-male company includes a shite (principal actor, who often exits halfway through and re-enters as a completely different character for the rest of the play), waki (secondary actor), tsure (associates) and kyogen-kata (Noh comedians). In Noh, adult actors usually play the parts of children, unless particular cuteness or pathos are required. There are also up to three stage-hands (koken), who wear plain black but who operate in full view of the audience.
The shite actor is often masked, except when playing a realistic or worldly drama. The associate actors also wear masks when representing women. Ever since the fourteenth century, both masks and costumes have remained largely unchanged; those used today are valued as works of exquisite craftsmanship.
Noh drama uses a chanting delivery, rather than singing; there is no melody, but an emphasis on the poetry and its allusions. The chanting of the actors presents not only the words of their particular role but often the impressions of another character, or even of a detached narrator.
Noh is essentially an extremely restricted stage art – symbolic, static and solemn, yet elegant and graceful. Like the tea ceremony and Japanese landscape gardening, it developed during the Edo period and reflects the aesthetic of the upper classes and samurai warriors of that time.
A scene from Noh theatre (our YouTube channel)


While Noh emphasises the chanting or operatic presentation, Kyogen uses more conversational speech. As mentioned above, Kyogen actors form a specialised part of the Noh troupe, and perform farcical, comic or more realistic dramas, usually as interludes between Noh plays. Normal clothing is used, instead of the gorgeous costumes used for Noh.
Two scenes from Kyogen (our YouTube channel)


In 1603, Okuni, a girl in the service of the Izumo Taisha Shrine, put on strange clothing and performed new, original dances at the Kitano Shrine in Kyoto. Dressed as a man, with a cross dangling from her neck and a sword on one hand, Okuni captured the popular imagination: she and her troupe put on presentations such as a dancing interpretation of a man surreptitiously meeting his sweetheart, or short farces with clowns. This is regarded as the origin of Kabuki (from kabuku, “to deviate from normal manners and customs… doing something absurd”).
This dramatic presentation by women became associated with prostitution, and Kabuki dances by women were banned. Performance was taken up by young men, with the same result. So finally, in 1653, Kabuki was allowed on condition that mature men instead of youths did the acting, and when necessary, played the parts of women.
Initially, Kabuki was little more than a one-act dramatic sketch with a bit of humour or satire thrown in. As time went on, productions became longer, and techniques developed to provide impressive or dramatic on-stage transformations.
Unlike the Noh theatre, the Kabuki stage is equipped with a curtain for scene changes between acts. Also important is the mawari-butai (revolving stage), which enables the swift change to another scene with the lights dimmed; with the lights up it is also often used to allow transition scenes to be played simultaneously as the stage revolves, for dramatic effect. A seri or trap allows part of the stage to be raised or lowered, either to enhance the dramatic entrance of an actor, or to allow staging on several levels. A walkway (hanamichi) extends into the auditorium to allow dramatic exits or entrances, or action very close to the audience.
There are three main categories of kabuki play: historical plays (jidai-mono), domestic stories (sewa-mono), and dance pieces (shosagoto).
An important characteristic of Kabuki theater is the mie: the actor strikes a picturesque pose or stance and holds it for a moment to display a dramatic feeling or to establish his character. At this point some expert in the audience often shouts out the name of the role the actor is playing.
The stage makeup used for Kabuki (keshō) provides clues to character: over a stark white base of rice powder (oshiroi), stylised facial lines (kumadori) create dramatic animal or supernatural masks for the actors. The colour of the kumadori expresses the character’s nature: red lines are used to show passion, heroism, righteousness and other positive traits; blue or black, jealousy, villainy or other negative traits; green indicates the super-natural; and purple, nobility.
Classic Kabuki performances can last a whole day. Alternatively, parts of plays are staged, usually without any explanation of what has taken place before or what will happen afterwards in the story.
At the famous Kabuki-za Theatre in the Gion district of Tokyo, there is a separate box-office for seats on the 4th floor, where you can enjoy a single part of the program for as little as 500 yen. Seats for the full programme range in price from 2,400 yen to 16,000 yen. An English “Earphone Guide” is available (except on the 4th floor) to give you an explanation of what’s going on and provide some background. You can enter or leave the performance at any time.
Kabuki theatre (Our YouTube channel)

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