Japanese Theater Styles

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Even though Japan is fully a western country according to their democratic system of government, as well as their economy, the country’s is still a mystery to most people who haven’t stayed there long enough to experience what makes it so unique. Integral part of Japanese culture is their theater. They have more than one style of plays and each one is engaging and full of history and deep tradition that spans centuries. The four theatrical traditions of Japan are Noh, Kyogen, Bunraku and Kabuki.


This theatrical style comes from the origins of Japanese comedy performance and dates from about the 14 century. The origins of this style are actually from China from a form of entertainment that emerged in that country around the 8th century. The meaning of Kyogen in English is “mad words” or “wild speech” which grasps the comic essence of the arguments brought forth during the plays. The plays were usually about 10 minutes long and served as intermission between the acts of the Noh theater. The usual cast of characters that were portrayed by actors in Kyogen plays were servants and their master. Kyogen plays also parodied Buddhist and Shinto rituals in spin-off stories from traditional Japanese folktales, most often with a moral argument at the end. Worth noting is that the Kyogen style of theater was and still is accompanied by a musical performance in the background. In modern times Kyogen plays are also performed independent of Noh plays, and usually in sequence of three to five plays.


The theatrical style which gave the purpose to Kyogen stems from traditional Japanese stories that become rendered into highly-skilled dance performances. This setting is additionally supplemented with stage props, masks, costumes and background sounds. Usually, the characters that are portrayed by the trained actors are supernatural beings that have turned into humans. This theatrical tradition is taken very seriously and is codified, so that the new theater doesn’t depart from the prescribed norms of acting and staging of Noh plays. The origins of Noh are from medieval China, precisely from the 8th century, when the famous sangaku style crossed the East China Sea and reached Japan. Through the years and centuries, Noh became a major form of entertainment and during the Edo period it was an art form supported by the shogun, that is, the feudal lords as well as wealthier common people.


The term Kabuki translates to “The Art of Singing and Dancing” and is the most elaborate theatric style of the several varieties of Japanese theater. This is considered an avant-garde theater because the actors were dressed and painted bizarrely. The UNESCO protected intangible cultural heritage of the world began in the early 17th century began performing slow dances on dry riverbeds. At that time female actors portrayed both men and women in theater plays and in that regard, the early form of Kabuki was very different from the forms that emerged at later times. The amazing thing about Kabuki theater is that many of the traditional plays lasted a full day of performance and people dressed and prepared well for the occasion. Those plays that were shorter were still combined to deliver a full day of performances.

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