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Arts and Culture, Theater and Film

samisen, onnagata, Tokugawa period, eccentric behavior, dramatic poem

Theater developed in close conjunction with music and dance in premodern Japan. Thus gigaku, bugaku, and kagura were early forms of theater. Later, various other elements were added to Japan’s theatrical repertoire, including juggling, acrobatics, and magic. By the Kamakura period, two major forms of theater incorporating all of these elements had evolved: sarugaku and dengaku. In the late 14th century the classical drama form of no (meaning “ability”) was created out of the dramatic elements of sarugaku and dengaku. Historians attribute this transformation largely to the efforts of two dramatists, Kan’ami and his son Zeami. Kan’ami and Zeami changed the straightforward, plot-oriented style of earlier dramatic forms into a style of performance emphasizing symbolic meanings and graceful movements.

A no play has been described as a dramatic poem that is based on remote or supernatural events and centers on a dance by the main actor. The movements and dance in no are highly stylized, even ritualistic. Actors frequently use masks and wear resplendent robes, presenting a sumptuous visual display to audiences. No plots are usually very simple. There is little of the conflict between characters that is a cornerstone of Western theater. Rather, the emotional or psychological problems of the main character provide the theme of most no plays. For example, in a typical play, a person from the past returns as a ghost, and a Buddhist priest assists him or her in overcoming worldly passions and achieving salvation in Amida Buddha’s Pure Land paradise. The main character might be a warrior still fighting ancient battles or a court lady from the Heian period still agonizing over a lost love. A small orchestra of flutes and drums accompanies the actors, and a chorus narrates the story and shares dialogue with the actors.

Kyogen (“mad words”) are humorous, fast-paced prose plays that developed along with no. The earliest kyogen served as interludes in no plays to provide background information about the characters and their settings. But actors also performed kyogen as unrelated comical or farcical skits. In contrast to no, which is usually serious and gloomy, kyogen skits provided medieval audiences with at least a measure of broad, slapstick humor. In a common kyogen plot, clever servants outwit their warrior masters.

The townsman culture of the Tokugawa period produced two new forms of theater, kabuki and puppet theater, in the 16th and 17th centuries. Kabuki means off-balance and was used to describe novel or eccentric behavior. Although it drew upon the traditions of no and kyogen, kabuki evolved primarily out of dances and skits performed by troupes of female actors. Women performers were later banned from kabuki for engaging in prostitution, and kabuki became all male. This led to the creation of the onnagata, a man who plays women’s parts. Kabuki plays are composed of numerous episodes and feature spectacular fights and dances, quick costume changes, heroic sacrifices, and star-crossed lovers. The text of the plays is less important than the acting, and kabuki actors embellish or alter scenarios as they see fit. To reveal emotions, they display exaggerated facial expressions and strike dramatic poses.

Japanese performers have used puppets to entertain audiences at least since the Heian period. However, puppet theater developed its characteristic form in the 16th century. In this form, puppet theater brings together puppets that enact stories, chanters who narrate the stories, and the playing of the samisen as accompaniment to the performance. Puppet theater reached its high point in the plays of Chikamatsu Monzaemon, whose best-known works focus on the conflict between duty and human feelings. One plot, for example, follows a love affair between a merchant, already committed by his family to another woman, and a prostitute. Often the lovers in such plays commit double suicide.

Japan has a vital modern theater, which often combines elements of traditional Japanese dramatic forms with Western themes and theatrical devices. Yet contemporary Japanese drama has probably achieved its greatest success in film. Japan produced its first movies in the 1890s, and in the 20th century the Japanese film industry evolved into one of the most prolific and respected in the world. Japanese film reached its golden age in the period immediately before and after World War II. Among the masterpieces of that time are the films of director Akira Kurosawa, whose most famous films include Rashomon (1950) and The Seven Samurai (1954). The quintessential Kurosawa actor was Mifune Toshiro, who made 16 films with the director. Toshiro also performed in several American movies.

Whereas Kurosawa is probably best known for his samurai stories, including some based on Shakespeare such as Ran (1985; the story of King Lear, set in 16th-century Japan), other Japanese directors have gained fame for the aesthetic qualities of their work. One of the finest such directors was Mizoguchi Kenji, whose beautiful film Ugetsu monogatari (1953; Ugetsu, 1954), the story of an enchanted romance in medieval Japan, earned wide acclaim and was one of the first films to draw international attention to the quality of the Japanese film industry.

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