Japanese drama

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Japan possesses a spectacularly rich theatre ecosystem, in which performatively rich pre-modern theatre forms continue to thrive alongside modern Western-style spoken and avant-garde drama. Unlike the Western experience, in which new theatre forms ‘cannibalize’ and supplant their forebears, Japan has managed to preserve theatre forms and performance traditions which date back centuries. Drama, as Aristotle would have defined it, was never given precedence over pure performance. Rather both were considered essential elements of a single whole.

Several early genres such as Buddhist dances and masked skits (gigaku), Shintō-based dances and sketches (kagura), and the dances of the imperial court (bugaku) contained elements of dramatic storytelling and mimesis. However, the first properly dramatic genres that developed were noh and kyōgen. Both drew upon older, popular performance arts but became more sophisticated as they attracted religious and aristocratic patronage in the 14th and 15th centuries. Noh is serious, masked dance drama with poetic and highly literary texts, whereas kyōgen are short comic plays that were first improvised and later written down. Noh drew its stories from existing literary and historical sources. Most of its plays focus upon a single central character (the shite or ‘doer’), sometimes even upon a single emotion. Plays often have an overtly religious message – in many plays the central character is a ghost, unable to be reincarnated until the negative emotion that binds it to this world can be worked through. Later noh plays featured more obviously dramatic confrontations between the shite and other characters.

Kabuki and bunraku were new forms of popular, commercial theatre that emerged out of the mercantile class of the major cities of Edo, Osaka and Kyoto from the 17th century. Kabuki began in sensual dance performances, but over time developed into an intensely rich and dramatic form of theatre in which the body of the actor remained central. Bunraku, on the other hand, is a sophisticated form of puppet theatre, enacted to a sung and chanted narrative recitation with musical accompaniment. There was a close and competitive relationship between the two genres, with much sharing of plays, techniques and even performers. The dramatic content of the day-long plays was far more secular in its focus than that of noh. Plays were driven by conflicts between the Confucian virtue of duty and human desire, sometimes playing out in the suicides of lovers, other times in the machinations of evil samurai or courtiers who conspired to subvert the proper order. Significant playwrights include Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725), who wrote many psychologically convincing plays for the puppet theatre, and Tsuruya Nanboku IV (1755-1829) and Kawatake Mokuami (1816-93) who both focussed on the seamy underclass of thieves, murderers and extortionists.

Japan’s modern theatre begins with a transitional form known as shinpa (‘new school’) that developed in the late 19th and early 20th century as Japan began to wrestle with questions of modernization and how to resist Western imperialism. Much of this genre’s repertoire was drawn from popular, serialized novels that appealed to the new, ambitious middle classes. Shimpa’s favourite themes included Samuel Smiles-esque narratives of social success, and sentimental, melodramatic stories of the quashing of young love.

While shimpa was enjoying popular success in the early 1900s, a second new movement known as shingeki (‘new theatre’) began to attract more intellectual audiences. Early shingeki companies concentrated on performing translations of modern European dramatic works, including plays by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Gorky, Strindberg, and Chekhov, as well as training a new generation of directors, actors, and stage designers and technicians. The ethos of the theatre was realistic, humanist, and liberal. An early split into a ‘political’ and an ‘artistic’ faction would structure the history and development of shingeki drama, but works by Japanese playwrights like Kishida Kunio (1890-1954) and Kinoshita Junji (1914-2006) ensured that shingeki would occupy the centre-ground of Japanese theatre up until the 1960s.

In the changing political landscape of the 1960s, the limitations of shingeki became more and more apparent. A radical alternative theatre began to emerge, referred to by a variety of different terms, including post-shingeki and underground theatre (angura). The theatre was distinguished by its rejection of the humanistic universalism and the representational dramaturgy of shingeki which was seen as tainted with political passivity. Writer–directors like Kara Jūrō (1940-), Satoh Makoto (1943-), Terayama Shūji (1935-83), and Suzuki Tadashi (1939) staged radical new spectacles, often in non-traditional theatrical spaces, that frequently returned to the pre-modern mechanism of apotheosis, attempting to find empowerment through transformation.

The post-angura period is harder to characterize. Many angura directors, such as Ninagawa Yukio (1935-) have turned their techniques towards more commercial forms of theatre or have found positions as artistic directors at major public theatres in Tokyo or the regions. During the years of Japan’s real-estate boom in the eighties, the Shōgekijo (‘Little Theatre’) movement saw several younger writer-directors, including Noda Hideki (1955-), Kōkami Shōji (1958-), and Kawamura Takeshi (1959-), rise to prominence. They created non-linear, postmodern works that displayed a fascination with nonsensical play, the apocalypse, and childhood. The nineties saw the rising popularity of the Shizukana Engeki (‘Quiet Theatre’) of Hirata Oriza, which moved away from ideological questions and back to a focus on everyday life and colloquial language. Questions of postmodernism, pop culture, contemporary social problems, and Japanese identity continue to exercise playwrights in both the avant-garde and the mainstream of commercial theatre.

by Alan Cummings, Senior Teaching Fellow, School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London.