Japanese Drama Analysis


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

From prehistoric times, through kagura, the Japanese paid homage to the native deities and offered comfort to the souls of the dead as part of the Shint ritual. Traditionally, kagura was divided into mikagura, the performance held at the imperial palace, and satokagura, held at the various Shint shrines. Satokagura has undergone significant changes during its growth and development, but mikagura has remained almost unchanged since its official formulation in the eleventh century. Mikagura is performed by the members of the Imperial court dance group. Its program consists of an introductory song, dances accompanied by song and music, a shamanistic ritual, a pantomimic performance, and more songs. Although the basic form of kagura is mime with song and music, even in earlier times it was affected by other performing arts. The more sophisticated masked plays in its repertory were likely borrowed from gigakutogether with the lion dance. Tanemaki (seed planting dance) in kagura can be traced to dengaku, a native festivity related to rice growing. In the thirteenth century, kagura included dramatic pieces anticipating the N theater, which developed later.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Along with kagura, which was essentially a Shint ceremony, dengaku,another native form of drama, developed in the rural areas of Japan, where rice growing was the main activity. Dengaku (rice paddy dance) was popular among farmers, who prayed to their local deities for abundant harvests. Even today, festivals related to rice farming are found in various parts of Japan. By the time dengaku emerged as a popular form of entertainment, it had already incorporated exotic elements from gigaku and sangaku. In short, dengaku had added to its repertory the lion dance, juggling, acrobatics, and other acts as well as Chinese gongs and drums. Although it started as a rather primitive and rustic entertainment, dengaku developed into a highly polished theater with elaborate dances and costumes. Eventually, dengaku developed its own prototype of the N theater, rivaling the similar efforts of sarugaku, which rose out of the sangaku tradition. After the emergence of N theater, however, dengaku rapidly lost popularity and retreated to the temples and shrines; by the end of the seventeenth century, it had all but disappeared as public entertainment.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Although kagura and dengaku were the principal forms of early native theater, Japan was also the beneficiary of imported dramatic forms, especially from China by way of Korea. Among them, bugakuhas had a long, uninterrupted tradition that goes back as far as the eighth century. At the time that bugaku arrived in Japan, it was a ceremonial dance performed during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) at the Chinese imperial court, where it was presented in splendid surroundings, with several teams of dancers accompanied by large string and woodwind sections. On reaching Japan, bugaku was also adopted as the dance for Japan’s imperial court. With the rise of the samurai class and the decline of imperial power in the late twelfth century, bugaku lost its prestige and influence; up to the sixteenth century, only large shrines and temples could afford to subsidize its performances. During the Tokugawa period (1600-1867), the shogunate supported a bugaku troupe at Edo (now Tokyo) for ceremonial occasions. In 1890, more than two decades after the Meiji Restoration (1868), when Japan assumed the role of a modern nation, the imperial court again was in charge of bugaku. Today, certain temples and shrines in the ancient capital of Nara also support bugaku.

In addition to elements imported from abroad, bugaku includes conventions subsequently added in Japan. The dancers in the native...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

According to early records, gigaku rrived from Korea in 612. By the mid-eighth century, it was highly popular; by the twelfth century, however, its appeal had declined significantly. Although present knowledge about this ancient form is fragmentary, the extant masks, numbering about 250—many still preserved in Buddhist temples—permit some speculation as to its character. These comic masks suggest that gigaku performances were meant to amuse and to entertain. The facial features on the masks are neither Chinese nor Japanese, and their ultimate origin may have been beyond the Silk Road, which brought Near Eastern culture to ancient China. The Kykunsh (1233), a highly reliable source on the history of early Japanese music, mentions that gigaku was performed within temple grounds. The performers first marched around in a circle carrying large masks to the accompaniment of flute, drums, cymbals, and a pair of small gongs. After a play with a religious message was performed, a group of mimic pieces was performed, followed by a joyous musical finale. The participants in the parade included the leader—a figure with a long-nosed mask—a company of musicians, a two-man lion dance, and a pair of performers dressed as lion cubs. While the lion is not found in Japan, the lion dance in gigaku became a familiar part of kagura, dengaku, N theater, Kabuki, puppet theater (Bunraku), and the Japanese dance tradition. Some of the musical instruments originally identified with gigaku—flute, cymbals, and drums—were later incorporated into bugaku.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In Japan, sangakuarrived at about the same time as bugaku. Although the two forms were essentially the same, in China, bugaku belonged to the courtier class while sangaku was regarded as entertainment for the commoners; hence, the dances featured in sangaku were performed on a much smaller scale. In the beginning, sangaku, like bugaku, was given support by the imperial court, but by the late eighth century, it lost this privilege and was forced to carry on as public entertainment. The differences between the two were important for the growth and development of the Japanese theater. In addition to the dance component, sangaku also included a variety of acts such as comic sketches, mime pieces, acrobatics, juggling, magic tricks, puppetry, and trained birds and animals. Among these offerings, the dramatic elements found in the humorous pieces and pantomimes caught the immediate attention of the Japanese audience. These elements quickly found their way into bugaku and even into religious rituals held at shrines and temples. From its early arrival, the humble popular theater from China had an immediate impact in Japan and, through sarugaku, its successor, this popular theater continued to exert a powerful influence.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Although the difference between bugaku and sangakuis clear, in the case of sangaku and sarugaku, the distinction appears to be the degree of emphasis on the dramatic aspect of the theater as a performing art. Furthermore, this significant shift toward greater emphasis from sangaku to sarugaku also indicated a change in public attitude toward acting, “imitative art,” as a profession. As early as the tenth century, sarugaku was a term applied to sangaku but in a pejorative sense. In this context, the “saru” in sarugaku was written with the Chinese character denoting “monkey,” a reference to the age-old belief that this animal could humorously imitate human behavior. By implication, those who acted like a monkey in front of an audience were considered less than human; hence, their performances should be called sarugaku (monkey dance). Nevertheless, by the eleventh century, the dramatic aspect of sarugaku was drawing greater public attention. In short, sarugaku performers may be regarded as the dedicated practitioners of the sangaku tradition who actively cultivated that specific area involving comedic skits and pantomime, apart from the other popular acts identified with sangaku. Sarugaku, then, represented a growing tendency in the Japanese theater to redirect its attention away from the earlier preoccupation with dance and music and to show a deeper concern for drama. From the mid-thirteenth century to the late fourteenth century, these sarugaku performers, who were attached to the shrines and temples, began organizing their own troupes and competing with one another, eventually helping to establish the N theater. Toward this effort, dengaku and ennen also tried to formulate their own prototypes of the N drama, but in the end, the sarugaku version prevailed.

Ennen N

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

By the end of the eleventh century, ennen which was a ritualistic banquet held after Buddhist and Shint services, had become popular. Dances, extemporaneous songs, and mimic performances were gradually added to this extension of a religious service, and ennen evolved into a recognized form of entertainment. By the thirteenth century, additional song and dance, humorous dialogue, and dramatized legends became part of this ever expanding repertory. The performances took place on the gallery of a religious building, on the lawn, or on a stage set up on the grounds. At such events, the performance of the ennen N came at the end. The players used masks for such roles as ghosts in these presentations. The rather formalized productions, which were filled with religious symbolism, used rather austere costumes. With the rise of the N theater, ennen declined rapidly as a theatrical activity.

Dengaku N

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

As a performing art, dengaku N eveloped slowly and did not gain public recognition until the fourteenth century. With the political rise of Shogun Ashikaga Takauji in 1338, however, dengaku N suddenly became the favored theater, and although it still bore a rustic quality reflecting its rural background, at one point dengaku N surpassed sarugaku N. Nevertheless, dengaku N could not readily discard its ritualistic pieces, such as acts on stilts, performances with binzasara (a bamboo rattle used in farm festivals), and sword-juggling acts. In comparison with N theater, masks were used sparingly. Dengaku N had a stage similar to that of the N theater, with the hashigakari, a familiar passageway, leading to the stage entrance. The subject matter of dengaku N was drawn primarily from Japanese literature, history, and legends and stories based on Buddhist tradition. Although at one time dengaku N may have rivaled sarugaku N, it failed to develop into a new form of drama because it was apparently unable to discard its agricultural tradition.

Sarugaku N

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Though sarugakuperformers were once treated as socially inferior to their colleagues in the other forms of theater, they were finally able to gain public recognition through their devotion to an artistic vision. They had set the stage for the next phase in the final establishment of the N theater. The standard program of sarugaku N began with the ceremonial Okina play, beseeching the deities for abundant harvests and longevity. This piece was followed by several N plays. By skillfully employing the well-known themes from folktales, legends, and Japanese classics and by interpolating passages from poetry and fiction into the play scripts, sarugaku N gained a distinct advantage over its rivals. The introduction of fresh, brilliant dance pieces also contributed to its success. By the first quarter of the fifteenth century, sarugaku N would achieve its goal of becoming a fully developed new theater.

From the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, culminating in the establishment of the N theater, sarugaku served as the basis for encouraging other genres to cultivate n (acting skill). Yet sarugaku N was also influenced by the kusemai, a minor form of entertainment from the Heian period (794-1185) which featured a female performer, dressed as a male, who danced and sang currently popular songs. These women often wore a ceremonial cap, used a Japanese folding fan in their dancing, and played on a drum tied to the waist. Sarugaku N was also indebted to kwaka-kusemai, hich rose out of this tradition. In kwaka-kusemai, male performers accompanied by refined temple music render a melodic recitation of war tales such as the Heike monogatari (The Heike Monogatari, 1918; also as The Tale of the Heike, 1975, 1988), a literary classic from the twelfth century. The lyric narrative style employed by the kwaka-kusemai performers was later adopted by the N theater and subsequently made a strong impact on jruri, the narrative portion accompanying the puppet theater.

N Theater

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The establishment of the N theater as an independent performing art can be credited largely to the brilliant leadership of Kan’ami Kiyotsugu , born in 1333, and Zeami Motokiyo born in 1363. By their joint efforts, and particularly by the achievements of Zeami, N theater reached its peak. As dengaku N had gained the support of Ashikaga Takauji, the first shogun in this line of succession, both Kan’ami and Zeami were under the patronage of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1404), the third Ashikaga shogun and a devoted patron of the arts. Kan’ami incorporated elements from the kusemai tradition and also from dengaku in order to establish the foundation for the N theater. His son Zeami successfully completed...

(The entire section is 780 words.)


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The dramatic element in kygen can be traced to sarugaku, which gained wide popularity through its comedic sketches and mimic performances. Although the history of kygen is still uncertain, by the time that the N theater was established, kygen was already a mature drama. Although it is true that the N theater is traditionally treated with greater deference than is the kygen, the latter has had far more impact on the later development of the Japanese theater. During the Tokugawa period, when the townspeople’s culture suddenly created the opportunity for the emergence of both the Kabuki heater and the puppet theater, the N theater remained relatively isolated under the patronage of the...

(The entire section is 710 words.)

Puppet Theater

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The puppet theater began around the late sixteenth century with the joining of three basic elements: jruri (narrative chanting), the samisen (three-stringed musical instrument), and the puppet. The jruri was preceded as popular entertainment by the Heike biwa another form of narrative chanting from the thirteenth century. The Heike biwa was performed by blind musicians who recited episodes from The Tale of the Heike, the tale of the war between the Minamoto and the Taira. These musicians used the biwa, a lutelike instrument, in their performances. As a variation on this narrative tradition, jruri included the romantic tale of Princess Jruri and the young Ushiwakamaru, who later became Minamoto...

(The entire section is 1186 words.)


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Although the popular account of the Kabuki heater attributes its establishment to Okuni, the legendary vestal maiden of the Izumo Shrine who danced on the dry riverbed of the Kamo River in Kyoto in 1603, its actual development appears more obscure and uncertain. Around the late sixteenth century, when Japanese society was at last emerging from centuries of political and social unrest, many groups of itinerant entertainers—both male and female—were roving all over the country. Among these troupes, Okuni is said to have introduced Kabuki-odori (Kabuki dance), which quickly gained a nationwide following. The term “kabuki” meant something “outrageous,” “shocking,” “exotic,” or “quite extraordinary,” and...

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Modern Theater

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Kabuki was the most vibrant dramatic form at the beginning of the Meiji period as Japan began its Herculean effort to transform itself into a modern nation. The limited realism of Mokuami’s “cropped hair plays” and other sewamono plays was the most promising dramatic resource to capture the emerging new world; after two decades, however, the zangirimono failed to turn into a contemporary theater and Kabuki came to represent the values of a fast fading feudal world. In an ironic twist of history, what had long been the theater of outcasts was, in its last years, embraced and legitimized by a government keen to maintain a “national theater” on a par with those of European nations. The essentially feudal...

(The entire section is 2433 words.)


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Brazell, Karen, ed. Traditional Japanese Theater: An Anthology of Plays. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. A collection of translations of traditional plays with an introduction, detailed stage directions, and extensive photographs.

Keene, Donald. Twenty Plays of the N Theatre. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970. This volume of translations by a noted scholar of Japanese literature has an excellent introduction to N drama. The translations are hauntingly beautiful and manage, in their poetry, to capture the mystery of N’s spiritual journeys.

Leiter, Samuel L., ed. A Kabuki Reader:...

(The entire section is 260 words.)