A night at the theater
You are in Tokyo. Why not go to the theater? If you’re shopping or just window dressing in Ginza, in the heart of Tokyo, it’s just a few minutes’ walk from the Shimbashi Embujo. Here you can arrive around 4pm, drink in the atmosphere of excited crowds of spectators milling around the theatrical memorabilia stalls, sit in a comfortable seat watching the incredible performance on stage and listening to an English translation through a handset. The long interval gives you time for a full meal in one of the theater’s restaurants.
Most months of the year, the theater you will see will be Kabuki, one of the three main genres of traditional Japanese theater. Kabuki began in the 17th century and quickly developed a highly stylized type of performance that has been popular ever since.
All parts in Kabuki are played by men and some of its best actors specialize in playing female characters. Kabuki stars are part of Japan’s celebrity culture and you will often see their faces on billboards or in television commercials.
In addition to Kabuki, the puppet theater (Bunraku), with each puppet manipulated by three puppeteers, also dates from the 17th century, and Noh, a more majestic form of danced theater in which many leading actors wear wooden masks, can trace its history back to the 14th century.
Bunraku is played most regularly in Osaka at the National Bunraku Theater, and headphones with English translations are also available there. The Noh dance can be seen at the National Noh Theater in Tokyo, and each seat has a personal subtitling system.
Japan has retained its traditional theatrical forms, but it also has vibrant modern theater. The country was virtually isolated from the rest of the world for two centuries from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century, but when he discovered what European theater was like, he enthusiastically welcomed the leading European playwrights – Shakespeare, Ibsen, etc.
Then, in the late 19th century, two great theater cultures collided in Japan. Some thought that Kabuki should be protected at all costs, others that it could be modernized by adopting Western conventions, for example, that the female parts should be performed by actresses and not actors.
In the 1920s the idea grew that the traditional theater should be rejected and an entirely new Japanese theater should be developed, based on the European model. All traditional Japanese theater had been unrealistic, presentational rather than representational, so establishing realism in dramaturgy, acting, and directing became a priority.
Then, in the 1960s, realism itself was rejected and “underground” theater (we could use the word “fringe” or “off-Broadway”) burst onto the scene. Radically political and open to all in her acting techniques, this heady mix of kaleidoscopic styles and raw emotion revitalized theater in Japan. It developed into the “small theater” movement (shogekijo), experimental theater performed in small performance spaces.
At the beginning of the 21st century, much of contemporary theater has gone through a calmer and more contemplative phase.
During the past century, while these new developments were taking place, almost nothing has been lost. Japan’s theater is so extraordinarily rich that in a short stay you can see everything mentioned here and much more. There aren’t many places in the world where you can see 14th century theater one day, realistic theater the next, 18th century puppets the next, and ultra-avant-garde show the next.
So how do you plan to go to the theater in Japan and get tickets? The easiest way is to leave this to OnlyOne Travel. However, you can prepare before you read a guide to the Japanese stage, From Traditional to Avant-garde by Ronald Cavase, Paul Grifito, and Akihito Senda (Kodansha International 2004; Amazon is wrongly referred to as The World of the Japanese Stage). There are good articles on traditional theater on Wikipedia: Kabuki, Bunraku and Noh. There are many videos of all three on YouTube.
Brian Powell Author of the modern theater of Japan, a century of continuity and change.
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