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Traditional Theatre

Four major types of traditional theatre are still performed regularly in Japan - Noh, Kabuki, Kyogen, and Bunraku.

Noh is seen as the original form - its hypnotic dance-drama style reflecting the minimalist aesthetics of Zen. It is an austere, powerful artform performed on a bare, three-sided wooden stage roofed like a shrine. Two principal characters in Noh  - the shite and the waki perform to traditional musical accompaniment while a chorus of anything up to eight men will sit to the side commenting on the action as it unforlds. Masks are used to great effect  - with some of the better examples now classified as National Treasures. Practitioners of Noh theatre study for years to master the complex techniques and the artform continues to attract large audiences.

Kabuki is altogether more flamboyant in style - large casts and colourful costumes and sets were introduced at its inception in the 17th century. As in Noh, there is musical accompaniment and the style is a mix of dance and speech. Over the centuries a repertoire has developed that draws on the popular themes of love and historical story-telling although melodrama seems to be an underlying theme in most productions. The actors themselves are all men and will have been trained since childhood - they are born into the artform.

Recent innovations have have seen the artform brought ’up-to-date’ with the use of technology, modern language and sets.

Kyogen is essentially comic theatre which was originally performed between Noh plays as a form of light relief. The combination of music, dance, chorus and main characters still exist but there is a strong slapstick feel to the plays with an emphasis on physical humour. Currently undergoing something of a rebirth in Japan, many Noh theatres now present kyogen-only programmes. 

Bunraku (left) addresses many of the same issues as kabuki but through the medium of puppetry. The puppets themselves are large (two-thirds life-size) and each can be manipulated by anything up to three puppeteers at the same time. A narrator seated to the side of the stage is responsible for setting the scene as the puppets themslves do not speak, instead expressing feelings through actions and facial expressions. Again costumes are elaborate and the performances include musical accompaniment.


Visitors should not be put-off by the obvious language barriers - theatres nowadays will often provide translations via headsets in English.


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