Latest Trends by Genre:
Kabuki, Nôgaku, and Bunraku
Kazumi Narabe (Journalist)
Japan’s major traditional art forms have all been recognized by UNESCO as Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity: Nô drama was designated as an intangible cultural heritage in 2001, followed by Bunraku in 2003, and Kabuki in 2005. Since the late 1990s, the movement to rediscover Japanese culture has brought new audiences to the traditional performing arts. Such figures as Onoe Kikunosuke in Kabuki, Toyotake Sakihodayû in Bunraku, and Shigeyama Motohiko in Kyôgen, all artists in their teens and twenties at the peak of their youthful good looks, are known as dengei aidoru (trad-arts stars), with primers and photo collections aimed at their young fans adorning bookstores. In addition, Japan’s aging population has produced healthy, wealthy, and culture-oriented senior citizens who have become avid theatergoers. Audiences have thus grown across generational lines, and Nô theaters, the National Theatre, and the Kabuki-za are buzzing with a new kind of energy. This has been complemented by a Traditional Performing Arts Information Center opened in March 2003 by the Japan Arts Council, the operators of the National Theatre, which is also gathering its collected materials into a database that will be publicly available on the Internet.
The year 2003 saw the fourth centennial celebrations of Kabuki, with various events including musicals and recreations of Kabuki in its earliest form. The founding figure of Kabuki is said to be a woman named Izumo no Okuni, who arrived in Kyoto’s Shijô-gawara four hundred years ago with her flamboyant, innovative dances performed wearing men’s clothing. Before long, the authorities banned Kabuki performances by women as injurious to public morals, and the roles were taken by attractive young boys instead. This was also banned as indecent, and the result was
Kabuki performed by adult men. Kabuki has since refined its distinctive modes of representation, a prominent one of which is the
, the male actors in female roles who are reputed to depict women even better than women themselves. Stage sets also underwent development during the Edo Period, resulting in devices such as the
walkway that extending into the audience, and the
, the revolving stage that is rotated to reveal a new stage set to the audience.
Most Kabuki performances these days are presented by the Shôchiku Co. Ltd. at their venue, the Kabuki-za. The National Theatre, which was founded in 1966 for the preservation and transmission of the traditional performing arts, also holds periodic revival performances with explanatory commentary.
The art of Kabuki has traditionally been passed down from father to son through the generations. The sons of celebrated families are trained from a young age, and make their stage debut’s playing children’s roles. They absorb the performance skills of the preceding generations, called o-ie gei (the family art), and grow up to become stars. Meanwhile, actors who are not from one of these families have few opportunities to play leading roles. Since the number of actors wanting to play supporting roles was declining, in 1970 the National Theatre started a program to foster these successors. Kabuki is musical drama and, due to concern over shortages of narimono percussionists and takemoto narrators, the program also fosters musicians.
The actors to have attracted most attention in recent years are probably Nakamura Kanzaburô, who succeeded to his father’s name in 2005, and the ailing Ichikawa En’nosuke. En’nosuke has been active in bringing actors from the National Theatre’s training program to the stage and has cultivated such stars as the onnagata Ichikawa Emiya. Meanwhile, he has also sought to develop Kabuki as a spectacle by appearing in many performances of new plays written by philosopher Umehara Takeshi. His 21st Century Kabuki Company, made up of young actors, has also been very popular. Kanzaburô, meanwhile, has worked with the contemporary theater directors Kushida Kazuyoshi and Noda Hideki in new interpretations of classical drama. He has also performed at Theatre Cocoon, a contemporary theater in Tokyo’s Shibuya, Tokyo, as well as at the Heisei Nakamuraza, a temporary theater and performance patterned after the playhouses of the Edo Period, under his earlier stage name Kankurô. The theater was recreated for performances at the Lincoln Center in New York City in 2004 and 2007. En’nosuke and Kanzaburô are seeking to bring out the true thrill of Kabuki, which—with its preposterous plot lines and devices that swing actors out to hang suspended above the audience—is at the opposite extreme from realistic drama, and they always succeed in packing out theaters.
Kanzaburô celebrated his succession to his father’s name at the performance of Ima wa mukashi Momotarô (Momotarô Today), written and directed by Watanabe Eri , a modern dramatist. In 2005, Ninagawa Yukio directed Ninagawa Twelfth Night , an adaptation of the Shakespeare comedy, at the Kabuki-za for one month (restaged in 2007). In 2006, young Kabuki actors including Ichikawa Somegorô performed in Ketto! Takadanobaba , written and directed by the comedy writer Mitani Kôki , at Parco Theater in Shibuya, a hang-out for Tokyo youth. Both plays had record sellouts. Kabuki’s beauty and style are attracting key players in modern drama who are creating a new form of the art.
Crossover performances by Kabuki actors in movies and Western-style drama are not new. However, there has been conspicuous activity by “trad-arts stars” such as Onoe Kikunosuke, who appeared in the Greek tragedy Greeks , directed by Ninagawa Yukio, and Ichikawa Ebizô who played the lead role in NHK’s epic year-long television drama series Musashi , as well as becoming troupe leader for the first time in January 2008 at the Shinbashi Embujô theater. Ichikawa Kamejirô also co-starred in an NHK TV drama series in 2007. The fact that such figures are popular even outside the Kabuki genre shows that the shift of generations is well underway.
The Kabuki world lost two of its Living National Treasures in 2001 with the deaths of Nakamura Utaemon and Ichimura Hazaemon, and many well-known supporting actors have also passed away. However, Kabuki’s shûmei tradition of succeeding to acting names enables the art to rise above the deaths of great actors. Shûmei carries with it the belief that along with the name a succeeding actor inherits the artistic style of his father, grandfather, or other great actor who had the name before him, and a special shûmei performance is held to commemorate the event. A number of these events have taken place in recent years: Onoe Tatsunosuke became Shôroku in 2002, Shin’nosuke became Ebizô in 2004, and Kankurô became Kanzaburô, in 2005. In 2006, Nakamura Ganjirô succeeded to the name Sakata Tôjûrô, the name of an onnagata from the Osaka region which had been out of use for 230 years, and there have been others too. Cultural and business circles in Osaka have been supporting the revival of Tôjûrô’s name in the hope that it will bring financial returns.
Cinema Kabuki is a new project by the theater and movie company Shôchiku to further promote the art, by which theater performances filmed with high-definition cameras are shown at movie theaters using a digital projector and a 6-channel sound system. Four plays have been presented so far, including Noda Hideki’s versions of Nezumi kozô (Rat Bandit Kozô) starring Kanzaburô in 2005 and Togitatsu no utare (Revenge on Togitatsu) in 2006, and Sagi musume (The Heron Maiden) and Hidakagawa iriai zakura (Cherry Blossoms Along the Hidaka River), both starring the celebrated onnagata Bandô Tamasaburo. At one-fifteenth of the price of a ticket for the best seat at Kabuki-za, these presentations have been sellouts.
Shochiku’s chairman Nagayama Takeomi, who did so much to promote Kabuki, passed away in December 2006. After World War II, he picked up the pieces of the destroyed Kabuki theater, stage props, and scattered actors and musicians, rebuilding the art and then promoting it to other countries so that it made the World Heritage list. Although there are concerns as to whether Shôchiku will continue to fully support such a financially demanding art following the loss of this giant figure, the company has been actively fulfilling its 2005 plan to rebuild the Kabuki-za theater, and in January 2008 also presented performances in four theaters in Tokyo and one in Osaka. The creaky 50-plus-year-old Kabuki-za, a state-designated Tangible Cultural Property, will regain its original style with three gable roofs that it had in 1924 when it was first built, while also incorporating full disabled access and a highrise office building in the back. Planning was completed in the fall of 2007, and the grand opening is scheduled for 2010.
Nôgaku (Nô and Kyôgen) has a long history going back at least six hundred years to the time of Zeami (1363–1443), who created around a third of the Nô plays being performed today. Nô drama is made up of two parts. One is the musical dramatic form of Nô proper, in which the performers sing and dance to the accompaniment of four instruments collectively referred to as the
—the flute (
), small drum (
), large hand drum (
), and large floor drum (
)—and a chorus called the
. The other part is Kyôgen, a spoken dramatic form that is primarily comic. Nô employs extremely stylized movements pared of all excess, with the aim of creating a dramatic expression according to the aesthetic of
Since Zeami’s time Nô has had patrons in the ruling class of society. It received special protection during the Edo Period, when the Shogunate designated Nô as the ceremonial performing art to be used in ritual observances. As such, Nô was maintained at a level unaffected by popularity among the masses. After the downfall of the warrior society, Nô continued to be sustained by leading figures in government and the newly powerful industrial conglomerates. The need to acquire fans from the wider populace arose only after World War II, and Nô is presently establishing an economic base through education and performance programs.
This history as a performing art supported by the ruling class of society has left its mark, and even now many Japanese people feel that Nô is refined and difficult, for connoisseurs only. Efforts have been made to make Nô more accessible, with facilities such as the National Nô Theatre opened in 1983, and the Yokohama Nô Theater operated by the Yokohama Arts Foundation. Experimental performances have attracted younger audiences, and Nô has become sufficiently popular that tickets can be difficult to obtain. Performances of takigi Nô, held outdoors at night by torchlight, have become more numerous since the early 1990s and are extremely popular.
Nevertheless, audiences at the theaters operated by the various schools(*) of Nô are still small and are also increasingly elderly. Performers finally seem to be recognizing they are facing a crisis and, just before the turn of the millennium, the highly confined world of Nô began to display some new departures. Young Nô masters have formed a group called Kami Asobi that crosses the rigid boundaries between schools, and four young performers of the Konparu School formed Za Square. These represent the beginnings of a movement to make Nô more appealing to youthful sensibilities, and they are attracting growing numbers of fans. In 2006, the Nôgaku genzaikei (Contemporary Nô) shows were started by the highly versatile Kyôgen actor Nomura Mansai , fue flute player Issô Yukihiro , and ôkawa performer Kamei Hirotada , in order to “get out of the Nô rut and take up new challenges.” These have featured guest performances by young shitekata (main role) actors who otherwise seldom get the chance to appear in major works.
Nô values the moment. Actors therefore focus on each moment to create a one-time-only performance along with the musicians, chorus and audience. Nô does not have long-run performances like Kabuki, which makes it necessary for performers to give lessons to amateurs on the side. The younger generation is also trying some new ideas. One of the Kami Asobi members, Kanze Yoshimasa, a shitekata actor of the Kanze school, is giving lectures to groups, as opposed to the usual one-on-one lessons, on the basics of utai chant and shimai dance, subjects that are not easy for beginners to understand. In his home court, the Yarai Nôgakudô theater in Kagurazaka, Tokyo, Kanze gives a periodic lecture called “Know Nô” to help beginners deepen their knowledge, including explanations on the literary references that form the basis of Nô plays, such as classical poetry and prose works such as The Tale of Genji , as well as demonstrations on how to wear Nô costumes and instructions on the chorus. This has helped broaden Nô’s fan base, as has increased interest in Bushidô, or the code of the samurai, and in the Kobudô martial arts following the release of the movie Last Samurai . Nô has also attracted attention from exercise- and fitness-minded people because its sliding walk technique helps tone muscles and strengthen the body, and a mini version of the yoga fad has led to “Nô exercise” classes in community centers.
Meanwhile, performances of the comic Kyôgen in easy-to-understand, colloquial Japanese have been steadily rising in popularity. Nomura Mansai, the Kyôgen actor who is also well known for roles in TV and film and as the artistic director of the Setagaya Public Theatre, as well as the young Kyôgen performers Shigeyama Masakuni, Motohiko, and Ippei of the Kyoto ôkuraryû Shigeyama Family, have been performing in shows that sell out as quickly as they are announced
The Kyôgen world has a rich array of talent across the generations. Nomura Man’nojô, an able producer who worked to revive the ancient mask drama known as gigaku , passed away unexpectedly in his forties in 2004. Shigeyama Sensaku, born in 1919, is a Living National Treasure who is popular among young women for his ability to convey through body movements the gentleness of human nature. There have also been veteran Kyôgen performers such as Shigeyama Sen’nojô and Sensaku who have taken on the challenge of producing and acting in new Kyôgen pieces created by the philosopher Umehara Takeshi and staged at the National Nô Theatre. These works deal with such issues as environmental pollution and war using the art of laughter, and have been acclaimed as new yet timeless expressions of the strength of the classical performing arts. The National Nô Theatre also produces new Nô works, such as its 2006 production based on the popular manga Kurenai Tennyo (The Crimson Goddess), which sold out to young female fans of the original work who had had no interest in Nô up to that time. Since 1984, the theater has been actively nurturing and training wakikata (supporting performers), of whom there are very few, as well as Nô musicians, and Kyôgen performers.
Bunraku is a form of puppet theater originating in Osaka during the Edo Period. Puppets are manipulated according to the
narrative performed by a
narrator, with the accompaniment of a low-pitched
shamisen. In Bunraku’s earliest times, the puppet was manipulated by a single puppeteer, but the practice of
, in which a single puppet body is manipulated by three puppeteers, emerged during the 1700s. The
(head puppeteer), who manipulates the head and right hand, is the leader, while the
(left puppeteer) manipulates the left hand and the
(foot puppeteer) manipulates the feet. Working in perfect unison, the three puppeteers are able to give the puppet a greater delicacy and richness of expression. One of the attractions of Bunraku is that it portrays a human drama through the harmoniously combined efforts of these puppeteers, the shamisen player, and the narrator who skillfully recites the distinctive parts of all the characters.
Although Bunraku had been highly popular, from around 1955 it started going into decline. In 1963, the national government, Osaka Prefecture, and NHK collaborated to establish the Bunraku Association. Performers became craft artists affiliated with the Bunraku Association, and they hold performances in the small hall of the National Theatre in Tokyo and at the National Bunraku Theatre in Osaka.
A television documentary on two Living National Treasures, the puppeteer YoshidaTamao and the narrator Takemoto Sumitayû, was broadcast in 2001. This program showed the artists engaged in continuing study and training, and stimulated a sudden revival in Bunraku’s popularity, leading to the tickets for Tokyo performances selling out two years in advance.
Bunraku does not have the same family system as Kabuki to pass the art on from generation to generation, so any man with the necessary skill may find a future in it. In fact, 46% of the 88 narrators, shamisen players, and puppeteers have graduated from the traditional performing artist training program started at the National Theatre in 1972 to foster successors in the art. Many of these people came to the program without any previous background in it. Trainees receive two years of basic education, after which they take part in stage performances under a master’s instruction. It is a serious course of training where a puppeteer spends ten years on training for foot control and 20 years for left hand control before becoming the main puppeteer who controls the head, meaning that puppeteers do not attain the top level until they are in their fifties. One of the program’s graduates, the shamisen player Nozawa Kinya, succeeded to the name of Nozawa Kinshi V at the age of 41 in 1998. In 2006 Tsurusawa Enjiro became Tsurusawa Enzan IV, succeeding to his master’s name. Puppeteer Yoshida Minotaro, who literally grew up in the Bunraku backstage, succeeded to his father’s name and became Kiritake Kanjûro III in 2003 when he turned 50.
There are promising signs for the next generation. For example, a group of middle-level and younger performers staged a joint event at the National Theatre that also included gospel singing and other such performances in between the Bunraku shows. There have also been su-jôruri performances of the narration and shamisen accompaniment without puppets. Nevertheless, at the heart of Bunraku are the six Living National Treasures in their 60, 70 and 80s, the oldest being Sumitayu born in 1924, and the youngest Tsurusawa Seiji born in 1945 and designated as a Living National Treasure in 2007. In September 2006, Yoshida Tamao, the best puppeteer of male puppets of his generation, both in technique and popularity, passed away at the age of 87. The loss is enormous as he had enchanted Bunraku fans with many great performances together with the great puppeteer of female puppets, Yoshida Minosuke, in such well-known plays as Sonezaki shinjû (Love Suicides at Sonezaki). As for narrators, four in their 50s have passed away in the last few years, and in 2007 one of the kirikatari narrators (the highest-ranking narrator who recites important and climactic scenes) resigned because of a scandal. A generational shift is therefore inevitable and urgent. It takes many years to train a narrator or puppeteer, and narrators are particularly underrepresented. As one narrator explained, “The next five years are crucial, or Bunraku might disappear.”
In the November 2007 performances in Osaka of Sonezaki shinjû , the National Theatre and Bunraku Association used Yoshida Tamame and Kanjuro, the best pupils of Tamao and Minosuke respectively, both now in their 50s. It was generally perceived by fans as a move to provide a replacement for the Tamao-Minosuke duo. Will the new generation pair be accepted by discerning fans? Will the development of new narrators be a success? Bunraku is certainly facing a new and difficult era.
Schools are groups that formed in order to protect distinctive artistic styles of intangible performing arts and pass them on to succeeding generations. In Nô, there are different schools for the actors who play the main roles ( shitekata ), supporting roles ( wakikata ), musical accompaniment ( hayashikata ), and for Kyôgen ( kyôgenkata ). For the shitekata , for example, there are five schools: Kanze, Hôshô, Konparu, Kongô, and Kita. For the kyôgenkata , there are two schools, ôkura and Izumi.