The Academy

Styles of Performance Navigation





The term Japanese Drama can be applied to drama written and performed in Japan between 600AD and the present day.  Traditionally throughout this period, Japanese Drama has taken many forms but is characterised by a blending of dramatic context, music, and perhaps most importantly, a strong emphasis on various dance forms.  Japanese Drama throughout its history has remained heavily stylised, relying on symbolism in both story, setting and costuming which was often highly elaborate in its design and usage.  Some more modern dramatic pieces do reflect some naturalistic and realistic approaches, however many still remain rigidly entrenched in tradition and often reflect a centuries old repertoire of plays or scenes.

The earliest form of known Japanese drama is gigaku.  Popular between the 6th and 8th centuries AD, this comic form of theatre was predominantly dance centred and was introduced from China, although it is believed that it may have had links extending back to the original Greek drama forms.   The superficial nature of these dances were rejected by Japanese rulers and by the end of the 8th century it had largely been supplanted by Bugaku.  Also a form of dance and also introduced from China, bugaku performers wore elaborate robes and the dances were characterised by a stately splendour.

Sarugaku, an acrobatic style of theatre characterised by acts such as tight rope walking, juggling and sword swallowing were gradually combined with the former dance styles as well as the sacred ceremonies and processions of the Shinto religion to form a more highly developed and original form of Japanese Drama.

Developed in the 14th Century Noh was first elevated to the level of high art by Kanami Kiyotsugu and his son Zeami Motokiyo, and is now considered one of Japan's leading theatre styles.  Noh plays include solemn dances and lyrics written in a complex, often confusing, yet highly poetic language.  They draw their content from Japanese classic literature, religion and history.  The essence of Noh lies not in the exacting harmony between the words, music and dance which the form demands, but rather finds its roots in the spiritual influences of Zen Buddhism.

A Noh program typically consists of five plays drawn from the categories of gods or deities, the ghosts of warriors, women (often with tragic destinies), madness, and devils or festive spirits.  The plays are always presented in this order and conform to the aesthetic rule of jo, ha and kyứ (or introduction, development and conclusion).

The life of a Noh actor is unique.  Training is begun in early childhood and continues throughout life, developing through seven distinct stages.  Actors are still considered to be beginners in their art form until they reach the fourth stage at approximately 25 - 35 years of age.   Unlike the method acting style developed by Stanislavski, where the actor endeavours to become the character they are playing, Noh actors simply present the characters to the audience for their consideration.  Each Noh performance has only one true actor called the Shite , this actor impersonates the principle character.  There is also a secondary actor known as the Waki, he acts as a catalyst to the action of the play as well as an observer of it.

The stage settings of a Noh performance are always the same and consist of a painted backdrop of a single pine tree.  The actor makes his entrance down a bridge and the walkway if often lined with three more pine trees.  As with the stage settings, costumes too are symbolic, however they are often very simple compared to other forms of Japanese theatre.  While the costumes are simple, the same can not be said for the masks often worn in Noh performances.  Elaborate and considered by the Japanese as objects of great beauty, the masks are usually formed with a neutral expression so as to allow the actor to bring the character to life and infuse the performance with his own spiritual essence.

Kabuki Theatre finds its origins in the 17th Century and grew out of the confusion and destruction following years of Japanese civil war.  Izumo no Okuni, a shrine maiden (prostitute), is considered to be the founder of the theatre style.  However, while the popularity of her performances grew rapidly, they were also scandalous and in an attempt to protect public morals, the rulers of the day banned women from performing in Kabuki performances.  Initially young and attractive youths took over the art form, but these too were soon banned, leaving only men as the actors and the tradition became known as Men's Kabuki. 

The content of a Kabuki performance may vary dramatically and may contain elements of both realism and symbolism.  Realistic representations usually deal with the every day workings of the middle-class, whilst the more stylised productions tended more towards traditional, period settings.  As with Noh, Kabuki theatre is formed by a blending of music, drama and dance, with dance forming the basis for the acting techniques used.  Kabuki however rejects the simplicity that often accompanies Noh productions and instead is performed amidst extraordinarily elaborate stage settings.  More recently Kabuki is often performed in a theatre setting, however early performances were performed anywhere from dry river beds to city streets with the performers flowing through and around the audience.

As with the stage settings, the costumes employed in Kabuki theatre were elaborate and were often ornate renderings of traditional Japanese costume.  An important aspect of the costuming for Kabuki was its lack of masks.  Instead the Kabuki actor would use symbolic makeup to represent character qualities.  For example red and black lines were indicative of strength, while purple and grey symbolised wickedness or demonic qualities.  All other characters would have their faces painted in white which is representative of nobility.

Just as dance is important to Kabuki, with every gesture and pose holding great meaning,  so too is there great emphasis  placed on the aural aspects of the performance.  The musical elements are derived from Noh with drums and other percussion instruments features of the music.  Voices too, are an essential and dynamic element and at all times the acting, narration and music of a performance are totally integrated.

In the Japanese language the word Butoh consists of two separate elements; Bu which means dance and toh which means step the literal translation is stamping dance.  Whilst it is now an enormously popular form of Japanese theatre,  Butoh is relatively new with its birth lying in the post-war Japan of 1959.  It was then that audiences were treated to a performance by Kinjiki in which a young boy enacted a sexualised ritual with a chicken and, understandably caused a theatrical scandal.  Since then Butoh has been labelled as shocking, provocative, physical, spiritual, erotic, grotesque, violent, cosmic, nihilistic, cathartic and mysterious (Stein, 1986).

The popularising of Butoh was largely the work of Kazuo Ohno and  Hijikata.  Hijikata would often take the role of choreographer and would direct dances for Ohno to perform.  The pair opened a dance studio which has since become the centre of the Butoh movement's development.

Some characteristics of the performances include white body paint, bald heads, and a slow, contorted dance designed to evoke images of decay, fear, eroticism and even stillness.  The dance itself differs greatly from both the convention of the narrative ballet, which tells a well known and highly developed story, as well as from the often abstract modern dance that focuses solely on movement for movements sake.  Rather the dance of Butoh deals with the act of becoming as the actor/dancer ceases to be himself and, through the process of the dance, becomes someone or something else.  Theatre director and theorist Jerzy Grotowski has called Butoh a very ancient form of art where ritual and artistic creation were seamless.  Where poetry was song, song was incantation, movement and dance". (Osinski, 1991).

Butoh actors or butoh-ka are as unconventional as dancers as the dance form itself.  The body of the butoh-ka are a far cry from the classic strength and physical balance of a ballet-dancer.  Rather they are often small in stature and characterised by a stooped body, bent legs, and rounded back.  The over all impression is often one of grotesque deformity.  However whilst posing a sharp reversal in aesthetic appreciation, the uniqueness of the butoh-ka and his performance rarely fails to evoke a  profound response from his audience.



Simon and Delyse Ryan ACU National