The Japanese Theater: A Rich Tradition of Drama and Dance



FROM the busiest intersection of Tokyo’s main street, the Ginza, it is only a few steps to the Kabuki-Za, the principal theater dedicated to the presentation of Japan’s most colorful form of drama, Kabuki. American GI’s in Tokyo on leave from the Korean front may well have wandered past this massive building and mistaken it for a great temple. Even a Japanese, seeing the theater for the first time, could easily be led by the curved tile roof, the golden decorations, the red-lacquered columns, and the great paper lanterns hanging on either side of the main entrance, to make the same error; the structure is as imposing as that.

The present Kabuki-Za was completed four years ago at a cost, in yen, of over $780,000. Although the foundation is made of reinforced concrete, the body of the edifice follows traditional architectural lines, reminding one of the splendid temples and castles of ancient Japan. The building was financed by a sale of stock scraped up at thirteen cents the share from an impoverished nation. If you contrast its splendor with the disrepair of Tokyo’s streets from which, in rainy weather, every passing car sends a spray of mud, you might be inclined to regard this large expenditure on entertainment as frivolous and extravagant. However, there is no doubt that rising from the ashes of war the magnificent new Kabuki-Za restored a certain measure of peace to the Japanese mind. It was a special comfort to know that Kabuki, certainly the nation’s most popular form of drama, was again to be performed on a grand scale by famous and competent actors. After the years of prewar theatrical restrictions and the dark period during the war when theaters were closed, after the performances in shabby postwar theaters, the new Kabuki-Za represented a confident symbol of a better future.

As you enter the Kabuki-Za, you will probably be startled by the great stage that stretches 91 feet in width beneath a proscenium arch that is only 21 feet high — certainly a bizarre shape for one accustomed to the high square stages of America and Europe. You will also notice on the left another narrow stage which runs like a straight passageway through the auditorium from the main stage to the rear of the theater. This extension, about 45 feet in length, is the hanamichi (literally, flower-way), a unique and necessary element of the Kabuki stage. The actors who perform the principal parts in a Kabuki play enter and exit by way of the hanamichi. Important moments of drama are performed here, surprise entrances and disappearances through the trap door occur on the hanamichi, and there actors pause to lend emphasis to their entry into the progress of the play proper. It is a special Kabuki arrangement that allows the actor to bring his character into greater intimacy with the audience.

From 11:30 in the morning until 9:30 at night, for twenty-five days of the month, for almost eleven months of the year, 3,000 people a day can see their favorite dances and dramas at the KabukiZa. They can pay as much as five dollars to spend the whole day in the best seats, or us little as twenty-five cents to stand at the top of the second balcony.

Like the classical Noh dramas or the Bunraku puppet theater, Kabuki belongs to the oldest theatrical tradition of Japan. It is supposed to have been originated three hundred and fifty years ago by women of pleasure who arrived at the form by combining singing, dancing, and pantomime. The government of that period in a strait-laced moment forbade the performance of Kabuki by women, with the result that from then on it was produced and perfected by men exclusively. The tradition persists and even today there are no women players in Kabuki. All feminine roles are taken by men, who are called onnagata (literally, in the form of a woman). The better onnagata are credited with being able to express the feelings and the beauty of the Japanese women of old more vividly than actual actresses, and the institution of the onnagata has become one of the most charming and valued features of Kabuki. With few exceptions the actors who play feminine roles never appear on the stage as men, and have indeed created an artistic tradition and manner entirely their own.

All genuine Kabuki plays deal with fairly early history, but are classified as “contemporary" if their stories are set in the Japanese life of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, or as “period” pieces if they deal with times then already legendary. The life of our ancestors is abundantly recorded in books and the bright color prints of the old days, but we are given a more vivid view of history from the living characters of the Kabuki stage.


WHILE its historical aspect is absorbing, the true value of Kabuki lies in its beauty of form, as developed by the artistry of the actors. The greatest possible fire and concentration infuse a stage personification, eliminating every nonessential, stripping the role to its essence of emotional content and impact. The writers of Kabuki plays were in all cases subservient to the actors. Their scripts were written with the sole aim of producing a vehicle for superior acting. In fact, the playwright frequently changed his text to suit the desires of the principal actors.

The audiences, of course, were concerned with whether the plot was interesting or dull, but chiefly they demanded memorable performances. For example, Chushingura, generally accepted as Japan’s most popular play, draws crowds only if the actors are well known. People go to the theater because they want to see a particular actor in a particular role.

This emphasis on acting is taken with intense seriousness by performers and audience alike. A Kabuki actor’s technique is acquired only after long years of rigorous training. It is a hereditary art and indeed, if an actor has no son of his own, he will adopt one to continue the tradition of his acting name. The children begin their onstage Kabuki experience from the age of five but by that time they are already playing with grease paint and stage properties instead of toys. Normally, the perfection and full-blown maturity of a Kabuki actor’s art does not come until his late middle age or even his old age.

Kabuki actors must attain not only great control of the voice, for their parts are spoken in a “high” recitative style which employs many nuances of tone and inflection, but also perfection of graceful movement since dance is an integral part of the play, used to heighten dramatic effect and underscore emotion. Thus in the scene from Yoshitsune and the Ten Thousand Cherry Trees which is sketched by our artist as an example of Kabuki dance and in the cover illustration for this collection which is from an actual Kabuki-Za poster for the same play, we see the Lady Shizuka miming in dance the story of her love for Lord Yoshitsune. This dance is called a “travel dance” because Shizuka is fleeing from the enemies of her beloved. Yoshitsune is in hiding, but he has given Shizuka a magical drum, telling her to play on it if she needs help. When she does so, the faithful retainer Tadanobu suddenly appears. Take note of the make-up of Tadanobu’s face: he is in reality a fox who can change himself into a man! Transformations such as these are common in “period” Kabuki and the Japanese audience finds nothing ludicrous in the intrusion of the supernatural in a historical play.

In fact, if we analyze Kabuki in psychological terms we find that much of its aesthetic appeal resides in the interplay of fantasy and narrative. In “period” Kabuki everything is stylized, nothing too realistic. Musical accompaniment is rendered by samisen players who sit either at the back of the stage or on a platform beside it and “side-singers” chant parts of the story as it unfolds. This is poetic drama and its values are akin to those of ritual. Kabuki is not religious but it exploits the emotional appeal of legend and myth.

As with all Japanese theater at the present time, Kabuki players work as companies rather than as individuals, with occasional exchanges of actors among them. All the companies, the theaters in which they play in various cities, and consequently all Kabuki, is a monopoly entertainment owned by a corporation called Shochiku. Even though Shochiku is the most successful theatrical organization here, and last year paid the highest income tax of any Japanese corporation, theatrical or otherwise, the future of Kabuki is for some reason always discussed with gloom. According to certain whimsical calculations, every seventh year brings rumors that Kabuki is on the verge of collapse. However, it shows no real signs of fading away, and I doubt that it will. Despite the jealousy of performers in other types of drama, Kabuki continues to form the mainstream of the Japanese theater, playing in the most ambitious houses, and its precedence is still unchallenged.

Since Tokyo’s Kabuki-Za was first built, it has once been burnt to the ground, it has once been destroyed by earthquake, and most recently it was again gutted by the bombs of the last war. It has invariably been rebuilt on the same site. When the building was reconstructed, after the last war, I felt very deeply that Kabuki is indeed immortal — it is the phoenix of the Japanese theater. As long as the Japanese are Japanese, this immortal bird will spread its wings in flight. If you wonder why, I think the answer would be because Kabuki represents now and always the nostalgia of the Japanese people for their past, for their traditions, for their indestructible sense of beauty.


COMPARED with the enormous popularity of Kabuki, the other components of Japan’s classical theater are more limited as art forms and restricted in their appeal. Noh, which is the oldest dramatic achievement of the Japanese, originated with the Samurai class and through its five hundred years of history up to the present has been loved by a special type of theatergoer. Such a spectator will be interested not only in the great poetic and literary content of the texts but in the fine points of the remarkable conventions that dictate the measured serenity of the subtlest movement. Noh action is a form of dance, stricter and much more restrained than Kabuki dancing. The connoisseur will recognize immediately such conventional gestures as the touching of both hands to the mask to indicate the highest grief; he will know that a simple kimono lying on the floor of the stage represents an ailing woman and that stabbing at a hat is symbolic of a long awaited revenge.

This action is accompanied by narrative choruses and the music of an orchestra of small and large drums and a flute. The instrumentalists, as well as the chorus, use their voices, producing a sound effect which an American friend once described to me as “a high-pitched wailing punctuated with sharp snorts.” A strange kind of music no doubt when one first hears it, but most Western listeners soon become accustomed to it and find it appropriate to the themes of Noh, in which tales of ghosts and demons predominate.

There are few new compositions for the Noh theater and its repertoire relies heavily on the great masterpieces of the writers Kan ami and Zeami of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. And even modern productions aim at being faithful reproductions of the antique drama. The shape of the Noh stage, square, open on three sides and with a passageway connecting to a side dressing room, remains unchanged although performances are now indoors rather than outdoors. The stage is roofed over so that it gives rather the impression of a templelike little house built inside the theater. Whereas Kabuki has very elaborate stage sets and scenic devices, Noh is invariably performed on a bare stage with only a gnarled, moss-patched pine tree painted on the back wall as a permanent decoration.

During the performances, there are entr’actes known as Kyogen, which in contrast to the solemn principal plays with their stately music, preserve for us the clear, bright laughter of ancient Japan. Many of these comic masterpieces are based on themes comparable to those of Molière and other European satirists — unfaithful husbands discovered under ludicrous conditions by their wives, servants who outwit their masters, and even hilarious situations in a slapstick vein. Certain devotees of Noh argue that these “farces,” to a greater extent than the principal plays, have the imperishable human quality of great theater about them. Noh plays are very short and several are given together, interspersed with Kyogen scenes, but they contain some of the finest poetic passages in all Japanese literature — happily available, in part at least, to American readers in the remarkable adaptations made by Ezra Pound from the notes of Ernest Fenollosa.

The slow and stately dancing of Noh shows clearly the influence of one of the oldest Japanese art forms, Bugaku dance (also shown in our sketches), which came originally from India, China and Korea about a thousand years ago, yet is still preserved in a pure state by the private troupe supported by the Imperial Family. The music for Bugaku is both harmonic and contrapuntal, played on enormous, deep-booming drums, shrill flutes and a miniature pipe organ of several reeds. The dances, performed on a square elevated platform, are symmetrical and repeat each movement, in the four directions. Some of the dances are masked. Their themes are often so abstractly treated, or of such obscure origin, as to be almost devoid of symbolic meaning. Dance of this type is also performed at ceremonials in the great Shinto Shrines such as Itsukushima.

Last summer in response to an invitation from the International Theatrical Institute of UNESCO, a Noh company participated in the Venice Drama Festival. Earlier last year the dancer Tokuho Azuma toured America under the auspices of S. Hurok, with a show called “Azuma Kabuki” which apparently impressed people abroad as being the real Kabuki. While this show might be described as something like Kabuki, it is certainly not Kabuki. In contrast, the Noh group had called on some of the most talented and genuine Noh performers in the country.

The scene from Noh among our sketches shows two members of the orchestra which accompanies the action and two characteristic role-types, a demon and a woman. As in Kabuki, women’s parts are played by men. Many of the actors wear wooden masks, some of which are of great antiquity and value.



BESIDES Noh, the other major element of Japanese classical theater is the seventeenth-century puppet theater known as Bunraku. There is no country on earth that has not had a puppet theater, but the Japanese puppet drama is perhaps the most elaborate of all. Each doll, for instance, requires three men to operate it. Of them, the chief manipulator manages the head and the right hand of his puppet. His two assistants manage the left hand and the feet respectively. The three work together for years to ensure that the movements and the facial expression of the doll are unified and realistic. The dolls themselves, almost life-size and dressed in the gorgeous costumes of seventeenth-century Japan, are so convincing in their movements that most of the audience does not even notice the men standing in full view on stage, behind the puppets.

The small Bunraku Theater in Osaka is the last of its kind dedicated solely to the performance of puppet plays. There, in one of the early homes of this art, the tradition has flourished since 1685. Countless plays have been written for Bunraku, among them some of Japan’s greatest classics, and many that were later borrowed for the Kabuki stage. The famous Chushingura, the great cycle of stories of the wars between the feudal clans of the Genji and the Heike, and many other perennials were all originally written or adapted for the puppet theater. Japan’s most famous playwright, Monzaemon Chikamatsu (1653-1725) wrote mainly for this theater.

The burden of a Bunraku performance is divided among the manipulators of the dolls, the chanters who sit at the side of the stage in formal dress to intone the lines and sing the descriptive passages, and the musicians who accompany them on the three-stringed samisen. The most brilliant puppeteer today is the great, blind master, Bungoro, eighty-five years old and still the unrivalled interpreter of graceful courtesans, exalted court ladies, and loving, dutiful wives. Of even greater distinction is Yamashiro no Shojo, the singer, whose title of Shojo is so exalted that it can only be conferred by a member of the Imperial Family. His dramatic recitations and the beauty of his descriptive passages are considered the height of intellectuality and in the field of Japanese classical music he is unsurpassed. Of samisen players the most renowned is Seiroku whose tone is famous for its velvety power.

Bunraku as an entertainment enterprise is financially unrewarding, for only a small group of enthusiasts support it regularly. In the tax reforms instituted last year the Bunraku Theater was classed as a “cultural treasure,” and for the first time was relieved of admission taxes. It still, however, has to be heavily subsidized by the parent Shochiku Corporation. There is a curious disparity between the high pinnacle of art that Bunraku represents in Japanese theater history and the financial straits in which it has found itself for some years. Any popular jazz singer, for instance, receives a great deal more money than any of the classic artists in spite of their position of extraordinary respect and honor. On one occasion after the war I asked Yamashiro no Shojo, already a member of the Academy of Arts, how much he earned. I was surprised and sad to find his salary even less than the amount I received at that time as a humble newspaper reporter.

The scene from Bunraku which has been sketched for us shows a conventional dance of two lovers. The cloths around their heads indicate that they are wearing disguise. The manipulator at the right wears a black veil over his face, a sign of lesser rank than the two other handlers whose distinction in the art entitles them to play barefaced. If the puppets look larger than the men it is because the manipulators move across the stage in a trench lower than the platform on which the dolls perform. Is not the visibility of the handlers terribly distracting, one may well ask? Perhaps for the first few minutes of the play, but the action of the dolls is so remarkably lifelike that very soon the audience is completely lost in their adventures and hardly notices the manipulators.

When outsiders come to our shores, they are often struck by the richness of our theatrical heritage. I think that no other country has so many different classical forms of theater still being played. But to a number of Japanese, these traditions and acting patterns seemed to be a yoke which prevented genuinely contemporary, national expression. By the time of the Meiji Restoration, towards the end of the nineteenth century, when Japan was opened up to the outside world and all kinds of influences from the West came in, a substantial number of intellectuals and practicing artists found it intolerable that the stage was still filled by historical events and antiquated plot situations.

In an effort to break away from traditional Kabuki, a drama form known as Shimpa (literally, new school) was originated at the end of the last century. The idea behind it was to reflect the life of the times, and as a result a somewhat curious theater form, halfway between Kabuki and the Western theater, was developed. While onnagata were not given up entirely, both men and women appear together on the stage in women’s roles. The wigs and costumes of Kabuki have been replaced by those of a later fashion, and though the acting cannot quite be called “realistic” or “naturalistic,” most of the Kabuki exaggerations and stylizations are dispensed with.

Playwrights have been sufficiently interested in this new form to contribute some excellent plays to the Shimpa movement. Recently the repertory has been expanded to include a number of scripts adapted from modern novels. In spite of this effort to keep abreast of the times, Shimpa still provides the only direct link between the classical theater of the past and the increasingly active and popular Shingeki, the completely modern theater which is not influenced or restricted by the classical conventions.

This new theater, which owed its beginnings in part to the experimental spirit of a few Kabuki actors, brought Western naturalistic drama to Japan for the first time. This was a great departure from tradition and in effect a revolutionary event in Japanese theatrical history. It excited the intellectuals in the early years of this century and stimulated writers who aspired to producing plays outside the limits of Kabuki or Shimpa. Perhaps its greatest innovation was that the stage for the first time was open to people who neither inherited the profession of acting nor were trained in the demands and artificialities of the classical theater.

The first professional attempt to organize a genuinely modern theater group culminated in the establishment, of the Tsukiji Little Theater in 1924. It introduced Western plays in translation to Japanese audiences and its productions were directed and produced by European-trained Japanese artists. Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov and the classics of the West had their first professional hearings in the Tsukiji Little Theater.

Although it has been some years since the Tsukiji Little Theater closed down, its influence on the various flourishing Shingeki companies remains. In the last few years, for instance, some of the biggest successes among modern plays have been translations of Western drama. Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire was so great a hit two years ago that overnight Williams became famous in Japan, and last summer, in response to popular request, the play was revived. Another great success was Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, which started as a small production by the Popular Art Theater and drew such large audiences that it had to move to one of Tokyo’s most impressive theaters.

It seems strange for us to think that the struggling young actors and directors of the Tsukiji Little Theater of only yesterday are the distinguished senior artists of the modern stage today. While they have not as yet the official and general acclaim that members of the classical theater enjoy, they are rapidly on their way towards it. Together with them, new playwrights are emerging, and although it is only fair to say that so far more Western plays than Japanese plays arc performed and are popularly successful, the time also seems near at hand for genuinely good Japanese writers of international standing to appear.

Perhaps the most promising of the young playwrights is Junji Kinoshita, whose Yazuru or Twilight Crane, a modern adaptation of a folk tale, has had such phenomenal success that it has been played repeatedly in various theaters, on the radio, on television, and in the provinces. New actors, directors, and stage technicians are meeting the growing demands of the modern theater and of the steadily increasing audiences attracted to it.

When I look back over the hundreds of years of history that Japanese theater represents, I cannot help feeling pleased at the good fortune that has enabled us to preserve it safely over so long a period of time. In this country of earthquakes, fires, floods, tidal waves, and war devastation, it seems a little incongruous that our theater should have continued so steadily. But in each of the varied types of theater is a part, some portion or piece, of each of us Japanese. It is no doubt this which has made us one of the most “theater-going” people in the world.

Translated by Charles Terry