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Performing Arts in Japan






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Classical Theater - Noh drama was perfected in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries by Kan'ami and his son Zeami who refined the rustic mimetic art known as sarugaki.  Noh is a highly stylized form of dance drama in which the main actor, who is usually masked, dances to the accompaniment of chanting and instrumental music.

Kyogen, short, comedic plays developed at about the same time as noh and generally performed in conjunction with it, are characterized by realism and down-to-earth humor, in sharp contrast to the lofty and minimalist tone of noh.

Kabuki dates back to the early seventeenth century when Okuni, a maiden consecrated to Izumo Shine in Shimane Prefecture, created and performed original dances and led a troupe of her own.

The government banned women and then young boys from performing kabuki, so it developed as a theatrical art performed by adult males only.  This gave rise to the institution of oyama or  onnagata - male actors who specialize in female roles.  

Bunraku is a highly sophisticated form of puppet theater that features large puppets (each manipulated by three men), narrators, and samisen musicians.  Bunraku developed at the same time as kabuki and deals with the same themes.  In fact, many of the most famous kabuki plays were originally written for the puppet theater.

Modern Drama - Shinpa (new school) drama developed in the Meiji period as an attempt to depict the manners and customs of contemporary Japan, in contrast to kabuki, which continued to present plays in an earlier period.  Shinpa is characterized by a more naturalistic style than kabuki and the coexistence of oyama and actresses.

Musical revues date back to the 1920s when all-female troupes were organized after the manner of the French revues.  During their heyday, the revues produced many starts and attracted great numbers of fans.  Also popular in Japan are Japanese versions of musicals that have been hits on Broadway or elsewhere.

Dance - The ritual music and dance of the imperial court known as gagaku, have been preserved to this day with little change since ancient times.  The type of dance known generically as Nihon buyo (Japanese dance) developed along with traditional folk dance, noh, kabuki and other performing arts that incorporate dance.

A more intimate form of Japanese dance, designed for performance in a relatively small space and to be seen at close range, was developed from the mid-eighteenth century onward by professional female entertainers known as geisha and may be seen today in such forms as kyomai. 

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Rakugo and Manzai - Japan has a special category of vaudeville-type entertainment called yose.  It began in the seventeenth century as a form of entertainment for townspeople held in the precincts of temples and shrines; proper  yose theaters appeared in the late eighteenth century.

Rakugo is one of the most popular types of yose and is a comic monologue that begins with a prologue know as the makura and ends with a punch line called the ochi.  The storyteller, dressed in a kimono, sits upright on a square cushion and, using only a fan and hand towel asprops, delights the audience with clever narration and humorous facial expressions and body movements.

This form of entertainment was developed by Buddhist preachers who delivered sermons with eloquence and proverbial punch lines in the seventeenth century.

Another popular type of yose entertainment is manzai, a comic dialogue that originally was a form of New Year's entertainment in villages.  It is a form of entertainment in which two people lightheartedly trade jokes and entertain with the audience with singing, instrument playing, and other witty acts.

It took to the stage and was refined in the late nineteenth century.   In the 1930s a new form of manzai caught on after a duo in Osaka started making audiences roll in the aisles with their witty repartees about scenes from everyday life.

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