The tradition of Japanese theatre is rich and fascinating. Of the many forms, three are most appreciated: kabuki, with lively representation of emotional stories; noh, popularized by its unique expressive masks; and bunraku, or puppet theatre.
Years of training are required to become a performer: dances and movements are complex and fascinating; emotions are conveyed through music, masks, and costumes; and operating a puppet requires a great deal of skill. Assisting in a Japanese play is an experience that stimulates all senses.
Check out our article below and learn more about Japanese theatre!
- The three main forms of traditional theatre are kabuki, noh, and bunraku.
- The main form of theatre is kabuki, a stunning representation of a compelling story.
- The puppets used for bunraku are unique pieces of art.
- Spending a whole day watching shows is a common way for Japanese people to relax.
Traditional Japanese Theatre
All kinds of noh masks
The rich tradition of Japanese theatre includes 3 major forms: kabuki, noh, and bunraku. They all originated around the 15th and the 16th centuries, and were mainly performed in the imperial courts.
Kabuki is in contrast to noh (see below): its main goal is to shock the public with extremely lively stories, using wild costumes and sword fights.
Noh is usually based on traditional literature, narrated by a human who was once supernatural. The dances require masks, costumes, and highly-skilled performers, and are highly stylized.
Bunraku is puppet theatre. It uses big puppets (almost 1.5 meters tall) controlled by different puppeteers, and music plays an important part.
Kabuki, "the art of singing and dancing", is the principal form of Japanese theatre, originating during the Edo Period (17th century). Watching a show means enjoying the dynamic costumes, masks, and exaggerated performances of the actors (exclusively men): everything is done to create a sense of awe in the audience.
Features of a kabuki performance
Kabuki is known for its extremely lively stories
As indicated, kabuki performances are extremely dynamic: trapdoors allow sudden changes of scene, making actors disappear; while a live orchestra plays, accompanying the action with traditional instruments. Plots revolve around historical events, love, conspiracy, moral conflicts, etc. What you need to remember is that what is being shown is just a part of the entire story.
Kurugo, the assistants
Kurugo, or "assistants", are a peculiar feature of the performances. Their role is to hand props to the actors or to help them with some aspects of their performance.
The kurugo work hard to make the performance smooth, to avoid interruptions or breaking the flow. They are dressed all in black, and must be regarded as non-existent.
Play structure of kabuki
There are usually 5 acts: the first, jo, is a slow opening that introduces the characters and the plot. The next three acts, called ha, represent the main action: conflicts occur and tragedies happen. Kyu, the final act, is short and quick, supplying a satisfying conclusion.
Where to watch kabuki
The style of costume and makeup is visually stunning
If you want to enjoy kabuki in a modern theatre with western-style seats, we recommend the National Theatre or the Kabukiza Theatre, both in Tokyo. These are easily accessible to foreign tourists, with performances every day.
If instead you would prefer to experience the feeling of a traditional kabuki performance, head to Kanamaruza Theatre in Kotohira, the oldest kabuki playhouse.
Noh (skills) originated in the 14th century as a complex form of theatre involving music, dance, and drama. Noh plays are performed throughout the day, with comedy interludes called kyogen. They follow a five-act structure identical to kabuki.
Themes and plots of noh
Noh costums are usually decorated and heavy
The current repertoire of noh consists of nearly 240 plays. Stories can be divided into three categories: genzai, with human characters and a linear timeline; mugen, involving supernatural worlds; and ryokake, a hybrid of the two.
One or two masked characters appear at a time
Major themes are the retelling of a shrine's history; allegories from the Buddhist underworld; women's lives; etc. A program of five acts will present a miscellany of different themes.
Roles of noh
Noh performers start their training at 3 years of age. Their apprenticeship is a never-ending process. The roles can be divided into 4 categories:
- Shi-te: the leading role
- Waki: the antagonist
- Kyogen: the comic relief during the interludes
- Hayashi: instrumentalists, playing flute, hip-drum, shoulder-drum, and stick-drum
Elements of a noh performance
A noh play is performed on a square stage with a roof, and masks are one of its key features, portraying characters in different ways. Costumes are quite complicated, with multiple layers creating imposing figures. To boost expressiveness, actors embellish their movements with folding fans.
Where to watch noh
The National Theatre in Tokyo is an excellent place to watch a good noh play. Osaka has a famous theatre exclusively dedicated to noh, the Otsuki Noh Theatre. For a unique experience, you can try to assist in a play performed at the Miyajima's Itsukushima Shrine, with the stage standing on pillars in the sea.
This form of puppet theatre was founded in Osaka in the 17th century, and is nowadays regarded as a high art form. The big puppets are maneuvered by three operators, and the story is narrated by a single actor. Music accompanies the narration and the complex movements of the performers.
Elements of bunraku
Bunraku has in turn borrowed a number of kabuki drama
The puppets used are carefully crafted by specialists, and are usually about 150 cm tall. The head is the most important part and is controlled by the main puppeteer, the omozukai, while two other puppeteers control the two hands. The puppeteers' training lasts years.
Music is provided by shamisen, with a low pitch and a full tone.
Puppets of bunraku
Heads differ according to gender, social class, and personality; and each head is usually repainted before each show. The construction of a head is extremely complicated: every detail distinguishes the character in a unique way. Costumes are complex as well, with different layers and patterns.
Stage of bunraku
The main puppeteer wears traditional formal dress
The stage is divided into different parts:
- Yuka: where the chanter and shamisen players are
- Funazoko: where the puppeteers are
- Komaku: the small curtains used by the puppets to leave the scene
- Joshiki-maku: which separates and hides the puppeteers from the public
Where to watch bunraku
We strongly recommend watching a show at the National Bunraku Theatre in Osaka, the birthplace of the art form. The National Theatre in Tokyo is also an excellent option.
Popular Japanese Performing Arts
Theatre is not the only traditional Japanese entertainment. Thanks to the culturally rich life at the Imperial Court, Japan is home to many kinds of dance, music, and performance, influencing each other and even having a significant impact on the western world.
Kyomai dance originated in Kyoto during the 17th century and is characterized by gentle, elegant movements influenced by the sophisticated imperial court. The dancers are a maiko and a geiko, finely dressed in beautiful and complex garments.
Dance and music go together, and one of the most popular traditional instruments is called koto, the national instrument of Japan. A koto has 13 strings and is about 180 cm long. The strings are plucked using only three fingers. Nowadays, even though pop music is more and more prominent, koto is still widely appreciated and played.
The national instrument called koto is widely played
The koto is one of the instruments used by orchestras playing gagaku, a type of Japanese classical music usually performed at shrines, temples, and courts. Wind, string, and percussion instruments are all used to create this elegant and rich music.
Kyogen theater is a form of comic theatre
Kyogen theater is a form of comic theatre. It is usually performed in the interludes between the acts of a noh play. It can be compared to commedia dellarte: it has stock characters, the plot is simple, dialogues and movements are exaggerated, and its main goal is to make the audience laugh.
Booking and Ticket Prices
Tickets for a kabuki show cost around 2,000 yen for a single act, or something between 3,000 and 25,000 yen for an entire segment (depending on where you sit).
For noh plays, tickets range from 3,000 to 12,000 yen. There are also discounted tickets for single acts.
Tickets for bunraku performances are sold for between 1,500 and 6,500 yen, and tickets are sold per segment (there are two segments a day).
Tickets can be bought online or at the theatre. You might need to speak Japanese to buy tickets, so it is good to check in advance and ask for help if necessary.
To fully appreciate a play, understanding the etiquette is important. Before watching a noh performance, buy the program to help understand the plot and context.
If you have large luggage items that don't fit under your seat, place them in a locker. There is no dress code, but casual business dress is usually recommended. Don't eat or drink inside a theatre, and remember not to enter while a program is playing: that is extremely rude. Photos are prohibited; and you have to remain silent no matter what.
Before clapping, wait for the utai and the hayashi to leave the stage. If you are not sure, just wait for everyone else.
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