〖Traditional Japanese Performing Arts〗(芸能)


【Taiko and Tsuzumi】


The most popular Japanese drums are taiko and tsuzumi. Taiko are drums you hit with sticks, and tsuzumi are small drums you hit with your hands.


【Shouting during Performances】


In many Japanese drum performances, key drummers shout cues to the other drummers. In Noh theater, musicians shout in order to share the emotions of the characters in the stories. In cheerful drum pieces, like the music played at local festivals, shouting is encouraged to lift everyone’s spirits. 


► Q:What is the drumhead of a taiku drum or a tsuzumi made of?

► A:A taiko drum head is made of cowhide, a cow’s skin. The head of a tsuzumi is made of horsehide, a horse’s skin. The skins are very strong and last a long time. 


【Traditional Japanese Performing Arts】


There are various kinds of traditional Japanese performing arts. The most popular ones are Noh, Kyogen, Bunraku, Kabuki, and Rakugo. 




Noh is an ancient performing art created about 650 years ago. It’s a form of dance drama with music, chanting, dance, and storytelling. For many years Noh was supported by aristocrats and samurai lords. The concept behind Noh is quite spiritual and philosophical. 


【What is Noh about】


There are over 250 Noh plays. In most of them, the main character is a spirit. In the plays the spirits talk about religious faith, love, jealousy, and war. The action and the way the lines are recited are highly stylized, so they’re not realistic. 


【Stage of Noh】


The Noh stage is a at space with a short passageway called a hashigakari at stage right. There is a picture of a pine tree at the back of the stage. The setting is very simple — there are no stage sets and only a few stage props — so you have to use a lot of imagination when you see a Noh play. 


Often, Noh performers wear masks. You should check the faces of the masks for how they are expressing their emotion. 


= Mask of a woman =


= Mask of a spirit =




Kyogen has the same background as Noh, and it’s performed on a Noh stage, but the style is very different. Most Noh plays are tragic stories with lots of dancing and poetic reading to the audience*, but Kyogen plays have comical action and dialogue. Kyogen plays are performed between Noh plays. 


【Stage of Kyogen】


Like Noh, Kyogen has no stage sets and limited stage props. The people in the audience are expected to use their imagination as they follow the play. 




Bunraku is Japanese puppet theater. There have been puppet plays in Japan for over 1,000 years, but the current style was developed in the 17th century. The performance is a combination of narration, music, and puppetry. 


【Manipulation of Puppets】


For important characters, three puppeteers control one puppet. The main puppeteer moves the puppet’s head and right arm, the second one moves the left arm, and the third one moves both feet. Their teamwork makes the puppet’s movements really lifelike. Less important characters are controlled by one puppeteer. 




The puppets are between one-half and two-thirds life-size. The puppeteers don’t speak. Narrators called tayu speak the characters’ lines. The puppeteers wear black uniforms from head to toe. The main puppeteers wear (ここでは)せりふ black kimonos and show their faces.


【What is Bunraku about】


There are stories about all different types of people — princes and princesses, farmers, and shop owners. There are also dance pieces. Bunraku was created and developed in Osaka, so most of the stories take place in or near Osaka. The narration is done with a strong Osaka accent. 




Kabuki is a traditional kind of theater that began in the 17th century. Noh and Kyogen were entertainment for aristocrats and samurai, and kabuki was for commoners. Kabuki has elaborate stage sets, props, and costumes, and the actors wear heavy make-up. All Kabuki actors are male, and they play both male and female characters. 


【What is Kabuki about】


Kabuki plays have many types of subjects and characters, from stories about farmers to stories about aristocrats. The action and speaking style are very stylized — they’re not realistic. 


【Stage of Kabuki】


A standard Kabuki stage is a flat rectangular space. There’s a long, narrow passageway called a hanamichi at stage right. Most of the action takes place on the main stage, but the hanamichi is used a lot — for instance, characters often enter and exit from the hanamichi. Instrumental music and singing are added to the action on stage. 


【The Origin of Onnagata】


The founder of Kabuki was a woman, but women were later banned from Kabuki. The government was not happy with actresses who also worked as prostitutes. For Kabuki to survive, male actors started playing female roles. These actors were called Onnagata, meaning female impersonators. 




Rakugo is storytelling. It’s performed by one person. The storyteller uses different tones of voice and gestures to portray different characters — small children, elderly people, geisha, samurai, thieves, ghosts, animals, etc. 


【Props in Rakugo】


The only props the storyteller uses are a small fan and a cotton towel. The closed fan can represent various objects — a pair of chopsticks or a pipe, for example. The folded towel can be anything at, like a wallet or a notebook. So it’s the combination of the storyteller’s skill and the audience members’ imagination that makes the performance funny and entertaining. 


► Q:Where can I watch Noh, Kyogen, Bunraku, Kabuki, and Rakugo?

► A:Noh, Kyogen, Bunraku, Kabuki and Rakugo are performed regularly in the major cities throughout the year. Most of the Bunraku and Kabuki theaters are equipped with devices called an “ear-phone guide,” which explain the lyrics and the storylines to viewers. Some of the theaters provide the ear-phones in English. 


< Traditional Culture


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