6 traditional forms of expression – drama

The art of acting, drama in Japan

Hello fellow readers, and welcome to the first entry of our new column ‘6 forms of expression’. In this theme we will take a look at how the Japanese traditionally expressed themselves. This ranges from poetry,to music, to martial arts and much more. So polish up your acting skills, take the stage and hear the applause, for today we will take a look at drama!

Noh (能)

Noh is one of the oldest forms of drama in Japan and finds its roots in several types of dance drama and festival dramas that emerged in the 12th and 13th century. It became its own genre in the 14th century (Muromachi period) at the hands of Kan’ami Kiyotsugu and his son Zeami Motokiyo. In the Tokugawa Period (1603-1867) the shogunate made Noh its official ceremonial art, which caused it to be standardised. Noh, or Nogaku (能楽), is derived from the Sino-Japanese word for ‘skill’ or ‘talent’.

Noh play at a traditional shrine stage - drama

Noh play at a traditional shrine stage.

But what kind of drama is Noh? Song and dance are the main focus. Movement is slow and the language is poetic. The costumes are visually rich and masked actors, who were until recently exclusively male, speak in a monotonous voice. Though we have just called them actors, they are more like storytellers who capture the essence of the story in their movements and symbolic gestures. This causes the layman to miss much of what is happening. Most of the Noh plays requires knowledge of the story prior to watching the play. It is to no (Noh?) surprise then that, throughout history, most plays were meant for the elite, though plays for commoners were also performed.

Kabuki (歌舞伎)

Another form of drama in Japan is Kabuki. Originating in the 17th century (Edo Period), it quickly became popular amongst the rising merchant class and the common people. Originally the actors were women, but due to the nature of the dances and movements, which were seen as arousing, lots of these women were also prostituted. This eventually caused the government to ban women from playing in Kabuki because of its ‘disruptive’ behaviour in 1629. Young boys then took on the roles, but once again the government banned these kind of actors for ‘moral reasons’. Ever since then Kabuki is played by older men, and some even specialise in female roles.

man portraying a femalerole

Man portraying a female role.

Kabuki relies heavily on the show-element of drama. Actors make exaggerated movements and exclamations, parts of the stage rotate and move, and the costumes and make-up are often extraordinary. This all has symbolic meaning (different types of make-up can indicate supernatural beings, main roles, villains,… for example), and if you plan to attend one of these plays, it is recommended that you do some basic research, though a heavy preparation like in Noh is not needed.


The visual style of kabuki.

Bunraku (文楽)

The next form of drama we will talk about is Bunraku, or Japanese puppet theatre. This form of drama was founded at the end of the 17th century, when Uemura Bunrakuken started his own theatre in Osaka. This theatre was called ‘Bunraku’, hence the term given to the art.

a typical bunraku play

A typical bunraku play.

Each puppet is half life-size and is operated by three men in black clothes, which often cover the face as well. This means they are ‘invisible’ to the audience and ensures the attention goes to the puppet. The three men cooperate to move the string-less puppet. Next to all of this, there is a narrator that narrates the whole story, including the voices of all puppets. The whole play is accompanied by chanters, shamisen, and sometimes taiko drums. Be prepared for a long performance, since a play takes a whole day!

Rakugo (落語)<

Rakugo is often referred to as the ‘art of storytelling’. It became popular in the Edo Period as entertainment for the common folk. A lone storyteller sits in seiza position and tells a comical story to the audience. This sounds easy at first, but most stories are quite long and complex and the storyteller has to depict all the story and different characters with only a paper fan, a cloth, and his or her upper body and facial expression. Rakugo has been called ‘a one man sitcom’

rakugo storyteller depicting a scene

A rakugo storyteller depicting a scene.

This marks the end of our little introduction into traditional forms of Japanese drama. Questions or remarks? Feel free to post them below or send us a mail! You can also watch these movies on Youtube.

Inari out!

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