Japanese Theatre 101

                                                               by Andy Utech

I go to see Noh for the action. l watch Kabuki for the beautiful women. Bunraku never falls to impress me with its humanity.

   Whenever I tell people that I studied Japanese theatre at Northwestern University to earn a BS, they look at me as if I’d confessed a fetish for sandpaper sandwiches and broken glass ice cream. It tends to make me a bit defensive. Allow me to explain a bit.


   In order to understand Japanese theatre l needed to take a look at its history. This dragged me to a study of general Japanese history, Politics, Art, Religion. ln short, a lot of dragging went on. I just had to know why a form like Noh was crystalized intact and unchanging for over 500 years when it seems as interesting as watching apple cores brown. As one person put it: “Oh I get it: Noh theatre, no theatre.” I’ll give you the short of it.




 Noh started out as a bunch of workers doing wet rice cultivation. They were paid (a little) to take the workers’ minds off the fact that they spent every day engaged in the world’s most back-breaking form of agriculture. Jesters.


Eventually some of them got pretty good at it and coined the name Sarugaku,  monkey-studies. Some of them got even better, earned patrons from the merchants and a few high placed people and took the name Sarugaku-Noh, exceptional monkey-studies. Eventually one of those groups got really good and got an invite to perform for the Shogun.


Kan’ami brought his son, Zeami, to dance and do a bit of a story for Yoshimitsu in 1374. The Shogun was so impressed (either with the dancing or the dancer) that he extended his personal patronage to the group. Sarugaku was hardly the sort of name expected of the Shogun’s pastimes, so the name changed again to Noh, exceptional.


Zeami modified the form, slowing it drastically and infusing it with notions from Zen Buddhism—then very popular with the warrior class. After his death, Noh was set in store. The way Zeami had done it was the way it would always be done. It has not changed since then.


   Today Noh retains elements of its origin. It has no real plot, no conflict seen as the defining characteristic of theatre elsewhere. It demands incredible control of the body. Performers train constantly to perfect their minds and bodies. This is what I see when I attend a performance.




Kabuki started as a showcase for a beautiful woman who could dance a new dance. She convinced other women to join her and they performed at festivals on makeshift stages.    Many of the young ladies found prostitution more profitable and the stage a good place to show their wares.


Samurai occasionally snuck off to these shows (they had the Noh and weren’t supposed to associate with the lower classes) and took up with the performers. The opportunities for scandal was looming. To head it off, the powers that be outlawed young women dancing the Kabuki


Disaster. To survive, the original members taught young boys the dance, dressed them as women and put them on stage. They were a hit. Many of the young men found prostitution more profitable and a stage a good place to show their wares.


Samurai occasionally… you get the picture. Young men were banned from the Kabuki.


That left bitter, ugly older men. They tried the whole dress as a woman deal, but couldn’t trade on it. So they added comedy. Sudden bursts of improvised political satire. Trapdoors. Sliding walls. Swords twelve feet long. Colors in brilliant clashing hues. It worked. And somehow they avoided death for their political bashing.


Today Kabuki retains elements of its origin. You still find men dressed as women doing a wild dance. There is tremendous energy in the performers. Anything to please the patrons is still a guiding notion. And there is still not a woman or young man to be found in most groups. This is what I see when I attend a performance.





Bunraku started as a simple puppet show. Almost every region of Japan had puppet shows. Unfortunately the plots were infantile.


Enter Chikamatsu Monzaemon. A brilliant writer of realistic works about everyday people in extraordinary situation (he has been compared favorably to Shakespeare), he started writing for the new and wildly popular Kabuki.


He hated it. The Kabuki performers found his work too dry. Besides, improvising was more fun. They rarely followed more than the outline of a play. Chikamatsu found himself a realistic writer without any actors interested in realism.


He stumbles upon the puppet theatre. Some groups had been using old stories from the traditional stock of wandering storytellers. They were also experimenting with new large and very life-like puppets. There were more than happy to have a regular writer.


Merchants drifted towards the Bunraku for two reasons. One: the stories were great. Two; the heroes were contemporary merchants. Patronage changed form the Kabuki to the Bunraku and the two theatres fought, stole ideas, and generally managed to improve each other greatly while trying to destroy each other.


Today Bunraku retains elements of its origins. The scrips use realistic stories, words, and characters (with some wild special effects.) The puppets take precedence over people. The narrator raises the script over his head to show its importance and turns every page even though he or she has it thoroughly memorized, even if he or she is blind. This is what I see when I attend a performance.


My advice to you is this: Do not go into a performance expecting any Western sense of drama. Go expecting to find the fun, don’t take it too seriously. 



#74 Parkway Vol. 9 No.5 October 1995


















































 今日、文楽はその起源の要素を保っています。 台本は現実的な物語、言葉、および人物(効果音も使って)を扱います。人形が人に優先します。語り手は台本を高く上げて、その重要性を示し、完全に覚えていたとしても、盲目であっても、ページをめくります。これが私の見た文楽です。