07 Japanese Traditional Theatre

07 Japanese Traditional Theatre

Comparing the diverse but unique format of Japanese theaters with theaters in other parts of the world

Japan is a country where theater culture prospered

 Songs and dances are closely related to people’s lives and universally exist beyond time, place, and ethnic groups. Performance arts can be found in any part of the world. However, regions where the venue for performing arts is given a unique shape as a social and functional space, in other words, a “theater,” are much less common in world history. Japan is one of such exceptional regions. Kabuki theater in particular is a commercial theater for commoners, examples of which are found not so often throughout the world. It also holds a prominent position in history, contributing to establishing the indoor space for theatrical functions, just like the Italian theater in Europe (see Panel 03).

Text by SHIMIZU Hiroyuki

Origin of theatrical arts unique to Japan
01Gagaku Theatre

 The first record of Japanese performing arts appears in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, in the story concerning the Amano-Iwato cave. According to this myth, the goddess Ame-no-Uzume performed a bewitching dance to entice the goddess Amaterasu-Omikami out of the stone cave.
 With the enactment of Taiho Ritsuryo in 701, the Gagakuryo (institute governing music and dance) was established within the court to perform songs and dances in official ceremonies. Songs and dances imported from Tang, Goguryeo, and other foreign countries were also systematized and handed down to later generations.
 In 752, the consecration ceremony (ritual and festival to induct a spirit into the new Buddhist statue) was held upon the completion of the construction of the grand statute of Buddha Vairocana in Todai-ji Temple. For this ceremony, a large stage was set up in the courtyard surrounded by a corridor. In addition to various domestic songs and dances of the time, some rare songs and dances from different countries around the world were performed before an audience of more than ten thousand people.
 The stages used for dance performance in those days can still be seen today in such places as the stone stage at Shitennō-ji Temple, Osaka. That stage has an approximately 7.2 m2 square parapet in the center, with gakusha (small hut for performing music) built at the rear and on each side of the stage. There was a gakusha pavilion on each side of the stage because Chinese music was performed in the pavilion on the left and Korean music on the right, as seen from the audience. The stage formats for performing dance and accompanying music are collectively called gagaku-butai.
 Looking at the lineage of theaters, we see that theaters usually follow the format of the preceding era when a new art form becomes popular. This pattern can be found not only in western cultures but also in Japan. For instance, gagaku-butai was used for the early Nōgaku plays that started to appear in the Muromachi period.
 The format of a Kagura-den09 pavilion, which can still be seen in many shrines throughout Japan, was influenced by gagaku-butai. Kabuki03 in the Edo period also borrowed the format of the stage for Noh02 theater in its early stages. New theaters develop in this way by inheriting the theaters of earlier days.

01 Shitennoji Ishibutai ( the stone stage )

Stage structured with a unique bridge called hashigakari
01Nohgaku Theatre

1. Birth of Nōgaku
 Sangaku, introduced from the continent around the 7th century, was combined with the local performing arts alongside the development of local governance mechanisms, such as the manorial system from around the mid-Heian period. This resulted in the emergence of new performing arts, including sarugaku and dengaku. These arts prospered in the Muromachi period under the protection of the Ashikaga shogunate and temples and shrines around the country. Nōgaku is the culmination of this trend and is a unique Japanese art form perfected by Kan-ami and Zeami, a father and son.
 When Nōgaku first appeared, it did not have a standard stage format like today, and a square stage like gagaku-butai01 was used. One of the notable features of a Noh stage is hashigakari, a bridge connecting the backstage and the stage (Figure A-d). However, in earlier days, it was not always set on the left side of the stage as can be seen today, but was occasionally set directly behind, and in some cases there was a hashigakari bridge on each side of the stage.
 One of the oldest Noh stages in Japan is in Nishi Hongan-ji temple. After being completed in Kyoto in 1581, the stage was relocated to Nishi Hongan-ji in 1591.

2. Structure of a Noh
 Noh stages today mainly consist of an approximately 5.5 m2 covered hon-butai (main stage; Figure A-a), an atoza, which is a space for music performers on the back of the main stage (Figure A-b), a jiutai-za, which is a space for the chorus on the right side of the main stage as seen from the audience (Figure A-c), and a hashigakari, which extends to the back left of the atoza (Figure A-d). The roof of the main building is upheld by four pillars, namely the shite-bashira (Figure A-e), metsuke-bashira (Figure A-f), waki-bashira (Figure A-g), and fue-bashira (Figure A-h), forming a three-dimensional space for performance on the main stage. The hashigakari is a bridge connecting this mortal world (stage, Figure A-a) and another world (kagami-no-ma, Figure A-i), and forms the center of the basic mental structure of Nōgaku, represented by mugen-noh (the format of Noh, in which supernatural beings such as gods, spirits, and phantasms appear).

3. Kanjin performance that contributed to disseminating Nōgaku
 What is particularly noteworthy about the early development of Nōgaku is the establishment of the Kanjin performance. Kanjin was “one of the missionary activities implemented by Buddhist monks for the relief of ordinary people, and is also called kange.”*1 Although the main purpose of Kanjin was missionary work, it was in essence a fund-raising activity and was also a commercial activity to gather people and present performing arts. Kanjin performances had been implemented before the emergence of Nōgaku, but they grew in scale with the evolution of Nōgaku. Kanjin performances were held at Shijo-Kawara, Tadasu-Gawara and other riverside locations in Kyoto. For example, a Kanjin performance at Shijo-Kawara in 1349 gathered many spectators not only from among commoners but also among dignitaries, and records show that the balcony seating collapsed due to the excessive number of audience members. The stage was surrounded by balcony seating about 150m wide for dignitaries, so the collapse was a catastrophe. The style of Kanjin performances continued into the later Edo period.

02 Hongwanji North Noh stage

03-1 Nakamura-za Theatre

03-2 Ichimura-za Theatre

04-1 Kobiki-cho Morita-za

04-2 Saruwaka-cho Morita-za

04-3 Shintomi-cho Shintomi-za

05 Kabuki-za

06 Takemoto-za

07 Shitaya Shrine

08-A Hakuun-za

08-B Kashimo Meijiza

08-C Hōō-za

08-D Azuma-za

08-E Tokiwa-za

08-F Murakuni-za

08-G Uchiko-za

08-H Kaho-Theater

08-I Yachiyo-za

08-J Inukai Rural Community Theatre

08-K Imayama Rural Community Theatre

08-L Haigyu Rural Community Theatre

08-M Kawamata Rural Community Theatre

08-N Sakashu Rural Community Theatre

08-O Hoichi Rural Community Theatre

08-P Daizen Shrine Noh Stage

08-Q The Honma Family’s Noh Stage

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