Japan’s dances and dramas as they are seen today contain 1300 years of continuous uninterrupted history.
This prodigious feat of conservation, theatrically speaking, makes Japan an extraordinary and unique country. In all of Asia, where tradition generally is sanctified and change eschewed, Japan stands as the only country whose theatre is its entirety has never suffered an eclipse nor undergone any drastic revivification or renovation. The most traditional form of Japanese theatre is kabuki. Its origin goes back to the latter part of the 16th century and, with extensive and continuous evolution, it has now been perfected into a state of classical refinement. Though not as flourishing as it once was, the kabuki theatre retains wide popularity among the people, and is in fact drawing quite large audiences even now. During the period generally referred to as the Edo Era, during which much of the development of kabuki took place, distinctions between the warrior class and the commoners was more rigidly observed than at any other time in Japan’s history.
Mainly the merchants cultivated the art of kabuki in those days. They had become increasingly powerful economically, but had to remain socially inferior as they belonged to the commoner class. To them kabuki was most significant as the artistic means by which to express their emotions under the prevailing conditions. Thus, the fundamental themes of kabuki plays are conflicts between humanity and the feudalistic system. It is largely due to this humanistic quality of the art that it gained such an enduring popularity among the general public of those days and remains this way today. A unique feature of the kabuki art, and possibly the most significant detail and in keeping with the kabuki spirit of unusualness, is the fact that it has no actresses whatsoever (Bowers 325). Male impersonators known as onnagata play all female parts.
The players of the kabuki drama in its primitive stage were principally women, and with the increasing popularity of kabuki, many of the actresses began to attract undue attention from male admirers. The authorities felt that this would lead to a serious demoralization of the public and in 1629 the theatrical appearance of women was officially banned. However, since the public already accepted kabuki, men immediately took over and have continued performing to the present. The ban on actresses was in effect for about 250 years. In the mean time kabuki brought to perfection the art of the onnagata.
As a result, there was no room for actresses in kabuki when the ban was lifted. Moreover, the art of onnagata had become such an integral part of kabuki that, if deprived of this element, the traditional quality of kabuki could be lost forever. Another important characteristic of kabuki is that it is a wide-ranging and accumulative theatre (Hsu, 73). Born at the turn of the 16th century, it incorporated parts of all the preceding theatre forms of Japan. Among the traditional arts from which kabuki has drawn from, stage techniques and repertoire are the noh drama and the kyogen play. The kyogen plays are the comic interludes presented between the noh performances. Today, the number of Japanese who appreciate noh proper is far smaller than that of those who favor kabuki, but those kabuki plays adapted from or inspired by noh plays enjoy a wide popularity and constitute an essential portion of the entire kabuki repertoire (Mackerras, 132). Another area from which kabuki has borrowed elements is the puppet theatre, often referred to as bunraku.
The development of bunraku roughly paralleled that of earlier kabuki. In kabuki, the primary importance has always been placed on the actor rather than on any other aspect of the art, such as literary value of a play. During the early 17th century, some of the great writers, including Monzaemon Chikamatsu, often called the “Shakespeare of Japan”, left kabuki with its actors’ domination and turned to the puppet theatre where their creative genius was more or less unrestricted. As a result, there was a period when puppets overshadowed actors and the puppet theatre was more popular than kabuki. To meet this competition, kabuki adopted virtually all the puppet plays. Thus, today more than half of the