Noh mask

Enrich Your Knowledge of Traditional Japanese Theater

There are four families of traditional Japanese theatre: Noh,Kyogen, Kabuki, and Bunraku (puppet theatre).

Noh stage

Noh stage

Noh (能) and Kyogen ((狂言)

Derived from the Japanese term for skill, Noh is a musical drama. Noh has been staged since the 14th century. Noh performances traditionally last for an entire day, with five Noh sections interspersed with shorter, humorous Kyogen pieces.

Kyogen links the theme of the Noh play with the contemporary world through slapstick or farce. Originally, Noh was  performed only for higher classes. Unlike Noh, Kyogen performers didn’t have to wear a mask unless their role calls for it.

Kabuki actor on stage

Kabuki actor on stage

Kabuki (歌舞伎)

Kabuki is a classic Japanese dance-music-drama performance known for its stylized conventions and very elaborate makeup. Its fame also comes from wild costumes and the swordfights, which used authentic swords until 1680. Kabuki started out as an oppositional response to Noh. Actors wanted to amaze the audience with more current, livelier story lines. Through time, Kabuki was not just a brand new method, but also became a stylized theatre art in its own right.

The famous Tokyo-based Gekidan Shinkansen theatrical troupe follows pure tradition by performing roles and events in a noisy, modern, and outlandish way, to shock the crowd as was originally intended.

Bunraku wiki

Bunraku (文楽)

Bunraku is traditional Japanese puppet theatre, founded in Osaka in 1684. Three types of performers take part in a bunraku performance–the ningyotsukai (puppeeters), tayu (chanters), and shamisen players. (A shamisen is a three-stringed musical instrument.)

The character Osono, from the play Hade Sugata Onna Maiginu (艶容女舞衣), in a performance by the Tonda Puppet Troupe of Nagahama, Shiga Prefecture. | User:Boonrock

The shamisen player is also the director. Puppets are three- to four-ft.-tall dolls manipulated by puppeteers in full audience view. The individuals who control the extremities of the puppets are usually dressed in black. Chanting and music are popular conventions of bunraku.