Dictionary of World Literature: Criticism, Forms, Technique

By Joseph T. Shipley | Go to book overview

J

JAPANESE DRAMA. Noh; Kabuki; Bunraku. The Japanese Noh are lyric dramas, popular for 600 years. They were all (ca. 300) written before the 16th c. Kiyotsugu ( 1355- 1406) crystallized existing fragments of poetry, probably by Buddhist monks, into the dramas now classical. Kiyotsugu also availed himself of the kagura (pantomimic dances), a part of the Shinto festivals.

The Noh are performed on a simple stage; the audience sits on three sides. An open walk leads from the actor's dressing- rooms to the platform itself; along this the actors make their impressive entrances. To the right is the "hurry-door" thru which go the chorus, prompters, clown. The background of the stage is painted with the pine tree, symbolic of faithful endurance; there is no other scenery, and none but the simplest of properties.

A single Noh play lasts about an hour, but an entire performance, which is made up of some 5 tragedies together with interlude farces, lasts a day. The form is somewhat like our opera, the actors singing both arias and recitative. A chorus (ji) chants at intervals, informing the audience of events which are taking place, describing natural surroundings, or speaking of the emotions of the actors.

There are generally from 2 to 6 actors in a Noh drama: the hero (shite); his companion (tsure); a sort of deuteragonist, who, representing the audience, wears no mask (waki); his companion (tsure); a child (kokata) and a supplementary actor (ahi). Their masks are in themselves works of art. The stiff formality of their costumes together with the beautiful masks and wigs, completely disguises the fact that all Noh actors are men.

The technique of action is a miracle of delicacy and charm. Under-statement is the keynote; "art hidden by its own perfection". The plots of the plays are simple; the poetical construction and ring appeal to the emotions and supply the charm. The ancient language-form in which the Noh is written is difficult for any save the most cultured of the Japanese. Until 1868 the Noh play was the exclusive prerogative of the upper classes. When the Meiji Restoration abolished class distinctions, the common people found they could neither understand nor enjoy the Noh. Then the Kabuki, long popular, became established; though in its origin, first with women players, then with boys, it had been suppressed ( 1629; 1652). The word kabuki is formed of three Chinese ideographs: 'singing', 'dancing', 'art'. The modern Kabuki-Za (theater) has a large, western-style stage, equipped with a revolving stage as well as a 'Flowery Walk' from the stage up the left aisle to the lobby of the theater.

The Kabuki is in form rather like operetta. The dialogue is chanted and the whole is liberally decorated with songs and, even more, with dances. An evening's performance generally consists of 4 plays (6 acts) and lasts 5 or 6 hours.

As in the Noh, all Kabuki actors are men. The roles of women are taken by onna-kata (female impersonators) greatly skilled in their art. The costumes are more realistic. Kabuki is primarily a spectacle for the eye rather than for the ear. Intellectual appeal is subordinated to emotional. Make-up, costumes, scenery, technique of acting, text, are exaggerated to heighten the sensuous effect. This, of course, is in direct contrast to the technique of understatement employed in the Noh drama.

Bunraku.The Bunraku (puppet-play) is also an entertainment for the common people. Many of the plays (joruri) in the Kabuki repertoire follow the puppet style, which came into favor when Kabuki was temporarily prohibited on the ground of the actors' immorality. The dolls are so constructed that they can move eyes, brows, mouth, and even individual fingers. They are about half the size of the operator, who stands in full view of the audience behind the single doll he handles. The watcher very shortly becomes blind to these unprepossessing old men, and entirely absorbed in the beautiful puppets themselves.

A. Iacovleff, and S. Elisseeff, Le Théâtre Jap. (Kabuki), 1933; Z. Kincaid, Kabuki, the Povular Stage of Japan, 1925; A. Maybon, Le théâtre jap., 1925; A.Waley

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Dictionary of World Literature: Criticism, Forms, Technique
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface v
  • ADVISERS and CONTRIBUTORS vii
  • SUGGESTIVE LIST OF ASSOCIATED TOPICS xi
  • Abbreviations xiv
  • A 1
  • B 63
  • C 82
  • D 145
  • E 182
  • F 229
  • G 277
  • H 296
  • I 310
  • J 339
  • K 346
  • L 347
  • M 365
  • N 394
  • Q 468
  • S 500
  • T 572
  • U 599
  • W 619
  • Y 631
  • Z 633
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