Kabuki and Bunraku

Japan Table of Contents

Kabuki and bunraku theater developed as popular forms of entertainment in the seventeenth century. Kabuki combined contemporary music, acrobatics, and mimicry like that of No, and it was originally performed by troupes that included actresses. Women were soon barred from appearing, so the often large casts consisted entirely of male performers. Classical Kabuki somewhat resembles Western drama, except that dialogue was supplemented by chanting and accompanied by music provided by the samisen, a threestringed lute perfected during the seventeenth century. The plot was often clarified by the use of a storyteller who recounted the major action, as was also customary in No.

Kabuki conventions include the use of artificially high-pitched voices, exaggerated gestures and miming, and flamboyant costumes and makeup, but no masks. Elaborate stage devices--trapdoors, revolving stages, and runways through the theater--heighten the excitement. Historical and legendary themes were extended to include events from the urban life of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, such as a townsman's dislike for the samurai. A common theme in the late-seventeenth-century and early eighteenth-century works of Chikamatsu Monzaemon, "the Shakespeare of Japan," is the conflict between personal desires and the Confucian sense of loyalty and duty. By the early 1990s, there were two national Kabuki theaters in Tokyo featuring a growing repertoire of lesser known as well as classic work. Among contemporary masters working to "update" Kabuki and attract modern audiences were Ichikawa Ennosuke III, whose deft acting, clever acrobatics, and swift costume changes evoked nearly magical illusions, and Tamasaburo Bando, the top player of a wide range of feminine roles. These and other superb Kabuki actors brought record audiences to performances in the late 1980s.

Bunraku, puppet theater native to Osaka, was regarded as a serious dramatic medium for adults (unlike puppetry in many Western countries), and it flourished along with Kabuki begining with the Tokugawa period. Chikamatsu turned to writing for the bunraku when he became dissatisfied with the liberties some Kabuki actors took with his plays. A narrator, who sings all the parts, and a samisen-playing chorus are the main elements of bunraku. The narrator-singer conveys the emotional content of the play and generates the illusion of life in the large puppets, who move realistically in complex roles, manipulated by a master and black-hooded, robed assistants. These narrator-singers derive from the ancient tradition of storytellers, whose exponents continue to flourish in modern forms, now including women and such uproarish comics as Katsura Shijaku.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress