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Japanese theater

The art of theater acting has been widespread in Japan for many centuries, and there are so many theatrical styles that were born and sometimes even "dead" over the years.
The two oldest and definitely most important styles are the No theater and the Kabuki theater.

No theater

The No theater (能, abbreviation for Nogaku) is one of the most ancient forms of theater acting in Japan, dating from the fourteenth century, and also one of the finest, mainly aimed at an educated audience.

The repertoire of representations of the No theater now has about 250 texts, almost all of which created several centuries ago by the great masters of this art. The founder of this theater was Kiyotsugu Kan'ami (1333-1384), whose son, Motokiyo Zeami is considered the greatest playwright of the No theater of all time. The author of a lot of works is, however, unknown.

The topics covered in the No theater about the world of the supernatural, thus having as protagonists gods or figures like spirits and ghosts, or historical and legendary characters.
The works of the No theater can be formally classified into five categories, depending on the topic:

-Waki-noh, In these works the protagonist is always a god or a messenger of a deity, the theme is certainly supernatural;

-Shura-mono, these works concern the world of the ancient samurai, the protagonist is always a warrior, or the ghost of a warrior; A source of great inspiration for this kind of work was the epic novel The Tale of the Heike (Heike Monogatari), which tells of the struggle between the Minamoto and Taira clans for control of the country during the Genpei War;

-Katsura-mono, the protagonists in these works represent beautiful women; This category is considered the most beautiful and sophisticated, and it is that one which embodies most the essence and philosophy of the No theater;

-Kyojo-mono, this category includes all those works with various themes, that not belong to the other categories.

-Kichiku-mono, the protagonists in these works represent creatures like demons, various monsters, or animals such as spiders or foxes; one of the most recurrent figures in this kind of work is the Hannya, a very popular Japanese mask depicting a woman who is so jealous to have turned into a demon.

The scene in the theater No

The scenes are represented on a stage made ​​of cypress wood (hinoki) without scenography, the only recurring decoration is the kagami-ita, a painting on a wood panel, depicting a pine tree, placed in the background.

The music in the theater No

The musical component is crucial in the theater No, because the lines are usually sung.
The accompanying music is performed by four musicians, called hayashi, by wind and percussion instruments: the fue (Japanese flute), the otsuzumi and the kotsuzumi (Japanese hourglass drums), and the shime-daiko (another type of Japanese drum).
During the play, the musicians are at the bottom of the scene and are perfectly visible by the spectators.

At this link you can download the plots in English of 54 original works of Noh theater.
no theater

Kabuki theater

The Kabuki theater (歌舞伎) was born in the early years of the seventeenth century, and was initially very different from today's kabuki.
It was founded, according to tradition, by a miko (priestesses of Shinto shrines), Izumo no Okuni, who began to recruit some marginalized women, teaching them to sing, dance and act, and began performing in 1603 on some dry river beds of Kyoto.
These performances dealt with themes of ordinary life, and became so much popular that the style began to be imitated by many theater companies, and became one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the red light district of Tokyo and Kyoto.
The main feature of this first "step" of the kabuki (called onna-kabuki) was precisely that all the actors were women, even for male roles, and these women were often also available as prostitutes after the shows.
In 1629 this type of entertainment was forbidden by the shogunate, and actresses were first replaced by young boys, and then only by adult males, even for female roles.
From this moment on, the kabuki that arrived until our days began to form, and dance instead of acting, became more and more important in the shows.
The "Golden Age" of this theatrical style was the Genroku period (1673-1841), during which the kabuki was gradually defining itself, influenced by the bunraku (Japanese puppet theater), and it was in these two centuries that many of the most famous works were written, including those of the most famous playwright of Japanese history, Chikamatsu Monzaemon.

The works of Kabuki theater are grouped into three main categories, depending on the topic:

-Jidai-mono, works with a historical theme, telling of the exploits of the ancient samurai. This kind is closer to myth more than history, the stories are in fact often surrounded by fantastic and legendary elements, taking inspiration from classic epic poems or historical texts reworked by the authors with the addition of magic and mysterious elements;

-Sewa-mono, the opposite of the jidai-mono, in fact these works are set in the contemporary world of their writers, and describe stories of ordinary people; this realism is evident not only in the plots but in any style of representation, in the scene and costumes;

-Shosagoto, the dance works.

The scene in the Kabuki theater

The stage of a kabuki theater is characterized by the hanamichi, a kind of catwalk, stage extension, that passes through to the audience, which is used not only for the entry or exit of the actors, but sometimes also to stage some parts of the show.
The stage is also equipped with various "technologies", born over the centuries, which help in the realization of one of the main characteristics of Kabuki theater, that is the presence of unexpected plot twists and transformations.
The main feature is the revolving stage (mawari butai), invented back in the early eighteenth century. There may also be some hatches, useful to make the characters appear and disappear (seridashi and serioroshi), a cable system that allows to raise and bring up the characters as if they were flying (chunori), and other small "tricks".
theater kabuki

Guided tours, activities and other things to do

If you are planning a trip to Japan and you want to do something more than just visiting famous places and monuments, we suggest you to use Rakuten Travel Experiences.

How to use Rakuten Travel Experiences

Rakuten Travel is a very useful website to enrich your travel experience, especially if you are going solo or it's your first time in Japan.
Because of the language barrier (and more), in Japan it is very difficult to interact with the locals and to get off the tourist track.
Thanks to Rakuten Travel you can find a lot of interesting and sometimes unique guided tours and activities all over Japan (and not only in Japan), that you would otherwise never be able to enjoy.
But there's more: on Rakuten Travel you can also buy tickets for several famous attractions, events, transportation and other useful services for tourists. Last but not least, you can reserve a table in hundreds of restaurants.

Some examples

Take a look at Rakuten Travel Experiences

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