There are many kinds of Japanese performance. After the Meiji restoration in the second half of the 19th century, Western-style Japanese plays, as well as Japanese translations of Shakespeare, Ibsen, and so forth, were popular. In the 20th century, modern Japanese theater ranged from the all-female productions of the Takarazuka to the plays of Kishida Kunio, Mishima Yukio and, Abe Kōbō, to mention a few. The avant-garde theaters boast such names as Suzuki Tadashi, Ninagawa Yukio, and Miyagi Satoshi. However, this essay will concentrate on traditional theatrical forms of Japan, ones that are still being performed today. They are kabuki and bunraku, the puppet theater, both dating originally from the 17th and 18th centuries, and nō, dating from the 15th and 16th centuries, the precursor of both.
These three theatrical forms did not grow out of a vacuum, to be sure. During the 15th and 16th centuries, there was jōruri, storytelling to the accompaniment of the shamisen , the three-stringed instrument from Okinawa. Before that, in the 11th and 13th centuries the biwahōshi, like bards, narrated their epic tales. The most famous example is the Heike monogatari (Tales of the Heike), originally chanted to the accompaniment of the biwa, a Japanese lute. Even earlier, from the 9th century on, the popular performances (kugutsu mawashi) entertained audiences by dancing through the streets and manipulating their puppets. Simultaneously many other types of folk performances and rituals coexisted. The three primary, traditional Japanese performing arts which still exist today, however, form the basis of the discussion that follows, both in terms of what they are and how they reflect the practices of each other.
Of the three dramatic types, kabuki is the most accessible to Western audiences, and even to present-day Japanese. The situations depicted in the plays draw on human interactions. And that which is tragic about these plays arises out of problems that involve human relationships-those between masters and servants, lords and vassals, parents and children, siblings, married couples, lovers, friends, all caught in the double binds created by society's ethical assumptions of loyalty and filial piety. In Japan the ethical formula in the Tokugawa period was one of giri ninjō, one's obligations to others set against one's duty to oneself. Besides relationships between warring lords, or plays with a supernatural dimension, including ghosts, demons, and the like, during a performance of both the domestic pieces, called sewamono, and the period pieces, called jidaimono, kabuki actors, all male, enact functions drawn from the everyday lives of human beings. They make tea and serve it, sew a kimono seam, light and smoke a pipe, and so forth. For example, in the play Sukeroku, the hero Sukeroku taunts the villain Ikyū by offering him a pipe held between his toes, as a way of insulting him. This type of situation and action is readily accessible to the members of the audience.
The situations depicted in bunraku are for the most part the same as those of kabuki. And the puppets standing almost as tall as human beings carry out many of the same acts with their moveable fingers and flexible body parts. However, some of the accessibility of kabuki is lost in the bunraku, even though the plays themselves are similar and often depend on the same plots as the kabuki, because dolls rather than live male actors play the character roles and one to three manipulators, each dressed in black and most of them also hooded, handle the dolls. This is a unique form of puppetry in the world.