Places, Images, Times & Transformations

The oldest extant professional theater; a form of musical dance-drama originating in the 14th century. preserves an origin based in ritual, reflecting an essentially Buddhist view of existence. Performances look and sound more like solemn observances than life. The actors are hieratic, playing their ancient roles of intermediaries between the worlds of gods and people. To the bare stage come soberly dressed instrumentalists, the six- or eight-member chorus, then the supporting character, handsomely robed, often as a priest. Finally, out of the darkness, evoked by drums and flute, the resplendently dressed (and usually masked) leading character materializes. In strict rhythms, out of music, voice, and movement rather than stagecraft, time and space are created and destroyed. Language is largely poetic. Costumes are rich and heavy; movement, even in dance, deliberate. The leading character seeks intercession by the priest, and having attained it at the end, returns to the darkness free of karma. All performers are male; and most are born into families that specialize in theater. is rich in traditional conventions including expressive masks; elegant yet minimalist sets; evocative sound effects from drums, flutes, and chanting; stylized movements and gestures; and luxurious costumes. About 240 plays are performed today, most of which date from the 15th century. Most of the language used is 14th-century upper-class Japanese. Today, has a small but dedicated following. (adapted from Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1993)

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