Attempting to look into the drama and theatre of the Asian world is like saddling one with the task of looking into the deep blue sea to fish out all the species of fishes therein. W. B. Worthen, based on the multifacetedness of the Asian world and it versatile political histories, authoritatively asserts that “the drama and theatre of the Asian world has a history as complex and multifaceted as the histories of the many civilizations, peoples and nations” (99). The Korean Arts Management Service affirms this position in a book, Asian Arts Theater Research on the Actual Condition of Performing Arts in Asia that:
Unlike the Western World, Asia has such a long history and traditions thereby presenting a variety of cultural diversity, which cannot be generalized into a single definition. Together with its own artistic heritages and newly accepted modern performing arts, Asia became the home to a number of new artistic possibilities. Various performing arts forms of Asia have already made a significant impact on the modern performing arts of the Western, gaining growing attention from the rest of the world (5).
Therefore, this paper only attempts to consider the contemporary Japanese theatre, however, it is noteworthy to state that the history of the development of theatres in Asia are somewhat interrelated because of the political and religious dominances of some countries over others. Take for instance the Indian literature of SANSKRIT and KATHAKALI (dance and music drama) which have lasted for more than three thousand years old still have their place of influence and popularity. The conventions of Indian theatre have pervasively influenced the theatre of Southeast Asia; the Sanskrit epic poems Mahabharata and Ramayana offer the characters and settings for the beautiful shadow puppet theatre of Java in Indonesia – WAYANG KULIIT – and related forms of performance using dolls or live actors.
In a similar pattern, the masked dance drama of Korea which is called KAMYONGUK is also related both to Chinese and Japanese theatre, and Korea, like other Asian countries, has developed an important contemporary theatre. No one theatre can be said to represent the rich and diverse theatrical traditions, the classical theatre of Japan shares many features common to other Asian theatres: it blend aristocratic and popular affiliations; it descends from social and religious ritual traditions; it coordinates acting, dance, music and spectacle; many of its plots and characters are derived from familiar literary and historical narratives and legends; its performance conventions are elaborately stylized and refined; and it performers are often trained with level of formality not found in western theatre. Since this paper concerns the contemporary Asian theatre and its practice today, it is then canny to avoid its verse history of the theatre.
The Contemporary Japanese Theatre Activities
To understand Japanese theatre activity as a whole, it is important to say that there are four different types of theatre that one can find at virtually any given time: the traditional theatres doing Noh, Kyogen, Kabuki, Bunraku and classical Japanese dance; the commercial theatres performing Japanese versions of the latest hits from around the world; Shingeki (modern or conventional drama) groups presenting a range of western-style comedies and dramas from both the past and the present; the experimental or alternative theatres known in Japan as Small theatres.
The traditional theatre forms can be found in Tokyo at either the national theatres or at some of the privately operated theatres such as Kabuki-za (or Minami-za in Tokyo). Noh and Kyogen can still be seen in various cities while Bunraku is generally limited to performances in Tokyo at the National Bunraku Theatre or during shorter seasons of the National Theatre in Tokyo. The commercial theatres are generally run by major producing companies such a Tobo (which operate several theatres in Tokyo) and Shochiku (which operates the Kabuki-za and Shimbashi Enbujo. Many Japanese productions of West End or Broadway hits have played in Tokyo under the auspices of these managements. The Shingeki theatre was an attempt by Japanese theatre artists to create a European-style theatre, a form of drama that is different from the classical forms. The Small Theatre was a reaction against shingeki and against society as a whole. The small group experimented with new styles and new work methods (see Don Rubin, Chua Soo Pong and Ravi Chaturvedi, 222-234). For instance the Angura, literally meaning “underground”, was a loose theatre movement created in the 1960s and 1970s, it reacted against the formal realism of the Shingeki to create wild, anarchic productions in theatres, tents and outdoors. It explored primitive and provocative themes, and was associated with avant-garde contemporary cinema as well as groundbreaking art and graphic designs.
Therefore, what could be termed as contemporary Japanese theatre is a combination of both the old and the new, which is, production of the classical theatre and the conventional theatre. The contemporary Japanese theatre is centered on the aforementioned forms of theatres in Japan.
The Kabuki theatre
The Japanese classical forms of theatre are still in existence, especially the Kabuki theatre, with some levels of modernization, which apparently has given it strong audience appreciation and sustenance among the Japanese and foreign audiences, even in this 21st. century. For nearly four hundred years Kabuki theatre has been a popular entertainment among the common people in town areas in Japan. In fact, the practitioners of this aged long theatre have been touring major cities of Japan since July eight till September this year, using the Kabuki-za Theatre and the National Theatre which are located in various places within Tokyo in order to reach all demography of audience. The famed Shochiku group runs a number of permanent kabuki theaters, including the Kabukiza Theater in Ginza, Shimbashi Enbujo Theatre and Theater Cocoon in Shibuya (all in Tokyo), as well as the Kyoto Minamiza Theatre and the Osaka Shochiku-za Theatre.
They are mindful of business and entrepreneurially innovative that in some of their performances they allow non-native audience to rent tablets that will provide English subtitles or headsets offering the plot and other interesting information as the action happens onstage. A kabuki performance is a great way to spend a day indoors. Unlike a Western theater experience, which will last up to perhaps three hours, a kabuki performance will typically start before noon and run with periodic breaks until evening, with scenes from multiple plays of varying lengths strung together throughout the day. You can get single-act tickets in some theaters, but you’ll likely have to wait in line for them. And seats are not only limited, you may end up standing at the back of the room.
What is Kabuki Theatre?
Kabuki is a rich blending of realism and formalism, of music, dance, mime and spectacular staging and costuming. The Chinese word- compounds in current use by the 16th century was kabu. At the beginning the Japanese added to this their own ending ‘su’ (meaning-‘to do’), and arrived at a verb, meaning ‘to sing and dance’. Then the word used by the Japanese people is kabusu, meaning is ‘to do singing and dancing’, can be considered as a verb. However, today what is known as ‘Kabuki’ is a broad concept. In modern Japanese, the word is written with three characters; ‘ka’ signifying ‘sing’; ‘bu;’ ‘dance, and ‘ki;’ ‘skill’. So, Kabuki is the skill of sing and dance can be considered as a noun. With the influence of the west and new types of theatrical performances in Japan, the meaning of the word ‘Kabuki’ became more restrictive. It now refers to a specific and particular type of classic theatre, and communicates the synthetic idea of a special and rarefied style of acting, certain types of plays, and a set and inflexible repertoire.
There is evidence that the word ‘Kabuki’ was used as early as the ninth century to describe actors. However, this use was not continued. The meaning of the word had changed completely by the sixteenth century.
Kabuki is a type of acting based on the arts of singing and dancing, occurs during the course of the development of a story characterized by dramatic elements. Kabuki’s roots lie in musical theatre. Evidence of this ranges from the onstage accompaniment by singers and players of drums, flutes and, most importantly, of the three- stringed sha misen to the offstage background music provided by the geza musicians who add immeasurably to the atmosphere and emotion of any scene. In the case of dances, of course, music and especially songs are of vital importance. Kabuki actors also have to study traditional Japanese dance called Nihon buyo. Dances make up around one third of the existing repertoire, and while some are more skilled than others. All Kabuki actors are to some degree also dances. Kabuki, in fact, began as dance drama. Many Kabuki dances were created as part of longer plays. Even when there is no particular story to tell, the dancer will still be in character. Kabuki dance is never separated from acting. Acting also is the very essential part of Kabuki drama. All young Kabuki actors, as part of their training, have to learn the basic movement patterns, postures, and speech of typical male and female roles. While some clever actors can play both male and female characters successfully. The whole performance is executed as a highly refined art. To be exact the Kabuki may be described as a play more like a revue than a drama. However, the Kabuki is a kind of classical drama for the masses and is rich in artistic qualities. Moreover, the Kabuki can be considered as a very complicated dramatic form.
The Kabuki drama is so complicated in its nature that it is a difficult task to define it in a few words. Kabuki plays are also known as kyageki or plays of the old school. Kabuki is referred to by the Japanese as ‘Living pictures’ and ‘Living history’. Both terms convey, the colour, beauty, and faithful representation of ancient customs and manners embodied in the art.
Kabuki, the national theatre of Japan, is generally conceded by scholars, both Asian and Western, to be the most perfect and elaborate classical theatre extent. Kabuki theatre is so vivid, spontaneous and dynamic that it throws open a door and gives us a clear view of the Japanese people, customs and art. Seeing Kabuki is to see Japan’s traditional stage arts which have been established for over 400 years. The Japanese Government had a seclusion policy in place for more than two hundred years. In this period, the administration was stabilized and a period of peace ensued bringing with the unique cultural development. Kabuki is one of the best examples of this. Kabuki, which is the most popular of the traditional Japanese stage arts, is still hugely popular in Japan. It is said that there are so many kabuki plays in existence. However, only about 400 of these have retained their popularity over time. Kabuki has developed by taking many elements of the traditional stage arts, such as Noh theatre and Bunraku puppet theatre and combined them with the Japanese sense of beauty. There are many unique features of kabuki performance including acting techniques, costumes, wigs, stage setting mechanisms etc. that can only be seen in kabuki. It has been said that kabuki is the closest you can get to a true sense of Japanese aesthetic beauty, kabuki is unpretentious, easy to enjoy and much more accessible than other traditional performance such as Noh theatres.
Rakugo is a kind of comic storytelling that sits on the crossroads between stand-up comedy and a one-man show. Each performance begins with a self-introductory narrative that’s just like a stand-up comedian’s opening monologue, which will gradually transition into a setup for a humorous story—some of which are new, and some have been beloved for generations.
The storyteller remains kneeling the entire time, and can only use a tenugui hand towel andsensu fan as props, meaning quite a few ingenious techniques need to be used to create the various characters in each scenario.
You can use the calendar function at Hanashi to check for rakugo performances pretty much anywhere in Japan, with a particular focus on Tokyo and Osaka. Since much of the humor is based on puns, you have to have very strong Japanese to follow along. That said, there are a handful of storytellers who perform rakugo in English or a combination of English and Japanese, with the most notable being Katsura Sunshine, who’s the first formally trained foreign-born rakugo-ka in a century—and also hilarious!
The English Community Theatre in Japan
There are a number of English community theater groups in Japan, many of which produce professional-quality plays and musicals. Runs tend to be short—usually just a few days or even a single weekend.
Founded in 1896, Tokyo International Players (TIP) is the largest English theater group in the Tokyo area, typically producing three or four shows per year on different stages in the city, as well as offering a handful of second-stage productions. Other groups in the Kanto area include Yokohama Theatre Group (YTG), Black Stripe Theater (BST) and Tokyo Artistic Theatre Ensemble (TATE). If you have little ones, you may also want to check out Tokyo Theatre for Children (TTFC). The schedules for many of these groups, as well as Tokyo-area comedy and improve troupes, can be found at Tokyo Stage. Outside of the Tokyo area, the Nagoya Players have been active since 1975, typically producing two plays per year. Nameless Theatre and Kan Theatre (Kangeki Theatre) are two other offerings in the Aichi Prefecture capital. Around Kyoto.
The Tokyo International Players is a theatrical organization comprised primarily of the Tokyo foreign community, which provides quality English-language entertainment for international audiences. It presented ‘Romeo and Juliet’ on February 03, 2014 and February 27 – March 2, 2016, and it was directed by Wendell T Harrison, this marks the first time in its 117-year history that TIP will perform this play. Romeo and Juliet is the classic story of two warring families, and their children who manage to find love. One major change to this production is taking the fabled “star-crossed lovers” out of Verona, Italy and transporting them to Dejima, off the coast of Nagasaki. In 1639, tensions were high between the Japanese and the Portuguese settlers, who were all but exiled to the artificial island. TIP’s production revisits this brief moment in Japanese history to shed light on the future of Japan, with an original twist where the Capulets are Japanese and the Montagues are expatriates, speaking in both English and Japanese.
This show broke new ground for Tokyo International Players. Last year, the TIP produced of Waiting for Godot whereby they used Japanese subtitles. While in Romeo and Juliet they expanded the use of Japanese subtitles and English subtitles for the Japanese lines. “Our fresh re-telling of this classic and timeless story will explore what it means to love without boundaries in a society that has trouble accepting it,” says Frances Somerville, TIP Box Office Manager, “a concept which remains relevant today.”
The cast includes TIP veterans Brian Berdanier, Sarah Macdonald, Rika Wakasugi, Rodger Sonomura, Paul Howl, and Ra’Chelni M. Weir II and stars newcomers Sal Randazzo as Romeo and Tomomi Kikuchi as Juliet.
The Tokyo Globe
The neighborhood of Shin-Okubo, nondescript and seldom visited, is an unlikely spot for a grand cultural experiment. Yet here, in full sight and sound of the railroad tracks, stands the Tokyo Globe, a reconstruction of Shakespeare’s theater that opened its first season with a series of his history plays – in English and without translation.
Other offerings this season will include productions of Shakespeare’s late romances by Britain’s National Theater and a visit by the Royal Dramatic Theater Company of Sweden, presenting Ingmar Bergman’s production of ”Hamlet” and Strindberg’s ”Miss Julie” in Swedish.
In an age when Japan has vaulted to the top in trade and finance, the ambition, even the vanity, of the Tokyo Globe project is somehow fitting. ”It says something about Japan,” said Michael Pennington, joint artistic director of the English Shakespeare Company, the British troupe that performed the Wars of the Roses cycle beginning with ”Richard II” and ending with ”Richard III.” ”If you imagine an expensive new theater opening in the middle of London and the first companies invited are two Kabuki companies and then Ingmar Bergman,” he said, ”eyebrows would be raised.” ‘Most Popular Playwright’
Yet the Globe’s producers are confident of Shakespeare’s appeal to Japanese theatergoers. ”If you ask who is the most popular playwright in Japan, we would have to say Shakespeare,” said Seiya Tamura, senior managing director of the Shinjunku-Nishitoyama Development Company, the real estate concern that built the Tokyo Globe as the price for being allowed to construct condominium apartments on Government-owned land. ”Shakespeare is universal,” Mr. Tamura said. ”He does express the character of human beings. We feel that the current century is a time of big changes similar to the time between the Middle Ages and the modern age, and in that kind of time, Shakespeare’s plays are important.”
Shakespeare scholars here agree. ”There is no one else here comparable to Shakespeare,” said Yushi Odashima, a professor of English at Tokyo University and perhaps Japan’s foremost Shakespeare translator. ”There are 15 productions a year of plays I have translated. So I think it’s natural to have a balance, one theater mainly for Shakespeare.” #3 Historical Sources The theater’s planners decided to model the Tokyo Globe on the second Globe theater, opened in 1614 after the first burned. The architect for the project was Arata Isozaki, who designed the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Palladium discotheque in New York City. Mr. Isozaki and the Japanese Shakespeare scholars who advised him drew upon three historical sources -a sketch of the second Globe from the outside, a sketch of the interior of another Elizabethan theater, the Swan, which offered clues about seating arrangements and stage construction, and a contract for the building of the 17th-century Fortune theater, which specified that many features of the Globe be copied. To these Mr. Isozaki applied his imagination and his own interest in the neo-classical principles of much Renaissance architecture.
He came up with a 24-sided near-circle, complete with Shakespeare’s thrust stage jutting into an audience seated in three tiers. Mr. Isozaki has pointed out that in some ways, the Elizabethan stage resembled Japan’s Noh theater (dating from the 14th century), with a thrust stage with pillars only partly roofed over. He also discarded some conventions – the Tokyo Globe is not made of wood and is not partly open-air. And he added some distinctive touches of his own -the Tokyo Globe is salmon-pink on the outside, high-tech gray on the inside, with grids and portholelike windows. The new theater, which seats 650 to 700 people, cost $16 million.
As part of their program, the members of the English Shakespeare Company mounted a stylish, modern-dress production of ”Henry V,” which alluded, among other things, to the British war in the Falklands as a parallel to the zealous nationalism that infused Henry’s centuries-earlier invasion of France. Mr. Pennington said the company decided to make no concessions to the Japanese audience, and indeed, some of the characters spoke with appropriate, although to Japanese ears probably unintelligible, Welsh, Irish and Scottish accents.
The audience sat attentively, several following along in Japanese-language texts of the play and listening to earphones that gave a few seconds’ synopsis in Japanese between scenes. With a seriousness characteristic of the Japanese approach to both work and culture, many said they had read the play carefully. Several in the crowd said they were Shakespearean scholars, university professors or English teachers.
Contemporary Japanese Theatre and “Global Fusion”
The most common practice of theatre tradition in Japan today is what could be called theatre of global fusion or international/intercultural theatre and drama productions, especially in Tokyo and other prefectural district like Shizuoka. The theatre culture in Japan is very strong and seems not to be threatened by the interface of the media technology or the new media. It still holds fast the orthodoxy or convention of the total theatre unlike the west. Many Western plays, from those of the Ancient Greek theatre to William Shakespeare and from those of Fyodor Dostoevsky to Samuel Beckett, are performed in Tokyo. An incredible number of performances, perhaps as many as 3,000, are given each year, making Tokyo one of the world’s leading theatrical centers.
There are different forms of theatre outlets and festivals in various cities of Japan wherein theatre productions are display. One of these festivals that is beckoned with a wealth of top-class performing arts and is so popular today, and that is really patronized by theatre professionals, fans and goers from major countries is the annual World Theatre Festival Shizuoka under Mt. Fuji, holding in the coastal city of Shizuoka, midway between Tokyo and Nagoya. This festival is organized by the director of Shizuoka Performing Arts Centre (SPAC) for the past ten years.
This year’s festival included top artists from eight countries who presented seven varied programs between April 29 and May 8 at venues around the city — including SPAC’s Shizuoka Arts Theatre and a stage specially built in the central Sumpujo Park — as well as at SPAC’s Udo open-air theater in the rolling hills of Nihondaira Park.
Since this festival started, its attendances have been growing numerically, basically because of the variety of drama performances from different culture and traditions. As to why attendances are growing year after year, Miyagi, a SPAC’s member, when he was asked by a local newspaper reporter how such a great festival could be happening in a tiny prefecture like Shizuoka, he said that “the answer is really that more and more people are recognizing how it is quietly but steadily becoming a showcase for some of the best of the world’s theater at a time when commercial constraints are allowing fewer chances to see top-class foreign programs even in Tokyo.”
His comments were amplified by the leading playwright, director and founder of the Seinendan Theater Company, Oriza Hirata. “Because of this international festival,” he says, “theater people here can actually see and learn about current trends around the world, and also become more aware of how to connect with the worldwide market.”
According to Yoko Narushima, SPAC’s managing director, the festival is growing steadily, with paying audience numbers last year up more than 15 percent on 2013. In addition, she says, more and more visitors from outside Shizuoka are tending to stay in the city for a few days.
In her view, these positive trends have gathered pace since SPAC moved the festival’s dates from June to Golden Week in 2014, allowing holidaymakers to add a little culture to their leisure (along with some of the country’s freshest and most reasonably priced seafood), while giving theater buffs every excuse to unwind and indulge themselves away from the big-city bustle. To help ensure the success of that shift in timing, SPAC also revised its programming to utilize more outdoor venues, including the city’s streets and parks, and even residential areas, so a wider range of people can encounter theater in their daily lives.
In addition, this year SPAC added an element called Strange Seed, which features 14 free street performances in the city center which consist of contemporary dance, physical comedy and mime. Explaining his approach, Masahiro “Worry” Kinoshita, Strange Seed’s program director, says, “I invited artists who are able to perform for very mixed audiences, and who have a real pop sensibility, because I especially want this program to reach out to people who’ve never seen theater or dance before.”
To further foster bonds between festival audiences and local people, this year SPAC will also repeat its unique Nedoco accommodation project that proved such a hit when it was launched last year — allowing audience members to stay at such places as temples and public halls for a nominal ¥3,000 per night to cover the cost of meals.
International Theatre Professionals at SPAC in Shizuoka
As a result of all this, the festival is playing a greater role in Shizuoka society — but how is it resonating around the theater world?
Certainly, many overseas artists have been coming back after their first visit, sometimes to collaborate with SPAC’s actors and staff and create new programs together.
Prominent among these was French director Claude Regy, who debuted in 2010 with his acclaimed solo drama “Ode maritime” — then returned in 2013 to create and perform a new play, titled “Allay,” with SPAC actors, before taking it on tour in Europe and Asia with the same Japanese cast.
This year’s lineup included: Olivier Py, the artistic director of France’s Avignon Festival who returned with a new version of his “The Girl, the Devil and the Mill” from his acclaimed “Grimms’ Fairy Tales” trilogy. Premiered to great reviews at the 2014 Avignon Festival, Py this time staged the work at SPAC’s Udo theater.
Another returnee is the Lebanese-Canadian playwright, director and actor Wajdi Mouawad, who made his Japanese debut at the 2010 festival with his award-winning play “Littoral,” and this time brings his solo autobiographical masterpiece “Seuls.”
Australian artist Tim Watts is another one of many with fond memories of SPAC’s upland base. As he prepares to make his second festival appearance, this time with “It’s Dark Outside,” his nonverbal short play involving imaginative puppetry, animated films and original music, he recalled in an email how, “Six years ago, drinking green tea freshly harvested from the fields just outside the theater I’d just performed in, and staring out at Mount Fuji towering above me, I felt dwarfed by the breathtaking setting of Shizuoka that is infused with art and culture.”
In a slightly different way, returning Singaporean director Ong Keng Sen, who is one of the biggest names in Asian theater, reported that SPAC’s “unique character” helped to lure him back.
“The sense of adventure in a festival is very important and SPAC has this,” he said. “I don’t believe in bourgeois festivals that are about bringing ‘the best’ together. A festival in its deeper meaning is about a time and space outside of our normal lives; it’s an escape valve, a carnival which enriches our life afterward.”
Ong is certainly putting on a carnival this year, combining kabuki, kyōgen(Japan’s traditional comedy theater) and contemporary theater actors with ones from Singapore and Indonesia in his self-styled “global fusion” production of leading Japanese playwright Hideki Noda’s “Richard Sandaime” (“Third-generation Richard”), based loosely on Shakespeare’s “Richard III.”
Explaining that he is “particularly interested in intercultural interfaces, meaning dialogues between cultures,” Ong says he is eagerly awaiting Miyagi’s new work “The White Hare of Inaba-Navajo.”
In this play, which will have its world premiere at the festival, Miyagi introduces the well-known Japanese fable, “The White Hare of Inaba,” and a strangely similar story common among Native Americans — then proceeds to create a third version.
In exploring how the ancient fable may have crossed the Pacific and then been transformed, the festival’s artistic director says he was happy to be pursuing the kind of “intercultural interface” beloved by Ong. He also says he has every intention of inviting more great foreign artists as well as introducing the world to Japanese plays by taking his “White Hare” to France in June, for instance, following his Avignon Festival triumph with “Mahabharata” two years ago. Besides these five programs by returning artists, two first-timers will join the festival this year.
Already well-known here for his prints and drawings, South African artist William Kentridge will debut with “Ubu and the Truth Commission.” Created in collaboration with compatriots from the famed Handspring Puppet Company, this work combining Kentridge’s puppetry with live acting, animation and documentary films is intriguingly billed as an updated version of Alfred Jarry’s powerful and groundbreaking 1896 absurdist play “Ubu Roi” — but set in the post-apartheid era.
The other newcomer this year is Lebanese actress Sawsan Bou Khaled, who will perform “Alice,” a nightmarish solo play she wrote and directs that had its world premiere in Beirut in 2013.
All in all, Miyagi seems to be well on course to giving Japan its own outstandingly welcoming, top-notch variant on Avignon’s renowned annual international arts event — and one held in a similarly marvelous natural setting, too.
The contemporary theatre professionals and buffs have not been cornered by the technological advances of the old and the new media which seem to pose a great threat on conventional theatre practices, because they have chosen to hold tenaciously onto their traditional theatre heritage, though now modified with modern elements, and have also entertain international/inter-cultural drama in their land, that is opening up doors for various artists from different parts of the world to enrich the aesthetics of theatre, especially in terms of cultural exchange of values and themes. This practice and reverence of theatre is worthy of emulation in order to sustain the life of the live theatre irrespective of technological interface.
Harris, J Wesley. The Traditional Theatre of Japan. Edwin Mellen Press: USA, 2003. Print.
Worthen, W. B. The Harcourt Anthology of Drama: Brief Edition. University of California, Berkeley, 2002. Print.
Tanaka, Nobuko. Theatre Festival’s Root Dip Deep into Shizuoka: Shizuoka Performing Arts Centre. 2016 .