Asian drama: Japanese Drama

Japanese Drama

The Japanese No (or Noh) drama stands in stark contrast to both the Sanskrit and the Chinese. No plays are very short, virtually plotless, and tragic in mood. Performances of No plays are highly stylized, and they move at an extremely slow pace, often stretching a text of two or three hundred lines into an hour-long stage play. Such performances integrate singing, speech, instrumental music (three drums and a flute), dancing, and mime into a unity in which no single element dominates. Wooden masks are used by the principal character, women characters, and old people.

The No drama was developed in the 14th cent., bringing together elements from the earlier sarugaku [monkey music] and dengaku [rustic music]. Its invention is attributed to Kanami Kiyotsugu (1333–84), while his son Zeami Motokiyo (1363–1443) brought the No to its peak of refinement. Zeami was also a playwright who produced such classics of the No drama as The Well-Curb and The Lady Aoi. There may have been thousands of No plays written, but only about 250 are still performed. The language of the No is highly concise and symbolical. Quotations from Chinese and Japanese poetry are included to give the works a traditional basis; they are often central to the theme.

The setting is usually limited to a single place of extreme importance to the main character. All the actors traditionally are male. The plays center around a single character called the shite. Of secondary importance is the waki, who is often a priest and who serves as a foil to the shite. Both the shite and the waki have one or two attendants. There is also a chorus whose sole function is to sing. Frequently the chorus sings the lines appropriate for the shite, while he dances or mimes the action. It is common for characters to speak lines that seem meant for another character or to finish up another character's speech; finally, a character may speak of himself in the third person. The effect of these devices is to objectify and universalize what otherwise is a highly emotional and personalized experience.

The usual form of the play is to present two manifestations of the shite. In the first part the shite presents a false or disguised appearance. In the second part he presents his true or spiritual self. The No stage is a plain platform about 20 ft (6 m) square with a walkway leading from the back of the stage to the greenroom. The musicians are placed at the back of the stage, and the chorus is on the right. The positions of all characters are very precisely set, as is the stylized movement on stage. Developing about the same time as the No was a type of short farce known as the Kyogen. The Kyogen are placed between No plays as comic relief. They do not use music, take about 20 min to perform, and are broad in their humor.

In the 16th and 17th cent. two forms of drama developed in Japan that have since surpassed the aristocratic and difficult No drama in popularity; they are the Ningyo-shibai [marionettes] and the Kabuki. The Ningyo-shibai reached its peak in the 18th cent. with the work of the playwright Monzaemon Chikamatsu; both it and the Kabuki show similarities to the No in their integration of movement, music, and language. Also, like the No, the Kabuki uses only male actors, even for female roles. However, both the Ningyo-shibai and Kabuki place greater emphasis on excitement and conflict in the plot.

The Kabuki uses more characters than the No, features much stage action as opposed to the stately, slow movement of the No, and avoids the use of recondite symbolism and allusion that frequently make the No a puzzle. The most popular play in the Kabuki repertoire is a revenge play entitled The Treasury of Loyal Retainers. One interesting facet of Kabuki, perhaps reflecting its popular origins, the Kabuki stage is marked by a walkway (hanamichi), which extends from the stage into the audience and to the back of the auditorium. The Kabuki, both in classical and modernized form, continues to be popular in Japan while the No is restricted to a few theatrical groups and is often obscure even to Japanese.

Since the dawn of the 20th cent. the Japanese have produced many Western plays, but their influence on Japanese drama has not yet been significant. The contemporary novelist Yukio Mishima wrote some No plays that, with their modern setting and pessimism, are far different in spirit from the originals.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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