In Japan’s largest cities, there are theatres with some kind of public performance nearly every night, everything from noh (nōgaku), which was perfected in the Muromachi period of Japan’s medieval period, to kabuki, established and developed in the subsequent Edo period, to the dialogue-oriented shingeki that appeared during the trend toward Westernization of the late 19th century Meiji period, as well as forms ranging from American musicals and Western operas to the very popular new 2.5-dimension (anime/manga) musicals. Japanese theatre’s past, present, and future coexist in these multifarious genres, including a great variety of means of expression, aesthetics, and themes.
Indeed what are today called performing arts have existed in Japan since ancient times, as performance has always played a role in public entertainment. The first of these is noh, a kind of musical theatre known for stylized performances and masks called nōmen, and which is performed on a specialized noh stage. It is said to have been perfected in the 14th and 15th centuries by a father and son, Kanami and Zeami, and was thereafter established as the performing art of Japan’s military society. Noh, together with the comedic performance art kyōgen, which is often performed at the same time, are collectively referred to as nōgaku.
Kabuki, originally the “kabuki dance,” was created at the beginning of the 17th century by Izumo no Okuni, a shrine maiden, in Kyoto. It was exclusively performed by women, who played both male and female roles, from 1603 to 1629. In that year onna kabuki(women’s kabuki) was banned by the ruling Tokugawa shogunate, who objected both to its suggestive themes and eroticism, and to the fact that some performers were also available for prostitution. Attractive adolescent men (wakashū-kabuki) soon replaced the female actors, but similar issues arose, and that was banned too. So since the late 17th century, kabuki has been performed strictly by adult men, who play both genders; in this form it has thrived for centuries, experiencing its Golden Age through the Genroku period (1673-1841).
As the emblematic form of city culture during the Edo period, kabuki required new theatres outfitted with a variety of stage mechanisms, and it soon became the representative Japanese performing art, with its richly stylized and brilliant performances, as well as spectacular visuals. Even after the Meiji Revolution, kabuki survived by transforming and evolving, and has continued to be popular with the general public up to today.
Bunraku is a form of puppet theatre, called puppet jōruri up until the Meiji period. Its origins can be traced back to the storytelling arts of the Middle Ages, but the art that can be connected to bunraku as we know it today was established at the beginning of the 18th century in the area around Osaka. It was initially even more popular than kabuki, and while its popularity has declined from that high, today it is the subject of much activity, primarily organized around the Bunraku Kyōkai (Bunraku Association).
From Shingeki to Angura
When the American musical made its appearance in Japan after World War II, it looked a bit familiar to Japanese audiences, who had already enjoyed such pre-war Japanese traditions of popular entertainment as the Asakusa Opera. After the war Toho Company has success staging both Western musicals and original Japanese hybrids staged by Kazuo Kikuta. The Shiki Theater Company, led by Keita Asari, began as a shingeki company, but soon introduced a number of hit Broadway musicals to Japan. Meanwhile the Takarazuka Revue, a musical theatre company formed in 1914 and composed entirely of women, established its own school system to train its still popular company.
Amid the trend toward Westernization of the Meiji period, through efforts such as the Theatre Reform Movement, the shinpa (new school) school made its appearance, with the aim of creating a modern theatre in contrast to old school, represented most prominently by kabuki. The next development, shingeki (new theatre), emerged later in the Meiji period, as part of efforts to introduce Western theatre practice into Japan. Shingeki found its origins in the activities of the Bungei Kyōkai (Arts Association), organized by ShōyōTsubouchi, and the Bungeiza theatre group of Hōgetsu Shimamura and Sumako Matsui, though it is considered to have been definitively established by the Tsukiji Shōgekijō (Tsukiji Small Theatre), founded in 1923 by Kaoru Osanai and Yoshi Hijikata.
In shingeki, contemporary plays were realistically performed, and while the focus was initially on translations of Western plays, Japanese dramatists also gradually emerged, beginning with Kunio Kishida. But because this proletarian theatre movement had developed in coordination with the labor movement, nearly all of the theatre groups were banned along with unions in the imminent shadow of the Pacific War. The initial period after the World War II, by contrast, was a sort of golden age for shingeki. Then in the 1960s, a new generation began to appear, and the angura(an abbreviation for andaaguraundo, “underground”) theatre movement soon developed. The now-defunct TenjōSajiki (Gallery Seating) Theater Company of Shūji Terayama (closed in the 1980s), as well as the still extant Waseda Shōgekijō (Waseda Small Theater) of Tadashi Suzuki and the Situational Theater of JūrōKara, are representative of this movement.
These artists and theatre companies threw into doubt all the images and premises that had constituted theatre up to that time, reconceiving what theatre could be from the ground up. They also threw the modern Japanese project into question: Amid the rapid growth and urban development of the postwar period, they positioned the darkness of the “underground” as a contrast to the light above, and spoke of things that were lost in the processes of Westernization and modernization. The angura theatre favored atypical spaces, including tents and other smaller spaces that brought the viewer closer to the stage and the performers.
The trends that the underground theatre began continued from the ’70s into the ’80s, with new generations of dramatists and directors making their appearance in turn.
The term angura gradually fell out of use, and the independent genre of shōgekijō theatre gained its own firm position. The Yume no Yūminsha (roughly translated as the “Playful Sleeping Company of Dreams”) Theater Company of Hideki Noda, Eriko “Eri” Watanabe, and others, caught the attention of young theatregoers with a new sensibility, and a small theatre boom began.
The final iteration of this trend, which continues to this day, began in the ’90s with Oriza Hirata, who led the Seinendan (Youth Group) Theater Company in advocating for “contemporary colloquial theatre.” In such plays as Citizen of Seoul (1990) and Tokyo Note (1994), Hirata took his cues from how Japanese is actually spoken; many journalists have called it “quiet theatre,” as stage effects are almost unused and the drama unfolds dispassionately through the dialogue of the play’s characters. Hirata also enthusiastically engaged in activities aimed at gaining social acknowledgment for theatre, held workshops all over Japan, and succeeded in generating interest among people with no prior connection to the arts. Many dramatists and directors followed in his footsteps, notably including Toshiki Okada with his chelfitsch Theater Company, which appeared in the late ’90s, received the Kishida Kunio Prize for Drama in 2005 for Five Days in March, and has since contributed to making shōgekijō theatre truly international in scope.
Angura and Beyond
While dance has been practiced in Japan since ancient times, the employment of an Italian ballet master at the Dance Department of the Imperial Theater during the process of modernization that followed the Meiji period in 1912 is considered the beginning of ballet in Japan. Meanwhile modern dance, which flourished in the West during the first half of the 20th century, was introduced to Japan primarily by Baku Ishii. Later Japanese dancers, unsatisfied with both ballet and modern dance in the postwar period, gravitated to a new form when Tatsumi Hijikata founded butoh. Much as angura theatre overturned traditional Japanese theatre, butoh used novel body movements to subvert the conception of dance up to that point. Butoh soon made advances overseas and has had a considerable influence globally.
Still, probably the most lasting and significant theatrical form in contemporary Japan is angura theatre, whose appearance was groundbreaking and whose effects are felt even today. Angura was spontaneously generated, primarily by young people with experience student or citizen movements during the ’60s, when many protested the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. After graduating from Meiji University, for instance, Jūrō Kara launched the “Situation Group” Theater Company in 1963 (renamed the Jōkyō Gekijō, or “Situation Theater”), which erected a crimson tent in the grounds of the Hanazono Shrine in Shinjuku, Tokyo, in 1967 to perform koshimaki osen girijinjōiroha ni ho he to hen(roughly translated, “The Waistcloth Hermit Compilation—A Step Towards Basic Human Understanding”). The unprecedented act of performing publicly in a tent became a significant topic of discussion, stirred by mass media coverage. Kara later expanded his activities to include writing (he received the Akutagawa Prize for his novel A Letter from Young Sagawain 1983) and teaching at places such as Yokohama National University. Lately, though, he has returned to his roots, staging tent performances with the Kara Company.
The Waseda Shōgekijō was another key player in this movement. Co-founded in 1966 by Tadashi Suzuki, a theatre director out of Waseda University, and the dramatist Minoru Betsuyaku, the company established an atelier and performance space in a café in Waseda, Tokyo, where they performed the plays of Betsuyaku, among others. After thus making his name, in 1976 Suzuki moved his base of operations to Toga village in Toyama Prefecture. Here the Suzuki method, an original method of actor training that independently fosters the techniques of traditional Japanese theatre, was developed, and Suzuki became increasingly active overseas. Indeed his method has come to be taught in every corner of the world, in part through his affiliation with Anne Bogart and the American SITI company. Suzuki’s work didn’t just go out to the world; he also brought the world to himself with the first world theatre festival in Japan, held in Toga village in 1982. He changed the name of his to SCOT (Suzuki Company of Toga) in 1984, transforming Toga into an international location, and Suzuki became a world-renowned director.
Makoto Satō, who came from a school affiliated with the shingeki company Haiyūza, formed the Underground Free Theater in 1996 with Kazuyoshi Kushida and other graduates of the same school. He was later part of the Theater Center, and gained attention all over Japan by staging public performances in black tents. The company has continued to be steadily active since, as Satō has taken on ever more positions, including founding the Setagaya Public Theater and the Za-Koenji Theater (the Suginami Ward Public Theater).
Shūji Terayama, a poet in his youth, formed the experimental theatre group TenjōSajiki in 1967 with the noted artist Tadanori Yokō, and in the same year gained attention for performances of The Hunchback of Aomori, The Crime of DebukoŌyama, and Fur Mary. He went on to create a number of works with an experimental spirit, and conducted public performances overseas, though he died at an early age in 1983.
In their prime these theatremakers—Kara, Suzuki, Satō, and Terayama—were referred to as the “Four Kings of the Underground.” But there were many other talents at work in angura. Among these were the dramatist and director Shōgo Ōta, who formed the Tenkei Theater in 1968. His silent dramas, called the “station series,” used a technique in which actors spoke no lines and the entire play was performed in slow motion. The theatre won high praise inside and out of Japan. After dissolving the Tenkei Theater, Ōta taught young people at places such as the Kyoto University of Arts and Design.
In the 1970s-’80s, angura’s “second generation”—Kōhei Tsuka, Tetsu Yamazaki, Jūichirō Takeuchi, and others—commanded attention. In particular Tsuka, by emphasizing the pleasurable aspects of angura theatre, is known for successfully transforming angura into a popular genre. The third generation of Tokyo-based artists launched shōgekijō theatre, including Hideki Noda, Shōji Kōgami, and Takeshi Kawamura. It was also during this period that the activities of women in theatre, such as Koharu Kisaragi and Eriko Watanabe, finally gained prominence.
The 1990s also saw the beginning of greater public and private support for the arts. The Arts and Culture Promotion Fund, which was established in the 1990s, followed the activities of the Saison Foundation, a private foundation (currently classified as a public interest incorporated foundation) which lent its largesse to contemporary dance and theatre beginning in 1987. In a major development, Mito City in Ibaraki prefecture opened the Art Tower Mito in 1990, with distinct departments for music, visual arts, and theatre, under the leadership of none other than Tadashi Suzuki. Then in 1997, he became artistic director of the Shizuoka Performing Arts Center, one among many new public theatres built to specialize in contemporary performing arts, including the New National Theater for opera, ballet, and dance, as well as the contemporary theatre in Hatsudai, Tokyo, and the Setagaya Public Theater in Sangenjaya, Tokyo. In 2001, the Basic Act for the Promotion of Culture and the Arts (renamed the Basic Act for Culture and the Arts in 2018) was enacted, further solidifying the legal basis for financial support of culture and the arts by the government.
A number of shōgekijō theatre artists have chosen a more populist path, building audiences without reliance on public grants. These include Suzuki Matsuo, director of the Adult Plan Theater Company, Keralino Sandrovich, director of the Nylon 100°C Theater Company, and Mitani Kōki, director of the Tokyo Sunshine Boys Theater Company. All three have managed to work in television or movies while simultaneously staging easy-to-appreciate stage works heavily incorporating comedy.
Today’s artists are also reaching younger audiences with fluency in video and music. The prime exemplar is Takahiro Fujita, director of the Mum & Gypsy Theater Company, whose 2011 work, roughly translated as A Signal to Return, a Turned Dining Table, There, Undoubtedly, a World Sprinkled in Salt, received the Kunio Kishida Prize for Drama.
Meanwhile theatres outside of the large metropolises of Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka have gradually gained greater breadth and depth. For example, in 2013 after the Great East Japan earthquake, the dramatist and theatre director Norimizu Ameya was invited by the Iwaki Comprehensive High School to produce and perform Blue Sheet on site, through exchanges with the performing students. This work was greeted with praise and received the 2014 Kishida Prize.
With a rich tradition and counter-traditions behind them, today’s Japanese performing artists are helping to write the next chapter of the nation’s unfolding theatrical history.
Tadashi Uchino, formerly a professor of performance studies in the Department of Interdisciplinary Cultural Studies, University of Tokyo, is currently a professor of performance studies in the Department of Japanese Studies, Gakushuin Women’s College.