The World’s A Stage: Japan

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Japan is often depicted in the Western cultural imagination as the epitome of hyper-modernity: a land of robots, anime, bullet trains and overpopulated metropolises. However, for all its obsession with the new, many elements of traditional Japanese culture still remain, not least the theatrical arts of Noh and Kabuki, protected by the government as national treasures.

I first encountered the other-worldly, aristocratic art of Noh as an exchange student in Tokyo. In a quiet auditorium square, a stage of Japanese cypress sheltered under the eaves of a shrine roof.

The scene was entirely bare, save for a pine tree painted upon the back wall. The musicians, clad in formal black kimono, entered and began to play; the piercing voice of a flute, discordant and melancholy, faded into the snaps of hand drums and the lingering, ethereal cries of the players.

Most Noh plays concern a tormented spirit unable to renounce its ties to the world seeking salvation from a Buddhist monk, and often these are the only two actors on stage. Clad in an elaborately carved mask, the principal actor traverses the stage, sometimes dancing, sometimes singing, in a slow but intense performance profoundly removed from the naturalistic conventions of Western theatre. With one step he traverses a thousand miles whilst landscapes may be suggested by no more than a wave of a fan.

A vital part of aristocratic culture, Noh is an experience at once religious and dramatic: an entry point into a spiritual world of breathtaking depth and subtlety.

In contrast with Noh, where much of the (elderly) audience appear to be there to sleep, Kabuki is a fireworks display of flash costumes, elaborate make-up, intricate staging and dramatic set-pieces.

Peopled with larger than life heroes and villains, often jousting for the love of famous courtesans (played, in Shakespearean style, by men), the stories are akin with 18th century soap-opera, filled with tragic love, suicide, revenge and duty.

Noh and Kabuki were both born out of the milieu of pre-modern Japanese culture, but ultimately show off the diversity of dramatic techniques within it. From the aristocratic, serious and stately, to the populist, gaudy and glamorous, they represent differing ends of the spectrum of traditional,Japanese arts.

In their heavy stylization they have influenced many foreign, writers and directors looking to break away from conventional naturalism in Western theatre, whilst travellers to Japan may still find much in them to inspire new ways of performing.

 

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