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AN ANALYSIS OF ASIAN THEATRE

English Language & Literature Project Topics & Materials

AN ANALYSIS OF ASIAN THEATRE

Introduction

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 KULIT – 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 Minamiza 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 shamisen 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 Theatre

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.

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