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Japanese theater has a long, rich history.  There are four main types of traditional theater in Japan.  These are noh, kyogen, kabuki, and bunraku.  Each of these forms of theater performance is very distinct and unique from the another.

Noh theater, also called nogaku, is a form of musical drama.  The Japanese started performing Noh in the fourteenth century.  Most of the characters in these plays are concealed by masks, and men play both the male and female roles.  The subject matter consists of a few historical stories.  Lady Aoi, based upon events recounted in the eleventh century's famous Tale of Gengi novel, is Noh theater's most often-performed play.  It is common for the performances to last an entire day.  Five plays are usually performed during each showing.


The earliest scripts for Kyogen theater date back to the fourth century.  Noh plays were only put on to entertain people in the upper classes.  During that time, Kyogen was performed to give Noh theater an intermission between acts.  It would link the Noh play's theme with what was going on in the world at the time by using slapstick and farce.  One difference between Noh and Kyogen performances is that the Kyogen performers do not wear masks and the Noh performers do.

Kabuki is a form of Japanese theater that combines drama, dance, and music and is the most well-known to people around the world.  Okunis performed the Kabuki plays.  Kabuki theater is very lively.  Swordfights and wild costumes are the norm in the stage productions.  Until about 1680, the plays used real swords.  The art of Kabuki was actually created in opposition to the Noh theater.  The idea was to tell more timely and lively stories to shock the audiences.  The first Kabuki show was performed in 1603.  Eventually, it grew into a stylized art form that still remains popular today.  Kanadahon Chushingura is one of the most-beloved Kabuki plays.  It tells a story of forty-seven ronin (samurai without a leader) avenging their lord's death.  People who want to see real Kabuki should attend a showing of Tokyo theater troop's Gekidan Shinkansen.  One of the conventions of kabuki theater is that people in the audience will make kakagoe (shouts) at certain times when the drama is highest.  Often, these people are seated in cheap seats and are called omuko-San (great distance ones).


Bunraku is Japanese theater that uses puppets.  The puppets used are usually about three to four feet tall and are controlled by puppeteers who dress completely in black and can be seen by the audience.  In contrast, the omozukai (head puppeteer) wears colorful clothing.  Chants and music are popular in bunraku theater.  The leader of the plays also plays the shamisen, a Japanese stringed instrument.  'Chushingura: The Treasury of Loyal Retainers' is the most well-known bunraku play.  Unfortunately, the art of bunraku has been losing popularity since the second half of the eighteenth century.  Even with government funding, the art form looks like it has a bleak future.  The craftsmen of the intricate puppets are dying, and people are not very interested in taking the time necessary to learn how to replace them.  If you're interested in bunraku, better to see a performance soon!

Geisha (artists) are female entertainers who perform various arts, like dancing, playing classical music, or performing poetry.  In the eighteenth century, courtesans began using their singing, dancing, and acting skills to entertain clients (usually men) and and became known as geisha.  However, the first geisha were actually men that entertained men waiting to see the courtesans.  Today's geisha start studying dance and music at a very early age and are expected to continue training throughout their lives.  A geisha's life is not easy and some continue working into their nineties. 

The dance they perform has origins in kabuki theater.  Similar to tai chi, it is very disciplined.  Gestures are used to subtly tell stories through the dance.  The shamisen is the main instrument that is used to play the traditional music that accompanies the performances.  Although these dances are the most well-known activities that geisha perform, many do a variety of other things, such as painting, composing music, and writing poetry.  In 1928, there were eighty thousand geisha in Japan.  Today, there are only around one thousand.  Many attribute this to the smaller business accounts that have resulted from the economic downturn of the 1990s and the increased fear of scandal that is more common in today's society.  It can cost around eight hundred USD per person to have dinner in the company of a geisha.

Japanese theater is a traditional form of entertainment that can be enjoyed by anyone, whether fluent in Japanese or not.