Japanese Theater From Traditional to Modern
Discover Japanese Theater from the traditional (Kabuki, Noh, Kyogen, Bunraku, Gagaku, Geisha and Maiko) to the modern (Takarazuka, Shiki Theatre etc) with our guide!
Japanese theater is undeniably one of the most significant pieces of Japanese culture. Having survived World War II, it has continuously developed and is still widely popular today. Its extensive and rich history has deemed many of the performances themselves, including Kabuki (1965), Noh (1957), Bunraku (1955) and Gagaku (1955), “Intangible Cultural Heritage” as designated by UNESCO. Attending one of these performances allows one to acquire a deeper understanding of Japanese culture and history. Moreover, newer forms of the performing arts give an invaluable window into the Japan of today and are well worth seeking out.
Read on below for our rundown of the very best Japanese theater has to offer:
What is Kabuki? Kabuki (歌舞伎) is a major form of traditional Japanese drama in which male actors dress up in eccentric costumes, impressive makeup, stylized wigs and perform various exaggerated actions. The word “kabuki” is a combination of 3 different Japanese characters: 歌 (sing), 舞 (dance) and 伎 (skill) – it can thus be interpreted as the art of dancing and singing. It is also believed that “kabuki” originates from the word “kabuku” (傾く ) which literally means “to tilt one’s head” but can be understood as “outlandish” or “bizarre appearance”.
The history of Kabuki dates back to 1603 when it was first introduced to Japan by Izumo no Okuni and swiftly began to be widely performed by numerous female troupes. As a large number of the performers were also prostitutes, Kabuki began to be known as “遊女歌舞妓” (yuujokabuki) – the art of prostitution, singing, and dancing. Its association with the red-light district led to its banning in 1629. This was gotten around through the simple substitution of females for males. As a result, in today’s performances, all of the characters, including the female roles, are played by men.
For more detailed information on Kabuki, please click here.
Why should you watch Kabuki? Watching Kabuki, audiences are mesmerized by how elegantly and skillfully the actors control their extraordinary costumes, by how dynamic the stage sets are and by the beautiful live traditional music. Don’t worry if you don’t speak Japanese because the performers tend to use old forms of Japanese which are even difficult for a native speaker to understand. Though, some theatres do offer English guides and you could even prepare by reading the story in advance.
Where to watch Kabuki? You can watch Kabuki in Tokyo (Kabuki-za Theatre, Shimbashi Enbujo Theatre, Theatre Cocoon, National Theatre), Osaka (Osaka Shochiku-za Theatre), Kyoto (Minami-za Theatre) and Fukuoka (Hakata-za Theatre). Of these, Kabuki-za is probably the best option for tourists, providing audiences with a decent English booking site, English headsets, and has several plays available every day. Be aware that the dress code for a performance is commonly quite formal.
How much does it cost to watch Kabuki? Kabuki ticket price ranges from 4,000 to 20,000 yen depending on the shows and seat types.
How long is Kabuki performance? You can choose to watch a full kabuki performance consisting of 3 to 4 acts (4-6 hours), or watch only a single act (30 minutes to 2 hours).
What is Noh? The word “Noh” comes from the Japanese character 能 meaning “skills” and is the name of a traditional theatrical art form combining drama, music, dance and mask usage.
Noh is claimed to originate from several art forms: sangaku (a form of art brought to Japan from China involving short dances, word plays, impersonations and later developed into sarugaku), dengaku (rustic Japanese music and dance which became a part of the Japanese oral tradition and were used as a ritual during rice planting), and kagura (a Shinto religious dance). Actor and musician Kanami Kiyotsugu surreptitiously performed Noh with his son, Zeami Motokiyo, in front of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the powerful Shogun ruler at a shrine in Kyoto, peeking the leaders interest. Thanks to this interest, the art form became highly refined and deemed an official ceremonial performance. Zeami is now said to be the founder of the art form, inheriting Noh from his father and working to perfect and cement its cultural significance.
For more detailed information about Noh, please click here.
Why should you watch Noh? Watching traditional theatrical art such as this is a good way to gain an insight into Japanese performing art culture. Different from Kabuki, Noh is best known for its simplicity and the slow but elegant movement of the actors. The stage is also simplified, with few stage props and no separation between the audience and the stage. In Noh, the chorus, the musicians, and the performers are all on stage together, the actors’ chanting and singing accompanied by the chorus or the flutes and drums of the musicians. Noh plots are generally located in the real world or relate to supernatural beings, with historical or classical literary subjects. Some of the plots can be found here.
How much does it cost to watch Noh? Ticket price varies from 1,000 to 15,000 yen and tickets can be bought directly from the counter.
How long is Noh performance? In the past, a Noh performance could last several hours or all day, due to its three to five acts and kyogen in between as a break to relax the audience. Nowadays, two Noh plays are separated by one kyogen intermission.
What is Kyogen? The word “Kyogen” (狂言) is formed from two different Japanese characters: 狂 (mad) and 言 (word). It follows then that Kyogen is a form of spoken drama, a traditional comic theater wthat aims to draw laughter from the audiences through comedy, satire and language. Similar to Noh, the origin of Kyogen are believed to come from sarugaku and Kyogen is often considered the sister theatrical art form of Noh. Nevertheless, there are several significant differences between Noh and Kyogen. Kyogen mostly stresses dialogue over music and dance and the use of masks is less frequent.
For more detailed information about Kyogen, please click here.
Why should you watch Kyogen? Kyogen is closely associated with Noh, and will typically be performed between two Noh acts. Noh and Kyogen complement each other as Kyogen serves as a relaxing and amusing way for the audiences to refresh before another Noh act. Kyogen uses the daily life of normal people and folk tales as the main material to tell stories to the audiences. As a result, Kyogen presents a simplified version of character types and stage setting as well as limits the usage of props.
Where to watch Kyogen? As explained above, Kyogen often serves as an intermission between two Noh acts. Therefore, as you watch a performance at a Noh theater, you will be able to watch Kyogen as well. If you want to watch only Kyogen, Veltra offers a chance to watch an easier to understand version of Kyogen and a backstage tour (Click here for more information). Furthermore, if you happen to be in Kyoto, you can watch Kyogen at an affordable price (800 yen) at Mibu-dera Temple.
How much does it cost to watch Kyogen? Tickets for a Noh-Kyogen performance range from 10,00 to 15,000 yen.
How long is Kyogen performance? Each Kyogen act lasts for 10 to 30 minutes.
What is Bunraku? The word “Bunraku” (文楽) is used to refer to the Japanese traditional puppet theatre created in Osaka during the Edo period. Before “Bunraku” came to signify puppet arts, the term “Ningyo-joruri” (人形浄瑠璃), meaning puppet joruri, was used. Joruri is a musical genre in which narrative is sung by a courtesan and accompanying music is provided by a shamisen – a traditional Japanese instrument. Now, in Bunraku plays, the performers manipulate human-sized puppets with shamisen accompaniment and chanted narrative as background sound.
For more detailed information about Bunraku, please click here.
Why should you watch Bunraku? Bunraku is extremely unique, successfully distinguishing itself by dealing with dramatic, serious plots instead of simple, familiar myths or legends, and by having three puppeteers directly controlling an on-stage puppet. Audiences can enjoy the interesting narrative, amazing sounds of the Shamisen, the visually satisfying beauty of the puppets, as well as admire the professional manipulation skills of the puppeteers.
Where to watch Bunraku? You can catch Bunraku at the National Theatre in Tokyo and at the National Bunraku Theatre in Osaka. English audio guides are available.
How much does it cost to watch Bunraku? Ticket prices range from 1,000 to 6,000 yen. Tickets can be purchased online here or at the counter.
How long is Bunraku performance? A Bunraku show lasts for approximately 4 hours.
Geisha and Maiko Dance Performances
What are Geisha and Maiko? The word “Geisha” (芸者) is created from two Japanese characters 芸 (art) and 者 (person) whilst the word “Maiko” (舞子/舞妓) consists of the two characters 舞 (dancing) and 子/ 妓 (child) – with ‘child’ referencing the traditional role of Maiko as apprentice Geisha. Geisha serve as highly-trained entertainers and hostesses, skilful in various traditional performing arts. Though Geisha and Maiko are often characterised as prostitutes they in fact only sell their artistic talents and abilities, not their bodies. Geisha and Maiko, known for their white makeup covering their neck and face as well as their distinctive hairstyles, are widely admired.
Why should you watch Geisha and Maiko performances? To become a Geisha, Maiko have to train for years, learning how to play various traditional musical instruments (drum, shamisen, flute), plus how to sing, dance and how to entertain their customers through conversation in tea houses. Thus, they are extremely skilled and represent the most traditional side of Japan. Watching their performances, you glimpse a culture that has been preserved and passed down for centuries.
Where to watch Geisha and Maiko performances and how much does it cost? There are many ways for tourists to enjoy Geisha and Maiko performances in every price range.
One of the most expensive ways is to dine at Gion Hatanaka while watching a Maiko performance. This will cost up to 19,000 yen per person.
Kyoto Gion Corner provides tourists with a more reasonable option: for 3,150 yen per person, tourists can watch seven kinds of performing arts including a dance performed by Maiko.
The Geisha communities normally hold annual public shows for ordinary people including tourists at different times of the year: Kitano Odori during the end of March and the beginning of April (4,300 yen per person), Miyako Odori (4,200 yen / first class ticket and 2,500 yen / second class ticket) and Kyo Odori in April (4,200 yen / first class ticket and 2,200 / second class ticket), Kamogawa Odori ( 4,000 yen / special seat and 2,000 yen / ordinary seat) in May and Gion Odori in November (3,500 yen per person).
If you happen to be in Kyoto in March, watch Maiko dance for free at the Kagura Hall of Yasaka Shrine during the annual Kyoto Higashiyama Hanatouro Festival.
How long is each performance? 15 minutes to 1 hour or more.
What is Gagaku? The word “Gagaku” (雅楽) is formed from two Japanese characters: 雅 (elegant) and 楽 (music) – literally meaning “elegant music” and used to refer to the Japanese Imperial Court Music and Dance. Similar to other art forms, Gagaku was brought to Japan from China, then evolving from its origins into how we know it today. Gagaku is now performed in three different forms: Kangen (music of wind, string and percussion instruments), Bugaku (dance music without string instruments) and vocalized poetry. Gagaku is performed at the Imperial Court, within upper-class society, in some major temples and shrines and even at events abroad.
Why should you watch Gagaku? Gagaku is considered one of the oldest forms of orchestra music and a Japanese national treasure, sure to conjure feelings of Imperial majesty and decadence.
Where to watch Gagaku? You can sometimes watch Gagaku at National Theatre in Tokyo.
How much does it cost to watch Gagaku? The prices vary between 3,200 to 4,500 yen.
What is Takarazuka? Takarazuka Revue (宝塚) is the name of a unique all-female theater company based in Hyogo, Japan. Takarazuka are famous for their splendid, theatrical, Broadway-style performances formed from a range of sources, including Western musical plays (Me and My Girl), shojo mangas (The Rose of Versailles) and Japanese folktales.
Takarazuka was founded by Ichizo Kobayashi – also the founder of Hankyu Railway – in an effort to replace the problem-riddled hot spring resort in Hyogo, opened to lure passengers onto his trains. Since their debut performance in 1914, they have grown significantly, performing not only in Japan but also abroad. Takarazuka currently has 5 different troupes, each in charge of conducting different shows (Flower troupe, Moon troupe, Snow troupe, Star troupe, Cosmos troupe) and a Senka group consisting of specialist members not belonging to any troupe. Each troupe has a couple of leading actresses around whom the plots develop.
Why should you watch Takarazuka? Though Takarazuka is surely worth watching purely because each character is played by a woman, this is not all that makes it stand out. You will find yourself amazed by how convincing the acting is, by the stunning, well-equipped stage and by the fascinating dance routines. Even though the language used in all of the performances is Japanese, it is still easy to understand and follow the overall story.
How much does it cost to watch Takarazuka? Ticket prices range from 3,500 to 12,000 yen and can be purchased online here.
How long is Takarazuka performance? The duration is about 2-3 hours depend on the show, including a 30-minute intermission.
You enjoy watching theatre, but traditional Japanese performances just aren’t your bag? That’s absolutely fine. In Japan (especially Tokyo and Osaka), there are still plenty of plays and musicals to enjoy.
Shiki Theatre Company – one of the most famous theatre companies in Japan, produces many Western classic plays, Broadway musicals (West Side Story, Cats, The Phantom of The Opera, The Lion King, Beaty and The Beast) as well as creates their own original musicals. Shiki Theatres are located in Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Hokkaido. Show tickets can be bought over the phone or online (click here for more information).
If you are a Naruto fan, you should definitely watch the stage version – Naruto Stage Musical Live Spectacle. And don’t worry if you don’t speak Japanse, futuristic subtitle glasses are available in English and Chinese. Tickets can be bought online here. The show is also performed in Macao, Malaysia and Singapore.