ORIGIN AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE JAPANESE THEATRE AND ITS PLAYS
Conservatism of the Native Theatre – Close Association of Art and Drama – The No and Kyogett Dramas – The Joruri, or Popular Drama – The Marionette and Kabuki Theatres.
WHEN Japan, by the revolution of 1868, adopted in toto the civilization and methods of Western Europe, discarding in one night, as it were, its age-long feudal system, and burying in its ruins all their ancient art and culture which, in their new-found enthusiasm, they even for a time affected to despise, their dramatic art almost alone escaped the general so-called movement of reform and enlightenment, which has, unfortunately, so largely tended to deprive ancient Japan of its unique local colouring. The native theatre, even at the present day, in its manner of acting, modes of expression, and in the costumes worn, differs but little from the customs and forms that have always been in vogue. The student therefore, of local colour, who finds himself in Japan, cannot do better than seek it in the theatre.
To those unable to visit Japan, the pictorial art of the Ukiyoye school, which was so closely allied to the theatre, will prove a no mean alternative, thanks to the skill with which its artists wielded the brush.
Since the eighteenth century it may be said, without injustice, that the kabuki-shibai (popular theatre) has remained
stationary. Certain improvements in histrionic and scenic matters have been introduced, but no development in construction
and character-drawing, as we understand these terms, no change in the peculiar ethical and feudal teachings of the Yedo period,
has supervened. Enter a Tokyo theatre to-day, and you will find yourself in Old Japan, amongst resplendent monsters, whose
actions violate our moral sense, yet exhibit a high and stern morality by no means out-moded through the advent of modern
Beauty and duty are the hall-marks that stamp as authentic the plays which delight and instruct the Japanese.
A race of artists, they expect and obtain such stage-pictures as no other stage affords. To watch act after act of
their spectacular tragedies is like looking through a portfolio of their best colour-prints
(Japanese Plays and Playfellows, by Osman Edwards).
The student or collector of Japanese colour-prints cannot but have noticed, from the first, the great preponderance of actors and dramatic subjects in their designs. The landscapes of Hokusai and Hiroshige are, at the present day, more, or at least equally as numerous; that is to say, an average collection will probably contain as many of these as all others combined, but this circumstance is due to the fact that, by reason of the great demand for them at the time of their first publication, and their consequent large production, more copies of individual landscape drawings have survived to our day than those of other subjects. The production, however, of actor and theatrical prints, chiefly by the later artists of the Utagawa sub-school, again greatly increased on removal of the prohibition against them after 1853, showing that, however strongly landscape may . have appealed to the art-loving masses by reason, no doubt, of its novelty, they still hankered after portraits of their stage favourites and their souvenirs of the theatre. Unfortunately the art of the Ukiyoye school had, at this late date, become so debased, that its productions have practically little or no artistic value, so that, from this point of view, they need hardly be taken into account.
While certain artists drew their inspiration from landscape, or from natural objects such as birds and flowers, the great majority took the popular theatre for their province; also, landscape as a subject of illustration only made its appearance during the closing years of Ukiyoye, so that popular art and popular drama were in the closest relationship for nearly the whole period of the former's existence.
This close affinity was due to the fact that both arts appealed solely to the masses, and both came into existence within about fifteen years of one another during the first half of the seventeenth century.
Another point they held in common was that, while both owed their origin to China, when once transplanted, they attained a perfection far in advance of that country, so that at their full development, they may be considered more purely native to Japan than the other arts.
The Ukiyoye school produced the only purely Japanese pictorial art, and the only graphic record of contemporary Japanese life and customs, while the stage presented scenes from the lives of national heroes and historical events, thus proving an all-important element in the social education of the masses at a time when education for the people at large was of a very primitive nature. As any education beyond the most elementary was practically restricted to the priests and the aristocracy, the popular theatre must, by the nature of its performances, have been largely instrumental in instilling into the masses those sentiments of patriotism and filial piety which have always been such a strong point in the Japanese character.
In fact, almost the sole aim of the popular theatre, as expressed in innumerable plays, was to impress upon the masses the duty of obedience and self-sacrifice at all costs. This was the theme of all the most popular dramas from the earliest days of the kabuki-shibai, and these same dramas are applauded to-day as they were two hundred and fifty years ago. Such are the Chushingura and the Pine Tree, or the Suga-wara Tragedy, to mention but two of the most famous, both written by Takeda Izumo originally for the marionette theatre, the former in collaboration with Chikamatsu Monzayemon (1653-1734), Japan's two most celebrated playwrights.
Another famous play dealing with the Battle of Ichi-no-tani and called Ichi-no-tani Futaba Gunki (
of the Sapling of Ichi-no-tani) is a further typical instance of the teaching of the popular stage.
Like the drama of the Pine Tree, it deals with the substitution and sacrifice of an only son in order to save the
life of a lord and master. The story of this drama, written by Namiki Sosuki (1694-1750), is given in outline in
a later chapter of this volume, where a scene from it is illustrated and described.
The two aristocratic schools of painting, the Tosa and Kano, were founded in the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries respectively, the former which mainly depicted battle scenes and life at the Court, being patronized by the Mikado and his entourage, while the latter which upheld the Chinese style of painting, was under the special care of the Shogun. These schools had nothing to do with the popular theatre which they, in common with their patrons, looked down upon as something vulgar.
Their entertainment was represented by the No or lyrical drama, founded on the legends and folklore of Japan and China, and which was originally devised and produced for the benefit of the nobles and samurai class, some time during the Muromachi period (1392-1603).
The recitation of these dramas is still in vogue at the present day amongst the aristocracy of Japan. No doubt our readers are familiar with the performances of old Greek plays which are occasionally given in this country at Bradfield College, Berkshire, and University College, London. These No dramas of old Japan are similar to these Greek plays in that both are recited or chanted, and a chorus takes up the action from the point where the dialogue ends.
Another point of similarity exists in the wearing of masks by certain of the characters; but beyond this the similarity ends. While the old Greek plays are dramas which reached a high degree of development, the Japanese No was a very simple and primitive affair. It is sometimes termed a dance, but this is perhaps somewhat misleading in that it only partly describes the performance, which centres on a definite story, and is accompanied by a chorus whose object is to stimulate the attention of the audience, and intensify the various emotions of the actors. The nearest parallel to the No drama which Europe affords lies in the passion play, both being of a religious nature, or at least religious in origin.
Together with the No, and on the same stage, was performed the kyogen, or light farce, which was intended as a foil to the classical severity of the former, and which was a simpler and even more primitive affair than the No. Like it, the kyogen had a religious motive; but was played without masks and without any musical accompaniment.
These two forms of drama provided entertainment solely for the daimyos and nobles, and were beyond the comprehension of the common people. The actors who took part in them were in the pay of the daimyos and never mixed, unless surreptitiously, with the actors of the common theatre.
The author has seen it stated, on the authority of a French writer, that these dramas, although organized by the nobility, were nevertheless often given in huge circuses for the benefit of the people at large.
Japanese authorities, however, whom we prefer to follow rather than European, do not appear to take this view,
which seems to arise from a confusion of the No dances with the Dengaku and Sarugaku
plays, which latter were of a comic nature, and were essentially suited to the intelligence of the masses.
Dengaku is made up of den, a
plot, and gaku, a
from being acted in fields or on grass plots for the entertainment of the country people.
It is true the No dance had its origin in the Sarugaku (c.1390), but it was not so-called till later.
The above writer appears to base his contention upon the authority of a book (from which he quotes) written
by Seami, a famous actor who, writing of his father, Kwanami, says that he could make his art intelligible
even in the depths of the country, or in remote country villages, a description which might well apply to
Sarugaku or Dengaku actors. Both Seami and his father, Kwanami, were famous Sarugaku actors of the late
fourteenth century, not No dancers; the No being a later development of the fifteenth century and which
took many years to attain to its perfect classical form.
The Dengaku, or bucolic mime, may be described as acrobatic, and the Sarugaku, or monkey mime, as purely comic, as its name would suggest; the latter is supposed to date back as far as the sixth century, but its origin is uncertain.
The No dramas, on the other hand, are amongst the masterpieces of Japanese literature, but, like all great works of art, they were not popular, being read and patronized by the cultured aristocracy, who alone could appreciate the subtle and beautiful metaphors and similes in which they are cloaked.
The form of drama acted in the popular theatre was the joruri, or epic drama, written during the Yedo period (seventeenth century), originally for the marionette theatre, but later adapted to the theatre proper.
The joruri, unlike the primitive No performance, is a drama with a well-defined plot running through it, while it abounds in dramatic situations and owes much to spectacular effect. And this constitutes one point wherein the stage in Japan is widely different to that of Western Europe. The development of a play on the Japanese stage will often unfold itself through entire scenes in pantomime only; throughout several acts the actors may utter but a few words. Instead, the action of the piece is explained by the chorus who adapts his voice to the needs of the moment. This method of conducting a drama has made Japanese actors the best mimics in the world, and explains much which may otherwise seem grotesque or even absurd in the representation of actors in colour-prints.
With us mere spectacular effect is often introduced to make up for the deficiency of our actors. In staging, let us say, a play by Shakespeare, the European actor is at a disadvantage by reason of his inability to wear the dress and adopt the manners of a more ceremonious and courtly age. The Japanese actor, on the other hand, has never lost, and therefore has not been obliged to assume, the dignity consonant with the garb and habits of a bygone time.
A Japanese drama, therefore, relying as it does on action rather than speech can be interesting even to the stranger totally ignorant of the language, a statement which few would claim for our stage.
The joruri being written in simple language, is easily understood by the poorest peasant or artisan. The narrative of the play is chanted to music by a chorus who also, in the case of the marionette theatre, declaims the speeches of the actors. In the theatre proper, the actors themselves carry on the. dialogue, and act and dance to the recitation by the chorus of the narrative, which supplies the thread of the story, and also aids the imagination of the audience by describing the actions and facial expressions of the actors.
The name joruri, as applied to popular drama, owes its origin to a story, written towards the end of
the sixteenth century, called the
Story of the Lady Joruri, which was much in vogue amongst the chanters
or public reciters of stories and popular history. It relates how a certain samurai prayed to the god
Joruri-Ko to bless him with a child, and in response to his prayers he becomes the father of a beautiful girl
whom he names after the god. Owing to the popularity of this story, the theme of which is the tragic love of
Joruri for the hero Yoshitsune, amongst the chanters all compositions recited by them came to be known as joruri,
and themselves as joruri-chanters, the term being extended to include the acted play, whether given
by marionettes or by real actors.
Some time later, towards the end of the seventeenth or early in the eighteenth century, the name gidayu was substituted for joruri, after a certain Takemoto Gidayu, who established a marionette theatre in Osaka, where he instituted a new style of recitation, which became so popular that his methods superseded those of other contemporary chanters.
The marionette theatre was a development from the simple joruri-chanter, and originated some time between the years 1596 and 1615 through the combination of a samisen-player of Kyoto, named Chozaburo, with a certain marionette showman. These two joined forces and originated the art of manipulating puppets to the accompaniment of chanting and music. This novelty rapidly caught the popular fancy, so much so that its fame reached the ears of the Emperor in the seclusion of his palace, who accordingly summoned them to give a performance before him. Unlike the theatre proper at which actors performed, the marionette theatre appears to have been frequently patronized by daimyos and others of the aristocracy.
The theatre proper was known as kabuki-shibai, shibai meaning
from the fact that the earliest theatrical performances were given on a grass plot, while kabuki is
made up of the three words or characters, ka (song), bu (dance), and ki (performance).
They originated about the same time as the marionette theatre (though the first regular theatre was not opened
in Yedo till 1634, a few years after the first of the marionette theatres was established), and are attributed
to a certain priestess or dancer, named Okuni, who visited Kyoto about the year 1603, and with Nagoya Sanzaburo
(or Sanzayemon), superintendent of Court festivities at Kyoto, erected a primitive stage in the dry bed of the
Kamo River, on which she performed dances.
The success which greeted these performances led women-dancers to repeat them in other cities, so that actresses increased in number and theatre-going became a most popular form of entertainment, so much so that, as it developed, it began to affect public morals injuriously with the result that, in 1643, a law was passed forbidding actresses from giving performances. This law remained in force till the middle of last century, and even at the present time, now that women may act on the stage, actresses are considered inferior to the actors of the old schools who used to take women's parts.
In order to render them more efficient in this respect boys intended to become actors of women's parts (or onna-gata) were brought up from youth as women, and wore women's clothes both on and off the stage. Apart also from this legal prohibition against women acting, the physical strain due to the long period of twelve hours (a period which it required a law to reduce even to nine hours) which a play lasted, coupled with the strenuous form of acting, would have been sufficient in itself to preclude their taking part therein except to a limited degree.
Speaking of the Women's Theatre in Kyoto, where all parts are taken by women, Mr. Osman Edwards says:
however, though the women are exceedingly clever in simulating the gait and gestures of men – if I had not been
taken behind the scenes, I should have believed myself in the wrong theatre – they are hopelessly handicapped by
physical weakness. The stage is so enormous, and the performance so long, that an artist may reckon on walking
ten miles in the course of the day, while the voice is severely taxed by the prolonged stridency of declamation.
Owing, no doubt, to the low moral tone with which the theatre became tainted, actors came to be considered outcasts,
so that they could no longer obtain permission to act on the public lawns or gardens, but were obliged to give
their performances in the (in summer) dried-up river-beds; whence they got the appellation of
As the kabuki-shibai gained in popularity, so did the marionette theatre find itself gradually deprived of its patrons, though at the beginning this state of affairs was reversed, owing to the fact that, in the early days of the former, the playwrights were obliged to conform to the individual idiosyncrasies of the actors, who considered themselves of more importance than the play. The natural result was that the kabuki-shibai only attracted second and third-rate playwrights, while in some instances the plays were written by the actors themselves, thereby failing to attract good audiences. In course of time, however, and under the stress of competition with the marionette theatres, the kabuki-shibai put their house in order and staged really popular plays, so that they eventually turned the tables upon their rivals, and almost succeeded in driving them out of the field altogether.
The first regular theatre in Yedo was built by Saruwaka Kanzaburo in the year 1634, and was situated in Naka-bashi (Middle-Bridge) Street where it stood for eight years, after which period it was moved elsewhere. Ten years later a rival theatre was opened, and in 1651 all theatres were ordered to be moved to one particular street, just as the various courtesan districts which were originally scattered over Yedo according to the different towns from which their inmates came, were, in 1617, removed to the one district of Asakusa in the northern part of the city. This street was called Saruwaka (Young Monkey) Street, from the name of the founder of the first theatre in Yedo.
It is interesting to note that the popular theatre came into existence both in England and in Japan at about the same date. While Okuni, the ex-priestess, and her lover, Sanzaburo, were giving their performances on a primitive stage, the forerunner of the theatre, in the dry bed of the Kamo River, the first theatre was being erected by the actor Burbage in Shoreditch, London. Also, up to the year 1660, women's parts were taken by men on the English stage, as was the case in Japan up to quite recent times. Another coincidence between the birth of the stage in England and Japan lies in the fact that both countries were passing through periods of warlike excitement at the same time; England met and defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, while three years later Hideyoshi subjugated Corea. No doubt these events stirred the minds of the populace of both countries to demand something more vigorous than morality plays and No performances.