The Forms of Japanese Drama

Buddhist and Shintô influences and a generally higher level of wealth brought about the popularization of drama during Japan's middle ages (1300-1700). Like all drama, the first music and acting were ceremonies celebrating the divine, performed in the natural environment. As time passed, these dramas developed into sophisticated traditions and told stories ranging from the tragic to the comic, in tones ranging from religious to ribald. They are still widely performed today in Japan.

Japanese Drama during the Feudal Period

The forms of drama that developed during Japan's feudal period include:

Noh. This form started from the ancient Shintô ceremony. Later the stories of Noh plays developed Buddhist themes dealing with the great sadness of life, especially death of loved ones and lost hopes.

Kyôgen. These humorous plays were usually performed at intermissions of Noh plays. Most are about the "lesser" sadnesses of life, such as inequalities of wealth, beauty, and health. Resolution of these disparities rests on the fine line of individuality and universality of the human condition.

Kabuki. These plays were the most in tune with what was timely and in vogue during the Tokugawa period (1600-1868). Kabuki is tied to urban life. The plays deal with tales of merchants rising in the world, star-crossed lovers from different classes, or the flight and fancy of the entertainment world of old Edo.

Bunraku. Bunraku was originally called Jôruri. It is the oldest form of puppet theater in Japan. The name derives from Lady Jôruri, who had a brief affair with Minamoto Yoshitsune, a great general and hero of many dramas about the early samurai period. At the end of the sixteenth century, puppets, romantic tales, and samisen (Japanese banjo) music were combined to form a new popular theater, called bunraku. The same plays are often used in kabuki and bunraku.

Student Exercise

  • Get together with other students, and write and/or perform a Japanese play. Which dramatic form would you choose? Remember, as long as you are true to the form, you can make a "traditional" play about something contemporary — just as modern Japanese playwrights have also done. Also, you do not have to have long speaking parts, since in Japanese drama, music, movement, speech, sound, and lighting all combine to tell the story.

  • Depending on the size of the class and the type of play you want to perform, the drama project could be done by part or all of the class. Making a play requires a large staff. First you need writers, people with ideas they want to have their actors say. Second, the actors much be chosen. And this is only the beginning. Big dramatic productions need advertising people, scenery designers and crew, costume designers and crew, and, most important, a director. Also, will you want musicians? The music of the Noh might sound unusual, but it certainly creates a unique feeling. If some form of music is possible, you will need musicians and a music director.

  • On the other hand, a small production may be done by five people working together. Noh and kyôgen are the easiest, and a tape recording could be used for background music.
© 2009 Asia for Educators, Columbia University |