On the coexistence of modern and traditional performing arts

Noh Matsukaze (C) Hibiki-no-kai

The presence of traditional performing arts gives a very special dynamics to the theatre environment in Japan. To be sure, noh and kabuki enjoy great popularity nowadays and attract large audiences through their own specific style. However, surprisingly enough, the various performing arts are handled separately in public discourse and although they coexist, they rarely interact. We sometimes hear of theatre companies that employ noh acting techniques in their work or of kabuki actors performing contemporary theatre, but such projects tend to be temporary.

The reason for this rift between the Japanese performing arts is that there is a practical need on the part of traditional ones to keep their specificity. Their style developed at separate stages in history and holds the mark of very different circumstances in terms of Zeitgeist and social background.

Like everywhere in the world, the first performing arts in Japan were ritual dances and plays offered to deities in ritual services. It was around the middle of the 14th century when one of these practices, sarugaku no noh, began receiving the support of the resourceful warrior class and developed into a stage art with a high level of sophistication. Because the competition between actors and troupes was fierce at the time, the only way for the actors was to devote their life to the art, paying utmost attention to their acting style and to the choice of subjects and of words. Their performances had to captivate their patrons, who had great admiration for the past, for the elegant culture of the Heian period (794-1185). In this sense, noh 能 embodies the aesthetic ideals of the dignified warrior class.

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By the 17th century, when noh became an art restricted to the enjoyment of the military elite, a new kind of performance was receiving passionate applause from the commoners – kabuki  歌舞伎. Its appearance was possible because Edo period was a time of peace, allowing for a certain degree of freedom in every area of artistic expression. Kabuki reflects the taste for dramatic developments and spectacular stage effects of the chōnin, the people living in the cities. With an aesthetic ranging from stylized beauty to the grotesque, with characters displaying strong emotions and plots brimming with dramatism, kabuki has been captivating audiences for over three centuries.

The restoration of imperial power (1868) brought with it the abolishment of the warrior class. For noh this meant the loss of its supporters and it risked falling into oblivion, if it weren’t for the intervention of Japanese ambassadors to the West, who saw in it the equivalent to Western opera and asked for it to be preserved. On the other hand, kabuki also had a hard time when Western theatre, called shingeki  新劇, was introduced at the beginning of the 19th century. Shingeki (which means, by the way, new theatre, in relation to the old theatrical forms) has had its own history of turning points since then and had to take up the challenge of producing original creations that reflected the present times.

Actually, the presence of performing arts with long tradition accounts for some of the general characteristics of the Japanese stage. The fact that you can go to the theatre any time of the year (there is no off-season) or the fact of one company having two or three performances in a single day, for example, might be explained through the theatre practices that existed before shingeki began to be performed in Japan. In short, even if direct interaction is seldom, the different performing arts do influence each other and their coexistence results in a very stimulating environment for theatrical expression.