AFYP In the Know: Theater History--Chinese & Japanese Theater

In honor of our Spring Showcase, Mulan Jr, starting on Saturday, we thought it would be fun to focus this AFYP In the Know on the history of theater in Japan and China.  These forms of theater developed entirely separate from Western forms, and are very, very old.  In fact, Japanese Noh theater is the oldest form of theater that is still regularly practiced in modern day!

Pekingese shadow puppets

Pekingese shadow puppets

CHINESE THEATER

References to theatrical entertainments (like clowning, music, and acrobatics) can be found in Chinese texts dating back to 1500 B.C.E. during the Shang dynasty.  

By the time we reach the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E-220 C.E), shadow puppetry is beginning to become a popular theatrical form.  Shadow puppet plays often depicted stories of great adventures or fantasy.  Two distinct types of shadow puppetry developed in China.  Their primary differences were how the puppets were constructed.  Both types of puppets were constructed from colored leather, with incredible detail. Cantonese puppets were larger and the puppetry rods attached perpendicularly to the puppets, so that they would not cast a shadow.  Pekingese puppets were smaller and more delicate than Cantonese puppets.  The rods for Pekingese puppets were visible, but attached at the neck of the puppet before bending out of the way, so they didn't not interfere with the shadow figure.  In both Cantonese and Pekingese shadow puppetry, superstition said that the puppets could come alive at night.  In order to prevent this, the puppets were taken apart each night, with the heads and bodies of the puppets stored separately.

Shadow puppets in performance

Shadow puppets in performance

More traditional acting styles, using human actors, also developed.  The Tang dynasty (618-907 C.E.) was known as "The Age of 1000 Entertainments", and society was more focus on leisurely activities, arts, and entertainment.  During this time Emperor Xuanzong established the first known academy for acting and music called The Pear Garden, for the pear trees planted in the courtyards of the school.  Emperor Xuanzong oversaw the 300 students who trained each year at The Pear Garden in music, dance, and acting.  The acting form developed in the Pear Garden was primarily musical.  It is from this historical school that Chinese actors are commonly called "Children of the Pear Garden" and the phrase "pear garden" can refer to Chinese opera.  

During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), dramas became more sophisticated, with 4-5 act structures.  This structure remains mostly intact today, in Beijing Operas.


JAPANESE THEATER

The four most well-known types of Japanese theater are all still in practice today.  These types are: Noh, Kyogen, Kabuki, and Bunraku.

a noh performance showing the "SHiTE" and "Hayashi"

a noh performance showing the "SHiTE" and "Hayashi"

Noh and Kyogen are the oldest forms of Japanese theater, dating back to the 14th century.  It was developed by a man named Kan'ami and his son, Zeami.  Noh is a very traditional and structured art form, with training for actors beginning as early as age 3.  In performance, the actors' movements are very, very precise, because the smallest shift in the body or the facial expression will mean something new.  It is often a family tradition, with sons following in their fathers' footsteps to become Noh actors.  Historically Noh and Kyogen plays were performed only by male actors, but the first women--who began performing in the 1940s--were the daughters of esteemed Noh actors. 

kyogen actors in performance

kyogen actors in performance

The traditional structure of a performance is to have five Noh plays, with brief Kyogen in between each play as an intermission of sorts.  Kyogen are short, comic plays that run about 15 minutes long and usually use 2-3 actors.  The comedy provided respite from the more serious Noh plays.  In Noh performance, highly stylized movements represent complex emotions.  Masks are often worn, especially by background characters.  While Noh is still performed today, the actual storyline of Noh plays hasn't changed much.  Noh focuses on classical stories, where a supernatural character is often transformed into a human.

 Most Noh plays usually involve a chorus, an orchestra, and at least two main actors.  The traditional characters are:

  • Shite - the main role/protagonist
  • Wake - the foil or counterpart to the protagonist
  • Hayashi - the musicians, playing the flute, the hip-drum, the shoulder-drum, and the stick-drum
  • Kyogen - the comedic actors for the Kyogen interlude

Kabuki performers

Kabuki performers

Kabuki theater is most known for its iconic red and white makeup and its elaborate costumes.  The earliest form of Kabuki was actually started by women in the early 1600s, as comic playlets that depicted ordinary life.  This was very popular with lower and middle classes.  The upper and royal classes did not approve of this "mixing" of the classes and banned women from performing in 1629.  However, they took over the Kabuki and began to transform the art form, using all male actors.  Specific poses and make-up represented very specific emotions and characters.  The colors of the costumes were also very important, since the colors expressed the character's primary emotions.  

Kabuki performances lasted the full day.  Kabuki also has a five-act structure, following a very traditional rise and fall of a story.  The Jo, or first act, was a slow opening, introducing the characters and the story.  The Ha, or acts 2-4, sped up the action leading to a great dramatic moment or tragedy in act 3, with battles being common in acts 2 or 4.  Finally, the Kyu, or act five, wrapped up the story in a quick and satisfying conclusion.


bunraku in performance, with master and APPRENTICE (hooded) puppeteers

bunraku in performance, with master and APPRENTICE (hooded) puppeteers

Bunraku is a form of Japanese puppet theater that was founded in the beginning of the 17th century.  Bunraku puppets are three-dimensional, unlike Chinese shadow puppets.  Bunraku involves three types of performers: 

bunraku puppet

bunraku puppet

  • Ningyotsukai--the puppeteers
  • Tay--the chanters
  • Shamisen--the musicians

These complex puppets are extremely detailed, and traditionally need three puppeteers to operate each puppet.  The puppeteers are sometimes hooded, but more often the master puppeteer, in control of the head of the puppet, does not wear a hood.  The puppets are very intricate and their life-like faces often have eyes, mouths, and eyebrows that move.  

Kabuki and Bunraku often share the same plays and stories.