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Japan's Ancient Stage Tradition

WHEN I visited Tokyo last year, an American friend living there observed that the Japanese love nature so much they simply can't leave it alone. I found that to be correct. This obsession is visible everywhere in the country's glorious ritualized gardens - and, to a degree, in its equally glorious performing arts. Japanese drama is constructed to achieve the effect of a sublime paradox: an artificial naturalness. Like the gardens, the theater is the result of brilliant artifice. Just as the gardens' waterways and plants are transformed by a reinventing of nature, so the Kabuki actor's appearance is radically altered by stylized costumes and makeup. Just as the meticulous calm and slowness of Noh drama evoke a mood of religiosity, so too the unbroken peace of the Japanese garden invites devout meditation.

We do not have anything quite like Japanese theater in the West, where ancient modes of the performing arts have been lost in our endless rush into the future. In Japan, the traditions of unhurried centuries have become an intrinsic part of the sensibility.

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Ancient music, theater, puppetry

The musical tradition known as Gigaku is probably the country's oldest dramatic form. It dates from the early 7th century, spanning some 1,350 years to the present. There is no continuous tradition in the performing arts anywhere else in the world that compares with it: not in India, China, Korea, or Egypt - certainly not in Europe.

Japan's distinctive theater idioms include the Gigaku/Bugaku style, apparently evolved out of the earlier Gigaku. By the 8th century, these forms of music and dance had become the theater of the Imperial Court.

Noh and Kyogen dramas date from the 14th century. Noh is stately and poetic; Kyogen usually takes the form of folk comedy. Noh theater produced some of the most serene classic dramas of Japanese literature - plays that are infinitely subtle and slow, combining dialogue, poetry, song, chant, music, and dance.

In the area of pure theatrical action, the plays written for the famous puppet theater known as Bunraku have few equals, in terms of vividness, stage magic, and atmosphere. Many Bunraku plays have been adapted for Kabuki theater. But Kabuki, a highly stylized and comparatively ``modern'' movement, didn't begin until the 17th century, when it developed to meet the demands of a popular audience that was puzzled by the rarefied conventions of Noh drama.

To the Westerner who expects a good deal of realism in art, all traditional forms of Japanese theater and music are exotic. The theater, like the garden, has been shaped by an obsession with an intricate stylization. The result is a sublime, entirely artificial naturalness.

Noh and Kyogen - rarified entertainment

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The Western critics who see traditional Japanese society collapsing under the burden of modernization and technology are off target. Nearly every aspect of Japanese society retains its traditional values while, at the same time, embracing the modes of the late 20th century. Etiquette, for example, remains more a performing art than a common courtesy. Bows and other body language assume the quality of ritual and choreography.

So it's natural that Noh drama should have an enthusiastic following among an elite audience here. Noh is a highly restrained theatrical form, methodically pure, impeccably poetic, and symbolic in tone and content. There are full schedules of Noh performances at both the National Noh Theater in Tokyo and at the Kanze Nohgakudo Theater in Kyoto.

Noh arose from a folk entertainment that incorporated singing, dancing, comic mime, acrobatics, puppets, magic, and juggling. Introduced from China in about A.D. 1000, the antecedent of Noh was called Sarugaku. Its entertainers were working-class people who performed at religious festivals.

The strictly comic elements of the productions were eventually separated as a field into itself, known as Kyogen, which was usually performed in tandem with the more serious Noh dramas. Until the end of World War II, Noh and Kyogen could be witnessed only by a select group from the ruling classes here.

Today the Noh tradition is carefully preserved in five schools, and Kyogen is perpetuated in two.

The performances, however, are more admired than enjoyed by young Japanese audiences, because they set up considerable obstacles, even for Japanese-speakers. The texts are not only in verse but in an archaic form of Japanese. The actors' movements are deliberate, slow, and highly redundant. The performance can be a bit like watching paint dry.

Noh does not suit every taste, but with a bit of advance study and a good deal of patience, it can make a truly haunting impression on the foreign visitor.

Kabuki - flamboyant and appealing

Kabuki theater is quite another matter. It is flamboyant and emotionally charged; its appeal is immediate. Kabuki began in the 17th century with the performances of Okuni of Izumo, a young woman. Her dance-plays were originally performed entirely by women, but by 1629 the government had banned women from the stage because of prostitution associated with early Kabuki.

Theatrical producers responded in a manner that recalls theater at the time of Shakespeare, when women were banned from the stages of England. Female roles were performed by young men, but again prostitution became an issue, and boys were banned from Kabuki in 1652.

The Kabuki producers compromised with the censors by creating what has turned out to be one of the most significant theatrical traditions in the world. The insinuative songs and dances of the women's and boys' Kabuki were abandoned in favor of dramatic dialogue and action. Only adult male actors were allowed to participate. Female roles were performed by actors called onnagata, men specially trained to impersonate women.

One of the most renowned of living onnagata is Utaemon Nakamura, who has been designated a ``national treasure'' of Japan, the only Kabuki performer so honored. At 80, Nakamura still performs with credibility as a young woman in the famous 18th-century Kabuki dance-drama called ``In Sekinoto, Love and Snow Accumulate'' (``Tsumoru Koi Yuki no Sekinoto''). Traditionally one onnagata performs dual roles in the drama, but Utaemon now shares the assignment with a young onnagata, Koshiro Matsumoto.

The training of onnagatas as well as all other Kabuki actors is organized along family lines, with one generation passing to the next the traditions and celebrity of its achievements. There is a long-standing form of adoration in the Kabuki theater: Fans in the audience call out the names of the various theatrical families as a form of applause.

Sitting in the massive Kabuki-za Theatre in Tokyo cannot fail to create a lasting impression. Every seat is filled by people of many ages and backgrounds, who come together with inordinate pleasure and enthusiasm. Their excited conversations and shouts of praise to the actors underscore the enduring popularity of this most ancient art of a most ancient land.

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