Skills and aesthetics

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Watch, Feel, and Taste—Traditional Japanese Theater in Tokyo

Skills and aesthetics

Kabuki, Bunraku, and Noh and Kyogen are the top three forms of traditional Japanese theater. This section looks at their history and features, plus some of Tokyo's own varieties of traditional theater.

* The information given is as of January 2018.


Elaborate costumes, makeup, and acting—Kabuki

The greatest feature of Kabuki is the stylized expressions of the characters, starting with exaggerated poses (mie) and masklike makeup (kumadori). This makes a performance easy for even novices to take in and enjoy. Another highlight is the female roles played by male actors (onnagata). Every detail from costume and makeup to acting technique is designed to appear feminine, and the gowns are made with heavy traditional fabric to look glamorous from afar. In a dramatic technique unique to Kabuki, the actor wears two costumes sewn together with basting thread, which is pulled out for an instant change of costume on stage (hikinuki).

Kabuki emerged in the Edo period, in the early 17th century, taking its name from the archaic verb kabuku, meaning "extraordinary" or "eccentric." Throughout its 400-year-long history, Kabuki flexibly embraced new trends and developed into a composite art blending drama, dance, and music. The repertoire gradually expanded into the over 400 titles performed regularly today. New modern pieces continue to be released, along with experimental variations like Super Kabuki.

Sukeroku stage model at Edo-Tokyo Museum

Sukeroku Yukari no Edo Zakura
Sukeroku, Agemaki, Shirozake
Courtesy of Edo-Tokyo Museum


Powerful narrative and exquisite movement of puppets—Bunraku

Bunraku, also called Ningyo Joruri, is a form of puppet theater that emerged in the Edo period, around the same time as Kabuki. Tragic love, estrangement, the transience of the world—Bunraku themes are by and large as serious as those of contemporary films and TV dramas. The plays are executed by three performers: the narrator (tayu), who changes his voice to describe the scene and recite the lines of every character; the shamisen player, who with the narrator evokes the setting and the emotional fluctuations of the characters; and the puppeteer, who works in threes to manipulate a single puppet.

Working in threes allows the puppeteers to create greater range of movement, from subtle to dynamic. They control the puppet in perfect synchrony to make female roles (onnagata) appear delicate and male roles (tachiyaku) muscular, for instance, and even create humanly impossible poses to make the character more realistic.

Of the 40 or so types of puppet head (kashira), some are specially made to transform, say, from a beautiful princess into a ghastly ogre. The hairstyle and makeup are changed to suit each role and production.

Kamakura Sandaiki
Sasaki Takatsuna, aka Adachi Tozaburo
Courtesy of National Theatre of Japan
With cooperation of The Bunraku-za Company

Noh & Kyogen

Minimal elegance devoid of excess—Noh & Kyogen

Noh and Kyogen are presented on the same stage collectively as Nogaku. The dramatic Noh is based on song (utai) and dance (mai) around the theme of human destiny. About 60 types of mask (omote) are designed for the main character. With all facial expression suppressed, the actor uses only his movement combined with the music (hayashi) to convey a spectrum of emotions. Other actors who wear no mask (hitamen) similarly perform without relying on facial expression. By contrast, the comic Kyogen depicts humorous folklore and stories of the ordinary people.

Neither theatrical art involves flashy sound effects or props, and this minimal elegance devoid of excess projects a world of ritualistic solemnity and draws the audience's focus to the stage. With a history much older than that of Kabuki and Bunraku, Noh and Kyogen developed from sarugaku entertainment performed in the Heian and Kamakura periods, from the 8th to 14th century, and were perfected by the Muromachi period, from the late 15th to early 16th century.

Yokihi: Kanno-kakari, Utenadome
Collection of National Noh Theatre
With cooperation of Nohgaku Performers’ Association

Traditional Tokyo theater

Hachioji Kuruma Ningyo / Edo Ito Ayatsuri Ningyo / Edo Tezuma

Here, let's take a look at theater forms long established in Tokyo that are attracting the world's attention today.

Hachioji Kuruma Ningyo

Hachioji Kuruma Ningyo features a single puppeteer sitting on a wheeled box (rokuro kuruma) and moving back and forward, from side to side as he manipulates the puppet. This has been a popular regional art of the Tama area since the late Edo period, in the mid 19th century. The Nishikawa Koryu Troupe, led by the fifth-generation in Hachioji-shi, performs various plays dramatizing classical Japanese literature and American children's stories.

Edo Ito Ayatsuri Ningyo

Edo Ito Ayatsuri Ningyo uses numerous strings to manipulate the puppet. The art lives on at Youkiza, founded in 1635, under the 12th generation troupe leader, Youki Magosaburo. He continues to explore new possibilities in puppet theater, such as plays starring puppets and human actors, and puppets combined with utsushi-e, another art form originating in the Edo period that projects pictures drawn on a glass plate.

Edo Tezuma

Edo Tezuma is a form of Japanese magic show popular with the ordinary people since the Edo period. Tricks include fanning paper butterflies to keep them fluttering in mid-air, and ejecting water from the performer's fingertips and folding fan. Only a few magicians keep alive the traditional art—a fusion of dazzling wonder and graceful gestures. The curious world of Tezuna can be witnessed in full-scale stages performances in Tokyo Illusion.

Watch, Feel, and Taste—Traditional Japanese Theater in Tokyo

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