The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
The origin of the name Kabuki is the verb kabuku, which means to exhibit strange behavior and appearance. Kabuki is said to have originated in the early Edo Period (1603–1867) with an extravagant dance (kabuki odori) first performed in Kyoto by a woman named Izumo no Okuni. Kabuki performance by women was banned by the authorities as deleterious to public morals, and the (male performer specializing in female roles) came into being. Kabuki consequently developed as an intensely formalistic drama. When the Shogunate government granted official permission to perform Kabuki in Edo in 1714, the only authorized theaters were the Nakamuraza, the Ichimuraza, and the Moritaza, known as the “three theaters of Edo.”

The Shinpa (New School) was a dramatic genre that developed in reaction to Kabuki. Shinpa originated during the middle of the Meiji Period from a form known as sôshi shibai (plays by young political activists), which was performed to publicize the democratic thought of the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement. This form began dramatizing contemporary material in the news, and eventually established itself as the Shinpa tragedy style toward the beginning of the Taishô Period (1912–26) with works such as Konjiki Yasha and Hototogisu.

The Shingeki (New Drama, or Western-style theater) genre appeared as a reaction against Kabuki and Shinpa theater and developed along the lives of European modern drama. It originated with the Jiyû Gekijô (1909-19), a theatrical troupe that was formed under the Meiji government’s drive to improve Kabuki and for the purpose of performing translated plays. Initially Shingeki was performed by Kabuki actors. Then the Tsukiji Shôgekijô theater was built in 1924 as a permanent theater of European modern drama, and the theater sought to cultivate actors who could perform realistic drama. This laid the foundation for the Shingeki today, including the Haiyuza (founded in 1944), the Bungakuza (1937), and the Mingei (1950).

Shôgekijô, or “Small Theater,” emerger from the resistance to the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty in the 1960s. Initially companies would rent halls to stage performances, but Jiyû Gekijô, or “free theater,” which was an off-shoot of the movement felt that companies should have and maintain their own theaters as a way of creating new expressions. The first such theater was the Underground Theater Jiyû Gekijô in the basement of a sheet glass maker in Roppongi in Tokyo. Once, the Waseda Shôgekijô company and the Tenjô Sajiki companies got their own theaters, activities were dubbed “the Shôgekijô movement.” The movement has since been divided into three generations. The first generation were the ones who began theaters in the 1960s (Kara Jûrô, Suzuki Tadashi, Ninagawa Yukio, Terayama Shûji, Satô Makoto, etc.), the second generation of student activists were influenced by the first generation during the 1970s (Tsuka Kôei, Yamazaki Tetsu, etc.), and the third generation originated as student theater companies to spread the culture of youth (Noda Hideki and others).
An Overview
Jun. 9, 2010
Latest Trends by Genre: Shôgekijô (Small Theater) Movement  
Latest Trends by Genre: Shôgekijô (Small Theater) Movement  
Background to the Shôgekijô Movement

Ever since the Meiji Period (1868–1912), Japanese theater has been influenced by the trend toward rapid modernization and Westernization affecting Japanese society as a whole,. Shinpa(*1) (New School) developed as a reaction to Kabuki(*2), and then Shingeki(*3) (New Drama, or Western-style theater) appeared as a reaction to Kabuki and Shinpa theater. Shôgekijô(*4) (Small Theater) in turn was a reaction to Shingeki. A characteristic of Japanese theater is thus its repeated reactions to existing forms of expression that have gone on to create separate groups and forms of expression.

Because of this historical background, the term “Japanese theater” actually refers to a variety of genres that exist side by side, from Traditional Theater to Commercial Theater, Shôgekijô, High School Theater forming part of an educational program, and so forth. There are relatively few connections between these different areas, and apart from a few coproductions there is almost no exchange between them at present. Of all these movements, Shôgekijô movement started in the 1960s has been the main driving force for contemporary theater and continues to turn out new talent today.

During the 1960s people wanting to perform in contemporary theater had no choice but to join one of the major Shingeki companies, all of which followed a style rooted in realism. Then small underground theater companies began springing up created by young actors, drop-outs from major companies dissatisfied with the existing theater, and leaders of student theater clubs who possessed versatile talent and were seeking their own forms of expression and means to express their own thoughts within the context of the student activist movement. These companies were the origin of today’s Shôgekijô.

With a few exceptions, Shôgekijô is essentially an amateur activity. The company leaders in most cases are highly individualistic, talented people who take multiple roles as playwrights, directors, and lead actors.

The first generation of Shôgekijô included such well-known names as the late Terayama Shûji, Suzuki Tadashi (the first artistic director of the Shizuoka Performing Arts Center and director of SCOT), Ninagawa Yukio (currently president of Tôhô Gakuen College of Drama and Music and artistic director of Sainokuni Saitama Arts Theater), Kara Jûrô (presently visiting professor at Kinki University and director of Kara-gumi), Satô Makoto (presently a professor at Tokyo Gakugei University), the late ôta Shôgo (former professor at Kyoto University of Art and Design, who passed away in July 2007 at the age of 67), Kushida Kazuyoshi (presently artistic director of the Matsumoto Performing Arts Centre and specially-appointed professor of the Nihon University College of Art), and so on. These prominent figures together made the Shôgekijô movement a leading presence in world of avant-garde drama. The dramatists who represent this generation are Betsuyaku Minoru, who originally worked with Suzuki Tadashi in the Theater of the Absurd, and Shimizu Kunio who worked with Ninagawa Yukio.

Many of these have now retired as company leaders to work independently as directors or, alternatively, as artistic directors for public theaters or professors in universities—although there are exceptions, such as Matsumoto Yûkichi, still on the front lines, putting out large-scale outdoor performances with his company, Ishinha. In doing so, they have taken on the responsibility of pioneering new roles that working actors in Japan have never had before. This first generation is therefore creating a new environment, and the question of how this environment will influence the next generation in the contemporary theatrical scene is a matter of great interest.

The first-generation of Shôgekijô was strongly characterized by its intellectual and experimental nature as an anti-establishment, anti-Shingeki, avant-garde movement, and its audiences were made up of like-minded people. The 1970s, however, saw the appearance of Tsuka Kôhei’s troupe (second-generation Shôgekijô), which established a self-parodying comedic style that affirmed any human desire so long as it had some pride. This became very popular, and attracted young audiences who appreciated Shôgekijô as entertainment. This was a turning point for Shôgekijô, making a shift to entertainment that would appeal to the sensibilities of young people.

Such leaders of the third generation as Noda Hideki and Kôkami Shôji emerged from university student theater during the 1980s. Their new plots and strongly individualistic performance styles gained the support of young audiences, creating what the mass media referred to as a Shôgekijô boom.

By the 1990s, however, most of these groups had disbanded. The Agency for Cultural Affairs expanded its arts fellowships to include Shôgekijô artists, and a new movement was started by artists returning to the scene after a period of overseas study. Their activities shifted to commercial theaters and other mass media channels.

Shôgekijô had reached a dead end with its emphasis on the strange and unusual, and this led to a style with settings based in normal, everyday life, known as “Quiet Theater,” and represented by the works of Hirata Oriza. Hirata wrote numerous plays and was appointed artistic director of a public theater at a young age. Now as professor, he continues to be an opinion leader among the new generation of dramatists.

By the late 1990s, it became common for artists who started out in Shôgekijô to move into commercial theater, film, and television. Arguably the one to begin this trend was situation-comedy writer and dramatist Mitani Kôki, who began by putting together the theater group Tokyo Sunshine Boys while still a student of Nihon University College of Art, and is now in great demand for his TV dramas, plays, and screenplays. The Gekidan Shinkansen playwright Nakashima Kazuki and director Inoue Hidenori extended their activities into commercial theater with period science-fiction and action plays performed theatrically with a picture story touch.

Narui Yutaka of the theater company Caramel Box was also successful with a show business approach. Shôgekijô is now actively working with other media forms, and is reaching a level of maturity with the success of both dramatists and actors.

The Fifth Generation and the Recent Trends

The fourth-generation leaders during the 1990s included, along with Hirata Oriza, two who had a significant influence on the following generation. These were Keralino Sandorovich (Japanese playwright and director) of Nylon 100°C, a troupe that adopted a wide range of subject matter to develop comedy with a serious side, and Matsuo Suzuki of Otona Keikaku theater company, whose highly acclaimed his original comedies feature overly self-conscious characters with a wide variety of personality complexes. Kudô Kankurô, another popular screenwriter for TV and films, is also a member of Otona Keikaku. It is because of their work that the current fifth generation, all born in the late 1960s and 1970s, including Nagatsuka Keishi, Motoya Yukiko and others, are referred to as ‘Matsuo children’ and ‘Kera (short for Keralino) children.’

One common factor in this fifth generation is that they have very little to do with the collective group quality that was a formative element in earlier Shôgekijô. Shôgekijô had been characterized by the exploration of distinctive styles within group activities and by their expansion of the possibilities of performing arts for theater as a whole. On the other hand, that collective group quality also meant that almost all of these companies, with few exceptions, had no choice but to disband in order for their members to progress beyond the amateur level.

The times have changed, however, and growing numbers of young people find working in groups disagreeable. In recent years, therefore, there have been many activities on the Shôgekijô scene that have not been restricted to the troupe framework, such as specially produced performances and joint activities.

Various factors from the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s contributed to this. For example, many theaters in the Tokyo metropolitan area organized programs of specially produced performances that featuring talented Shôgekijô members popular among young audiences. Many Shôgekijô leaders who disbanded their companies formed production companies and ended up producing many performances of this kind.
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