The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
An Overview
Latest Trends by Genre: Kabuki, Nôgaku, and Bunraku
Latest Trends by Genre: Kabuki, Nôgaku, and Bunraku
*School (ryûha)
Schools are groups that formed in order to protect distinctive artistic styles of intangible performing arts and pass them on to succeeding generations. In Nô, there are different schools for the actors who play the main roles (shitekata), supporting roles (wakikata), musical accompaniment (hayashikata), and for Kyôgen (kyôgenkata). For the shitekata, for example, there are five schools: Kanze, Hôshô, Konparu, Kongô, and Kita. For the kyôgenkata, there are two schools, ôkura and Izumi.

Nôgaku (Nô and Kyôgen) has a long history going back at least six hundred years to the time of Zeami (1363–1443), who created around a third of the Nô plays being performed today. Nô drama is made up of two parts. One is the musical dramatic form of Nô proper, in which the performers sing and dance to the accompaniment of four instruments collectively referred to as the shibyôshi—the flute (fue), small drum (kotsuzumi), large hand drum (ôkawa), and large floor drum (taiko)—and a chorus called the jiutai. The other part is Kyôgen, a spoken dramatic form that is primarily comic. Nô employs extremely stylized movements pared of all excess, with the aim of creating a dramatic expression according to the aesthetic of yûgen (mysterious profundity).

Since Zeami’s time Nô has had patrons in the ruling class of society. It received special protection during the Edo Period, when the Shogunate designated Nô as the ceremonial performing art to be used in ritual observances. As such, Nô was maintained at a level unaffected by popularity among the masses. After the downfall of the warrior society, Nô continued to be sustained by leading figures in government and the newly powerful industrial conglomerates. The need to acquire fans from the wider populace arose only after World War II, and Nô is presently establishing an economic base through education and performance programs.

This history as a performing art supported by the ruling class of society has left its mark, and even now many Japanese people feel that Nô is refined and difficult, for connoisseurs only. Efforts have been made to make Nô more accessible, with facilities such as the National Nô Theatre opened in 1983, and the Yokohama Nô Theater operated by the Yokohama Arts Foundation. Experimental performances have attracted younger audiences, and Nô has become sufficiently popular that tickets can be difficult to obtain. Performances of takigi Nô, held outdoors at night by torchlight, have become more numerous since the early 1990s and are extremely popular.

Nevertheless, audiences at the theaters operated by the various schools(*) of Nô are still small and are also increasingly elderly. Performers finally seem to be recognizing they are facing a crisis and, just before the turn of the millennium, the highly confined world of Nô began to display some new departures. Young Nô masters have formed a group called Kami Asobi that crosses the rigid boundaries between schools, and four young performers of the Konparu School formed Za Square. These represent the beginnings of a movement to make Nô more appealing to youthful sensibilities, and they are attracting growing numbers of fans. In 2006, the Nôgaku genzaikei (Contemporary Nô) shows were started by the highly versatile Kyôgen actor Nomura Mansai, fue flute player Issô Yukihiro, and ôkawa performer Kamei Hirotada, in order to “get out of the Nô rut and take up new challenges.” These have featured guest performances by young shitekata (main role) actors who otherwise seldom get the chance to appear in major works.

Nô values the moment. Actors therefore focus on each moment to create a one-time-only performance along with the musicians, chorus and audience. Nô does not have long-run performances like Kabuki, which makes it necessary for performers to give lessons to amateurs on the side. The younger generation is also trying some new ideas. One of the Kami Asobi members, Kanze Yoshimasa, a shitekata actor of the Kanze school, is giving lectures to groups, as opposed to the usual one-on-one lessons, on the basics of utai chant and shimai dance, subjects that are not easy for beginners to understand. In his home court, the Yarai Nôgakudô theater in Kagurazaka, Tokyo, Kanze gives a periodic lecture called “Know Nô” to help beginners deepen their knowledge, including explanations on the literary references that form the basis of Nô plays, such as classical poetry and prose works such as The Tale of Genji, as well as demonstrations on how to wear Nô costumes and instructions on the chorus. This has helped broaden Nô’s fan base, as has increased interest in Bushidô, or the code of the samurai, and in the Kobudô martial arts following the release of the movie Last Samurai. Nô has also attracted attention from exercise- and fitness-minded people because its sliding walk technique helps tone muscles and strengthen the body, and a mini version of the yoga fad has led to “Nô exercise” classes in community centers.

Meanwhile, performances of the comic Kyôgen in easy-to-understand, colloquial Japanese have been steadily rising in popularity. Nomura Mansai, the Kyôgen actor who is also well known for roles in TV and film and as the artistic director of the Setagaya Public Theatre, as well as the young Kyôgen performers Shigeyama Masakuni, Motohiko, and Ippei of the Kyoto ôkuraryû Shigeyama Family, have been performing in shows that sell out as quickly as they are announced

The Kyôgen world has a rich array of talent across the generations. Nomura Man’nojô, an able producer who worked to revive the ancient mask drama known as gigaku, passed away unexpectedly in his forties in 2004. Shigeyama Sensaku, born in 1919, is a Living National Treasure who is popular among young women for his ability to convey through body movements the gentleness of human nature. There have also been veteran Kyôgen performers such as Shigeyama Sen’nojô and Sensaku who have taken on the challenge of producing and acting in new Kyôgen pieces created by the philosopher Umehara Takeshi and staged at the National Nô Theatre. These works deal with such issues as environmental pollution and war using the art of laughter, and have been acclaimed as new yet timeless expressions of the strength of the classical performing arts. The National Nô Theatre also produces new Nô works, such as its 2006 production based on the popular manga Kurenai Tennyo (The Crimson Goddess), which sold out to young female fans of the original work who had had no interest in Nô up to that time. Since 1984, the theater has been actively nurturing and training wakikata (supporting performers), of whom there are very few, as well as Nô musicians, and Kyôgen performers.


Bunraku is a form of puppet theater originating in Osaka during the Edo Period. Puppets are manipulated according to the jôruri narrative performed by a gidayu narrator, with the accompaniment of a low-pitched futozao shamisen. In Bunraku’s earliest times, the puppet was manipulated by a single puppeteer, but the practice of sannin-zukai, in which a single puppet body is manipulated by three puppeteers, emerged during the 1700s. The omo-zukai (head puppeteer), who manipulates the head and right hand, is the leader, while the hidari-zukai (left puppeteer) manipulates the left hand and the ashi-zukai (foot puppeteer) manipulates the feet. Working in perfect unison, the three puppeteers are able to give the puppet a greater delicacy and richness of expression. One of the attractions of Bunraku is that it portrays a human drama through the harmoniously combined efforts of these puppeteers, the shamisen player, and the narrator who skillfully recites the distinctive parts of all the characters.

Although Bunraku had been highly popular, from around 1955 it started going into decline. In 1963, the national government, Osaka Prefecture, and NHK collaborated to establish the Bunraku Association. Performers became craft artists affiliated with the Bunraku Association, and they hold performances in the small hall of the National Theatre in Tokyo and at the National Bunraku Theatre in Osaka.

A television documentary on two Living National Treasures, the puppeteer YoshidaTamao and the narrator Takemoto Sumitayû, was broadcast in 2001. This program showed the artists engaged in continuing study and training, and stimulated a sudden revival in Bunraku’s popularity, leading to the tickets for Tokyo performances selling out two years in advance.

Bunraku does not have the same family system as Kabuki to pass the art on from generation to generation, so any man with the necessary skill may find a future in it. In fact, 46% of the 88 narrators, shamisen players, and puppeteers have graduated from the traditional performing artist training program started at the National Theatre in 1972 to foster successors in the art. Many of these people came to the program without any previous background in it. Trainees receive two years of basic education, after which they take part in stage performances under a master’s instruction. It is a serious course of training where a puppeteer spends ten years on training for foot control and 20 years for left hand control before becoming the main puppeteer who controls the head, meaning that puppeteers do not attain the top level until they are in their fifties. One of the program’s graduates, the shamisen player Nozawa Kinya, succeeded to the name of Nozawa Kinshi V at the age of 41 in 1998. In 2006 Tsurusawa Enjiro became Tsurusawa Enzan IV, succeeding to his master’s name. Puppeteer Yoshida Minotaro, who literally grew up in the Bunraku backstage, succeeded to his father’s name and became Kiritake Kanjûro III in 2003 when he turned 50.

There are promising signs for the next generation. For example, a group of middle-level and younger performers staged a joint event at the National Theatre that also included gospel singing and other such performances in between the Bunraku shows. There have also been su-jôruri performances of the narration and shamisen accompaniment without puppets. Nevertheless, at the heart of Bunraku are the six Living National Treasures in their 60, 70 and 80s, the oldest being Sumitayu born in 1924, and the youngest Tsurusawa Seiji born in 1945 and designated as a Living National Treasure in 2007. In September 2006, Yoshida Tamao, the best puppeteer of male puppets of his generation, both in technique and popularity, passed away at the age of 87. The loss is enormous as he had enchanted Bunraku fans with many great performances together with the great puppeteer of female puppets, Yoshida Minosuke, in such well-known plays as Sonezaki shinjû (Love Suicides at Sonezaki). As for narrators, four in their 50s have passed away in the last few years, and in 2007 one of the kirikatari narrators (the highest-ranking narrator who recites important and climactic scenes) resigned because of a scandal. A generational shift is therefore inevitable and urgent. It takes many years to train a narrator or puppeteer, and narrators are particularly underrepresented. As one narrator explained, “The next five years are crucial, or Bunraku might disappear.”

In the November 2007 performances in Osaka of Sonezaki shinjû, the National Theatre and Bunraku Association used Yoshida Tamame and Kanjuro, the best pupils of Tamao and Minosuke respectively, both now in their 50s. It was generally perceived by fans as a move to provide a replacement for the Tamao-Minosuke duo. Will the new generation pair be accepted by discerning fans? Will the development of new narrators be a success? Bunraku is certainly facing a new and difficult era.
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