MANY important elements of the dramatic art in Japan are similar to those developed by the Chinese. In many cases the story material is obviously the same, and there is great similarity in the methods of producing and acting. There were two periods of brilliance in Japan (the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries), and two distinct types of theater: the aristocratic and the popular. The former is associated with the famous No plays, which reached their period of perfection during the fourteenth century.
The staging of a No play. A square platform supported on pillars, open to the audience on three sides, and covered with a temple-like roof, forms the stage for a No play. It is connected with a green room by a corridor, or gallery, which leads back from the stage at the left, as the audience sees it. Here part of the action takes place. Upon the back scene is painted a pine tree, and three small pines are placed along the corridor. The orchestra, consisting of a flute, drum, and two instruments resembling the tambourine, is seated in a narrow space back of the stage; while the chorus, whose number is not fixed, is seated on the floor at the right. The actors are highly trained, and their speech is accompanied by soft music. There are rigid rules for acting, each accent and gesture being governed by an unchanging tradition. The actors are always men, wearing masks when impersonating females or supernatural beings. The costumes are exquisite and of medieval fashion. The performance is day-long; but as the No play is always short, occupying about an hour, several pieces are rendered during the day. Alternating with them are farces called kiogen, which are short, full of delicate humor, and given in the language of the time without the chorus.
The No play. The construction of the No play is always the same. It begins with the appearance of a traveler, perhaps a priest, who announces his name and purpose of journeying to such-and-such a battle-ground, temple, or other time-honored place. While he is crossing the stage, the chorus recites the beauties of the scenery or describes the emotions of the traveler. At the appointed spot a ghost appears, eagerly seeking an opportunity to tell of the sufferings to which it is condemned. This ghost is the Spirit of the Place. The second part consists of the unfolding of the ancient legend which has sanctified the ground. The story is revealed partly by dialogue, partly by the chorus. At its close the priest prays for the repose of the Spirit whose mysterious history has just been disclosed, and the play ends with a song in praise of the ruling sovereign.
The content of the No play, which is nearly always tragic, is treated with simple dignity. There is frequent reference to learned matters, and to the teachings of Buddha. The text is partly archaic prose and partly verse. Within this slight conventional form are themes relating to filial duty, endurance under trial, uncomplaining loyalty in the face of hardship and neglect, and tender sacrifice. The plays are uniformly austere and poetic, remote from the everyday scene, and full of imagination and beauty. Kwanami Kiotsugu, who belongs to the second half of the fourteenth century, was called the greatest poet of his time, and the founder of the No play. His son, Seami Motokiyo, was almost equally distinguished. He left instructions as to production and acting, stressing the necessity of avoiding realism on the stage. Other relatives and successors of Kiotsugu improved the music, and the Shoguns honored the authors. This type of play may well be considered unique in the history of the stage, and an important link between the classic plays of Greece and the poetic drama of modern Europe.
The popular theater. Tradition assigns the beginning of the popular theater in Japan to the early part of the seventeenth century, when the priestess Okuni ran away from her Shinto temple and built a theater in Kioto. This theater developed in two ways: a "legitimate" playhouse with living actors, and a marionette or puppet show. Both these forms of entertainment became popular in the seventeenth century, when the art of the actor and the dramatist improved. We may infer that it was then fashionable for members of the aristocracy to attend these plays, also that quarrels in the playhouse were not unknown; for about 1683 an ordinance was passed prohibiting the wearing of swords in the theater. The Samurai (knights), being unwilling to lay aside their swords even for a short time, stayed away from the performances; and in consequence the shows promptly deteriorated.
As among the Chinese, the governing group in Japan looked upon the drama as a means of instructing the lower classes in loyalty and self-sacrifice. A very strict set of regulations crystallized about the stage. Every play was produced with elaborate exactness and precision. Much of the beauty of the pieces depended upon the skillful use of parallelism in language, and in the employment of pivot or root words around which the author could display his verbal dexterity. The "invisible" property man was always on the stage, and realistic details abounded. Grief and passion were expressed by violent contortions. The hero would grimace, roll his eyeballs, bare his teeth, and go through every possible variation of distress, while the property man held a lighted candle near his face in order that nothing should be lost to the audience. When a man was killed, he turned a somersault before depicting the final agony. For many decades the most brutal crimes were performed before the eyes of the spectators,--scenes of torture and crucifixion, hara-kiri, and bloody scenes of every description.
After its period of brilliance in the seventeenth century, the popular stage became overloaded with conventions and began to decline. Doubtless the absence of the nobility from the theaters contributed greatly to this result. Genshiro, a native dramatist and critic of the nineteenth century, wrote that "the theater in Japan had reached the lowest depth of vulgarity, and so continued until the last year of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1867."
The Marionette Theater. In the meantime another specialization of the art appeared in the development of the marionette stage. The original basis of the marionette or puppet show was the history of the heroine Joruri, whose love stories were related by a chorus while the puppets walked the stage. Gradually dialogue was added; and soon the puppets became so popular that managers brought into their service extraordinary mechanical devices by which eyeballs and eyebrows could be moved, lips would seem to whisper or talk, fingers would grasp a fan, and tiny figures kneel, dance, or swoon with emotion. The stage was furnished with scenery, trap doors, turntables, trapeze appliances, and the like.
Along with this mechanical development there appeared, also in the seventeenth century, Chikamatsu Monzaemon (or Monzayamon) (born about 1653), one of the most important figures in the whole history of the Japanese drama, and completely identified with the marionette theater. His most famous play is said to be The Battles of Kokusenya, the hero of which was a celebrated pirate. The scenes are laid in Nanking and Japan at the time of the last Ming emperor. It contains one of the characteristic situations in oriental drama: namely, the conqueror asking the defeated enemy for the gift of his favorite wife as a tribute of war. In this play are also the treacherous general, the substitution of another child in order to save the heir to the throne, much bloodshed, suicide, and fighting. Spectators have testified to the vividness and force of these representations, to the tenseness of the dramatic situations, and to the impressiveness of the dialogue. Chikamatsu had the gift of diverting the attention from improbabilities and of making his characters bear themselves like tragic heroes. Moreover, he had the great virtue of never being dull.
The Forty-seven Ronins. With the exception of the No plays and the works of Chikamatsu, nearly everything of note in dramatic literature belongs to the eighteenth century. Many pieces from that time had three or four collaborating authors. One of the best known of these collaborators was Idzumo, who had a share in making a play called The Magazine of Faithful Retainers--one of the forty or fifty extant versions of the story of The Loyal Legion, or the Forty-Seven Ronins, based upon a historical incident which occurred in 1703. A member of the samurai (knightly class) was unjustly degraded by his feudal lord for some trifling accident. His companions, all members of his own order, assembled in protest and drew lots for the privilege of killing the unjust master. The lot was drawn and the work done; but the code of their order required that the rebels, one and all, should commit hara-kiri. So the Forty-seven Ronins perished; and every year thousands of admirers make their way to the scene of their burial. In the many versions of the story, various additions have been made, such as a love affair, a tea-house scene, bloody and thrilling incidents, and many touches which reveal contemporary manners. As a play it is certain to draw a crowded house.
About the beginning of the eighteenth century the marionette theater began to decline, and writers ceased to produce plays suited for puppets. In the late nineteenth century vigorous attempts were made by both noblemen and scholars to improve the stage. One of the first features to be condemned was the presentation of scenes of violence and cruelty. Many of the restrictions as to attendance have been removed; women are allowed to appear as actors; and the tendency towards excessive realism has been offset by the practical application of aesthetic principles.
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