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Tue, Feb 8, 2022

Lucy Dayman: Traverse the diverse world of Japan’s traditional performing arts

At the Tokyo National Museum

A kabuki stage set on display at the exhibit

The striking makeup of kabuki, the tranquil, almost sleepy slowness of noh, the quirky playfulness of kumi-odori, and the hypnotic charm of gagaku, Japan’s performing arts are as unique as the regions from which they originate, and the performers who bring them to the stage.

However, Japanese performing arts encapsulate a few key elements, no matter the form. In each style, you’ll find a sophisticated and meticulously crafted dance between history and storytelling, musical prowess, and slow, meditative moments punctuated with a touch of flashy showmanship.  

An exploration of the nation’s long-running love and development of performing arts explores the nation’s culture, its dreams and aspirations and the values it holds close.

Currently showing at Tokyo National Museum as part of Japan Cultural Expo’s ongoing showcase of Japanese culture, in collaboration with the Tsumugu Project, is an exhibition that artfully entertains and educates audiences on all things Japanese performing arts. Titled: “The World of Traditional Performing Arts: Kabuki, Bunraku, Noh and Kyogen, Gagaku, Kumi-Odori,” it’s a mouthful, but a special exhibition worthy of a long title. It’s on display until March 13, 2022.

The kabuki section seen from the entrance of the exhibit
What to expect

Inside the exhibition, displays have been set up as individual ‘galleries,’ mini museums almost, dedicated to the unique forms, from the most internationally well known like kabuki and noh, to the more enigmatic like bunraku, kyogen, gagaku court music and kumi-odori dance. All of the forms have been designated as intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. Within each mini-museum, you’ll find a treasure trove of rarities, including costumes, props, musical instruments and other items unique to each traditional entertainment. The highlight of the displays has to be the immersive feature stages where you can stand and experience the spaces, just like the performers experience themselves.  

Let’s take a journey through the nation’s performing arts, using the exhibition and some of its highlights as a springboard. If you have the time, be sure to visit the exhibit at Tokyo National Museum by March 13. 

Kumadori, the kabuki makeup method, explained
Kabuki: Most famous of the bunch

Kabuki is most commonly the first piece of performance art one will experience in japan. This highly-glamourized art is iconic, actors and their bright costuming and equally brilliant makeup performing dance-drama routines etching folk tales into the country’s legacy.

It originated sometime during the very early Edo period, and in 2005, was recognized by UNESCO as an intangible heritage possessing outstanding universal value. While the costumes and story are enthralling, the makeup makes this form sing. In the exhibition, don’t miss the display on kumadori, the kabuki makeup method that’s inspired other art forms (like ukiyo-e) and has defined this art. Different makeup styles are imbued with different meanings, each intricately entwined in the DNA of the form.

Bunraku puppet heads
Bunraku: Puppetry elevated to a whole new level

Born as a form of entertainment for the commoners of Osaka, bunraku has over time evolved into one of the nation’s most prestigious art forms. The puppets, around one quarter the size of a human, are maneuvered in what can only be described as an intricate dance between three puppeteers. The narration and voices — of all the characters — is done by just one very talented individual, who must showcase a diverse repertoire of vocal expressions to defy age and gender. The most striking display in the bunraku exhibit is the collection of 11 puppet heads, each representative of a different character from the cannon. Given that you usually only see such puppets from afar, it’s an intimate look at the craftsmanship that goes into creating bunraku beyond just the stage. 

Noh: Meditative, contemplative and hypnotic

A stack contrast to the bright flashiness of kabuki, noh, is a stripped back form of Japanese performing art that dates back to the 14th century. This form of theatre traditionally communicate Buddhist themes, requires the audiences to practice serious patience and requires performers to wear restrictive masks and long, traditional-style garments, while performing in sync with the music. It was developed together with kyogen, noh being the ‘serious’ part, and kyogen being the comic relief. Within the exhibition, the noh stage display is one of the key highlights. Built six by six meters, this stage represents the power of one’s imagination. On a noh stage, there are no props, just the power of storytelling, performance and of course masks, all of which are utilized artfully to whisk audiences off to a whole new world.

From the nohgaku (noh, kyogen) section of the exhibit
A noh stage set inside Hyokeikan (Tokyo National Museum)
Kyogen: The comic relief

The yin to noh’s yang, kyogen originally formed as intermission entertainment between acts during noh performances. It’s a lighter, as mentioned, more comedy-centric form of theatre that relies heavily on sarcasm, and bumbling, hopeless characters as a way to get laughs. A little different to noh, humans’ role in kyogen is performed without the use of masks. However, which you’ll learn if you visit the exhibition, supernatural and non-human characters do use masks, like the Buaku ogre mask you’ll find on display in the exhibition, which is used to represent a human who has turned into an ogre.

From the gagaku section of the exhibit
Gagaku: Classical music, Japanese style

Best described as Japan’s take on classical or court music and dance, gagaku is actually a fusion of three types of dance performances – kagura, Yamato-uta, and Kume-uta – which draw influence from neighbouring Asian countries like Korea and China and all came together sometime during the 5th century—known literally in Japan as ‘elegant’ music, gagaku is made up of wind, string and percussion instruments, which come together to create the foundational elements of the genre. Today, it’s not as commonly experienced or even known about by international guests, so being able to witness footage of live gagaku performances — which are on display at the exhibition — is a great way to garner a deeper understanding of the form.

Colourful kumi-odori costumes and props
Kumi-odori: Colourful life of Okinawans brought to the stage

Arguably the rarest, but also one of the most enthralling of the performing arts in the exhibition, kumi-odori is the showcase of Okinawan traditional Ryukyuan culture. Initially, kumi-dori developed as a way to entertain Chinese diplomats who travelled to Ryukyu in the early-to-mid 1700s; it’s an amalgamation of a few different East Asian dance forms, reappropriated in classic, colourful Okinawan fashion. While even today, you won’t find a lot of information about this form online, it was designated a national important intangible cultural property in 1972, and in 2010, it was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The entire display on kumi-odori is a highlight of the exhibition, as it’s very rare you’ll find such a detailed and extensive selection of kumi-odori elsewhere on mainland Japan, or even the world. So save it for the very end, and be sure to spend a little time admiring the costumes and getting acquainted with this enigmatic art form.

The exhibition is an excellent touchpoint for going deeper into Japan’s performing arts culture, and is open every day except Mondays from now until March 13 at Hyokeikan, Tokyo National Museum (Ueno Park).

(Photos by Kazuki Matsuura)

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Born and raised in Australia, Lucy is a currently Tokyo-based journalist with a passion and focus on Japanese travel, art and culture. Previously, she worked as a publicist, and later, as the editor of a music magazine in Melbourne, before relocating to Japan in 2016. In 2019, she co-founded the bilingual communications and creative agency Y+L Projects, based in Tokyo's Omotesando. Her first book, a guide to Tokyo, which she co-authored, will be out via U.K. publishing house DK in 2021.



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