enpaku 早稲田大学演劇博物館


Japanese Theatre in Early-Modern Times

Once the Sengoku (warring states) period ended, Japan entered the Edo period (1600–1868). The Edo period was a time of peace and stability, during which new forms of popular art emerged. Two major dramatic genres from this period were “kabuki” and “bunraku”.

“Kabuki” is a nominalisation of the verb “kabuki”, meaning ‘to behave strangely’. The word consists of three kanji characters: 歌, 舞, and 伎. These are “ateji”―they represent the word “ka-bu-ki” phonetically. Semantically, they represent: music, dance, and skill.
Thus, they denote that “kabuki” involves music, dancing, and scripted performances.

“Bunraku” is a form of theatre that combines puppetry with storytelling. Once scripts were published, the plays spread throughout Japan and became much loved. “Bunraku” plays were also adapted for “kabuki”, which made them even better known. “Bunraku” uses a unique puppetry technique called “sannintsukai” (三人遣い), in which three puppeteers operate a single puppet to create movements and expressions with a subtlety and delicacy that even a human actor could not achieve.

Both “kabuki” and “bunraku” developed as an urban culture in the three great cities of Japan at the time (Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo [now Tokyo]). In contrast to the preceding theatrical genres, “kabuki” and “bunraku” plays were performed in dedicated theatre houses, allowing the public to watch a play whenever they wished. “Kabuki” and “bunraku” were well-matched rivals; they influenced each other and spurred each other on to refine their art further. People still attend performances of these classical theatrical genres some 400 years after they began.