Japan, even though being a small island doesn’t lack imagination when it comes to unique types of art styles which differ vastly from anything seen in the western world. Being isolated without foreign influence Japanese culture developed many art forms on their own, and when it comes to theatre it surely doesn’t disappoint, the most two prominent ones are the theaters of Kabuku and Noh, and while they may seem at first glance to be similar there are plenty of differences between these two theatric styles and we would like to elaborate on some of the differences.
In order to dive further into the diversity of Kabuki and Noh, a bit of history should be employed. Traditional Kabuki theatre surfaced in the Endo period by the year 1603 when Izumo no Okuni, possibly a Miko of Izumo-Taisha, began performing a new style of dance drama in the dry riverbeds of Kyoto which later came to be known as Kabuki theater, while on the other hand, Noh originated much earlier in the 14th century during the Muromachi period along with another comedic theatric style named Kyogen which conducted comical pieces during interludes In Noa performances.
Themes greatly differ in these two theatric styles, on one instance Noh inspires more to traditional performances of dancing and drama using poetry while in Kabuki the central themes involve around love and historical stories often depicting folk tales of Ancient Japan, one other subtle yet obvious difference which exist between the genres such as the use of scenery which is usualy reserved for Noh theatre while the other often engages in stages of minimalistic features, much more emphasis is put on costumes and as such the scenery often gets neglected, although both directions have been drastically evolving and changing trough the centuries.
The most obvious difference that should help you easily distinguish the two separate theatric pieces is the fact that in Kabuki theatre all acting roles are perfomed by men, even though this wasn’t always the case because the whole direction was after all pioneered by a woman possibly a Miko of Izuma Taisha but after a while women were banned from performing in Kabuki theatre and soon all the roles went to men which pretty much remained to this day, as for Noh performers which started out with an all male cast eventually moved on to include female peformers during the 1940s when daughters of Noa actors started participating too.
4.Masks and Performance Elements
In Noh performances, various nuances are merged into one holistic setpiece, with each nuance representing a product of refinement of several generations which directly correlates to the central Buddhist religion named Shinto. From a Japanese wood named cypress (hinoki) masks are carved and then colored with natural pigments to create Noa masks. With over 450 different masks based on sixty types each one has a specific role and name, in contrast to Noh theater the participants of Kabuki theater do not usually wear masks, what they do in order to characterize a role is using Kumadori the art of painting faces, although there is one exception in one play which uses masks, the name of the theatre is Natsume – The Seven Masks.
In traditional Noh stages, there is a rule about the stage which usually involves that the audience and perfomers are mutually inclined to share the stage in order to deepen the immersion, this also enables the audience to see the actor before he gets on stage and after they exit on the central stage. The roof usually symbolizes the sanctity of the stage which is derived from a worshiping pavilion, but as for Kabuki theatre which is discerned by establishing a Hanamichi passageway, a rooftop extends from the back of the seating of the stage on the left side across the theatre where the audience watches, however other scenes such as the Yoshino river scene or Nozaki Village are not uncommon in Kabuki Theatre.
So now that we established some distinctions from both theatrical styles, you may now know how to discern them on your own and it’s worthy to point out that Kabuki theaters can be sometimes very long which is due to to the fact that the emphasis is put on the emotionality of the play rather than highlighting the dialogue which is more custom in western theatres, Noa Theaters last much shorter and have a slower pacing and are more reminiscent of musicals from the western culture. So now that you are more familiar with both of these theatric directions you might enjoy them more and be sure to watch at least one while in Japan.
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