Applauding the Traditional Performing Arts of Japan
Japan's traditional performing arts are a justified priority for visitors to Japan, with many surprised that despite the highly ritualised and fixed form the arts take that they are not confined to the history books, but are still very much alive and an important part of Japan. Likewise, whereas elsewhere in the world the theatrical traditions tend to merge together or adopt new styles as dictated by the tastes of the time, the fact that Japanese theatre has held its diverse forms in coexistence since antiquity is striking. With that said, no matter the genre there is a lineage in the performing arts that when viewed in total gives some sense of the identity of the Japanese theatre, bound as they are by a shared culture and a shared patronage that applauds them.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the National Theatre of Japan, an institution that became a unifying hub for the traditional in contemporary Tokyo, appropriate given its location granting it a commanding view of the Imperial Palace at the centre of the city itself. In the fifty years since dedicated theatres for disparate genres have taken their place, allowing for Noh, Bunraku using puppetry and Okinawan theatre amongst others in their place, in addition to giving modern performing arts a place to flourish at the New National Theatre. This now unified lineage is the subject of a special exhibition at Nihombashi's Mitsui Memorial Museum, tracking the different tangents that brought us to the present day; a living legacy you can still enjoy for yourself at the city's flourishing venues.
Beginning with the masks, instruments and puppets that have entertained audiences over the centuries, the exhibition of some 100 items also highlights ukiyo-e, prints and other depictions of the Japanese theatre in full flow, at times finding it serene and regal, at others rambunctious with an irrepressible joie de vivre. From Nihombashi Mitsukoshi's own collection you will also find the splendor of Meiji and Showa era Kabuki theatre captured in a series of costumes that even in the peace of the exhibition seem animated with the energy of the stage. Elsewhere exhibits that capture macabre ghost tales and demonic masks represent the popular taste of pre-modern Japan, providing a common link to the energy we continue to find in Japanese popular culture to this day.
Take this chance to make connections for yourself between the various Japanese traditional arts, and reaffirm the ongoing role they play that is always there for you to experience.
Written by Samuel Thomas
All photos were taken under permission of the Mitsui Memorial Museum
Photos from top:
Bunraku puppet head by Ōe Minosuke -National Theatre
Musical instruments for hina doll by Ōki Heizō (1934) -Mitsui Memorial Museum
Noh mask (Muromachi period) -Mitsui Memorial Museum
Masks of ogre for the Tsuina purification ceremony (Muromachi - Edo period) -Nagata Shrine, Kobe
Uchikake, design of snow on bamboo, nandina and sparrows on black satin ground used by Nakamura Utaemon V (20th Century)- Isetan Mitsukoshi Ltd.
Structure of Bunraku puppets
Mitsui Memorial Museum Special Exhibition:
The Traditional Performing Arts of Japan
26th November, 2016 - 28th January, 2017