Archive for November 2013


Kanamaruza Theater, a traditional kabuki theaterKabuki (歌舞伎) is a traditional Japanese form of theater with roots tracing back to the Edo Period. It is recognized as one of Japan’s three major classical theaters along with noh and bunraku, and has been named as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

What is it?

Kabuki is an art form rich in showmanship. It involves elaborately designed costumes, eye-catching make-up, outlandish wigs, and arguably most importantly, the exaggerated actions performed by the actors. The highly-stylized movements serve to convey meaning to the audience; this is especially important since an old-fashioned form of Japanese is typically used, which is difficult even for Japanese people to fully understand.

Dynamic stage sets such as revolving platforms and trapdoors allow for the prompt changing of a scene or the appearance/disappearance of actors. Another specialty of the kabuki stage is a footbridge (hanamichi) that leads through the audience, allowing for a dramatic entrance or exit. Ambiance is aided with live music performed usingtraditional instruments. These elements combine to produce a visually stunning and captivating performance.

Plots are usually based on historical events, warm hearted dramas, moral conflicts, love stories, tales of tragedy of conspiracy, or other well-known stories. A unique feature of a kabuki performance is that what is on show is often only part of an entire story (usually the best part). Therefore, to enhance the enjoyment derived, it would be good to read a little about the story before attending the show. At some theaters, it is possible to rent headsets which provide English narrations and explanations.


The interior of the previous Kabukiza Theater, a modern kabuki theaterKabuki conventions

When it originated, kabuki used to be acted only by women, and was popular mainly among common people. Later during the Edo Period, a restriction was placed by the Tokugawa Shogunate forbidding women from participating; to the present day it is performed exclusively by men. Several male kabuki actors are therefore specialists in playing female roles (onnagata).

One of the things that will be noticed are assistants dressed in black appearing on stage. They serve the purpose to hand the actors props or assist them in various other ways, in order to make the performance seamless. They are called “kurogo” and are to be regarded as non-existent.

If you come across people from the audience shouting out names at the actors on stage, do not mistake this for an act of disrespect: all kabuki actors have a yago (hereditary stage name), which is closely associated to the theater troupe which he is from. In the world of kabuki, troupes are closely knit hierarchical organizations, usually continued through generations within families. It is an accepted practice for the audience to shout out the actors’ stage names at an appropriate timing as a show of support.

Formal dress code is not required when attending a kabuki play, although decent dressing and footwear are recommended. Sometimes, often on the first day of a run, some ladies dress in traditional kimono.


Rotating stage of a traditional kabuki theater from belowWhere to watch it

In the olden days, mainstream kabuki was performed at selected venues in big cities like Edo (present dayTokyo), Osaka and Kyoto. Local versions of kabuki also took place in rural towns.

These days, kabuki plays are most easily enjoyed at selected theaters with Western style seats. A day’s performance is usually divided into two or three segments (one in the early afternoon and one towards the evening), and each segment is further divided into acts. Tickets are usually sold per segment, although in some cases they are also available per act. They typically cost around 2,000 yen for a single act or between 3,000 and 25,000 yen for an entire segment depending on the seat quality.

reference: Japan guide



From Wikipedia,

Portrait of Matsuo Bashō by Yokoi Kinkoku, c. 1820. The calligraphy relates one of Bashō’s most famous haiku poems: Furu ike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto (An old pond / a frog jumps in / the sound of water).

Haiga (俳画?, haikai drawing) is a style of Japanese painting that incorporates the aesthetics of haikaiHaiga are typically painted by haiku poets (haijin), and often accompanied by a haiku poem.[1] Like the poetic form it accompanied, haiga was based on simple, yet often profound, observations of the everyday world. Stephen Addiss points out that “since they are both created with the same brush and ink, adding an image to a haiku poem was […] a natural activity.”[2]

Stylistically, haiga vary widely based on the preferences and training of the individual painter, but generally show influences of formalKanō school painting, minimalist Zen painting, and Ōtsu-e, while sharing much of the aesthetic attitudes of the nanga tradition. Some were reproduced as woodblock prints. The subjects painted likewise vary widely, but are generally elements mentioned in the calligraphy, or poetic images which add meaning or depth to that expressed by the poem. The moon is a common subject in these poems and paintings, sometimes represented by the Zen circle ensō, which evokes a number of other meanings, including that of the void. Other subjects, ranging from Mount Fuji to rooftops, are frequently represented with a minimum of brushstrokes, thus evoking elegance and beauty in simplicity.


A little cuckoo across a hydrangea by Yosa Buson.

Nonoguchi Ryūho (1595-1669), a student of Kanō Tanyū, is sometimes credited[by whom?] with founding the style; though poetry was commonly accompanied by images for centuries prior, Ryūho was the first poet to regularly include paintings alongside his calligraphy[citation needed].

Matsuo Bashō, known worldwide as the definitive master of haiku, frequently painted as well. Haiga became a major style of painting as a result of association with his famous works of haiku[citation needed]. Like his poems, Bashō’s paintings are founded in a simplicity which reveals great depth, complementing the poems they are paired with. Towards the end of his life, he studied painting under Morikawa Kyoriku, his pupil in poetry; the works of both men benefited from the exchange, and a number of works were produced combining Morikawa’s painting with Bashō’s poetry and calligraphy.

Composing haiku, and painting accompanying pictures, was a common pastime of Edo period aesthetes, who would pursue these activities in their spare time, or at friendly gatherings as a communal form of entertainment. The famous novelist Ihara Saikaku was one of many people not normally associated with either poetry or painting, who took part. By contrast, the nanga painter Yosa Buson, widely considered second only to Bashō as a master of haiku, is said to be “the only artist to be included in surveys both of great poets and great painters in Japanese history.”[3]

Unlike other schools of painting which maintained a standard set of styles passed from master to apprentice, the genre of haiga encompassed a variety of artists with different approaches. Some, like Bashō, were primarily poets, accompanying their compositions with simple sketches[citation needed], while others, like Buson, were primarily painters, devoting more space and centrality of focus to the image.[citation needed] Maruyama Goshun and Ki Baitei were among those who tended to paint portraits of poets and other figures in a relatively quick, loose style which looks somewhat cartoonish to the modern eye. Some haiga paintings, such as those by Morikawa Kyoriku, reflect the formal training of the artists, while others, like those by Nakahara Nantenbō, reflect the artist’s background in Zen.

One overall trend that developed over time, despite this wide variety, was a shift from the circles of literati (bunjin) painters to the orbit of the Shijō school of the naturalistic painterMaruyama Ōkyo. This move was effected primarily by Maruyama Goshun[citation needed], and can be seen as well in the works of Yamaguchi Soken. Some later painters, such asTakebe Sōchō, were influenced by ukiyo-e styles, and used color in highly detailed works.

Though traditional-style haiga are still produced today, contemporary artists experiment with the style, coupling haiku with digital imagery, photography, and other media.[citation needed]

Haiga painters of note