The Theatre of Japan
An extract from 'The Passion of Life - Essays on art, dance and
theatre' by John Turner.
John Turner begins this book by exploring the deeper underlying causes, reasons, and applications of art, dance and theatre throughout human history. The book then continues with a section on World Theatre which looks at the art of different cultures from this viewpoint. This extract is taken from that section, and concerns the Theatre of Japan.
I will dance that dance, that makes to turn the towers of the moon
The theatrical form of the Noh plays had its flowering in the fourteenth century,
and yet its roots were established some centuries before within the sacred temples
and courts of ancient Japan. The word 'Noh' translates to 'accomplishment',
and rather than simply being a means of depicting stories for entertainment,
the highly skilful art of the Noh players was one of capturing and representing
influences and imageries through beautiful and exact mime, dance, music and
chanting. The players enter in ceremonial fashion across a bridge, the ancient
hashi-gakari, representing the journey from one world into another, from the
spirit worlds into the material worlds. Placed alongside the bridge are three
pine trees, trees which are natural insulators in that they absorb any low level
energy that is in the neighbourhood.
theatre is a theatre of economy, exactness, functional response and the meeting
of exact requirement. The movements are precise, small, neat and powerful, each
gesture an image, each posture a statement, each movement a story. And in the
way of the nature of red, the theatre provides an arrangement with outer order
and discipline, whilst housing an inner passion - contained, potent and released
only in moments.
In our modern world we measure all and everything from living within an environment
of multiplicity, of noise, mass and randomness. There is ceaseless sound, impressions
incessantly bombarding our senses, and movements are continuous with little
pause. Thoughts flash through our mind like tickertape, sensations are so rapid
and variable that the whole bodily system, including its many inner lives, becomes
either anaesthetised or exhausted. There is little quiet, inner settlement and
So it is difficult to imagine a world and a time where a note or sound might
hold in the air for a minute, and where the vibration of that sound might resonate
through every chamber and part of the listener; where a single movement might
change the atmosphere, and where the air is so conductive that a gesture could
transfer a state or feeling or a knowing; when a thought magnified by a movement
or posture might evoke a state that could cool the blood of those assembled;
when a small gesture with the right hand would send a wave of anticipation through
the court in readiness for the next moment or next act.
...each gesture an image, each posture a statement, each
movement a story...
|* Note: The study of movement to the right and left needs
to take into account the two hemispheres of the brain, in which movement
to the left is controlled and governed by the right portion of the brain
and vice versa. The right side of the brain is creative, artistic, soft,
feminine, abstract inclined, whilst the left side is logistical, reasoning,
academic, masculine, hard, definition inclined. This is an ongoing research
which can reveal much understanding about classical dance, using the inclination
of the head in oratory to place different emphasis upon what is being spoken,
to condition oneself in preparation for particular work, and so on.
A dance to the right would have one effect, to the left another *). And as
the dances passed down from generation to generation, and as the roots and motives
of the theatre became lost, so the dramas became fixed and ceremonial, when
once they were spontaneous and live, performed by accomplished, trained, instant,
Bugaku is the name of one of the forms of dance that has come down to us over
time, passed down through successive generations. It is a masked dance performed
originally in the courts and temples. The dances were divided into two types
- Dances of the Right, where the dress of the dancers is predominantly green
and the music primarily played on percussion, and Dances of the Left, where
the dancers dress primarily in red with music played mostly on woodwind instruments.
Might it be that the Dances of the Right were to do with propositioning the
future, whilst Dances to the Left were to do with evoking from the past or capturing
something in the present?
The original meaning of these dualistic natures of dance can begin to be understood
through the esoteric understandings of colours, symbolism and electro-magnetism.
In this, green and red, like the modern traffic lights, represent two human
states of readiness and response; the one, green, is full of vibrancy, liberation,
fertility, spontaneity, insistence; the other, red, is contained, cautious,
entrenched, fixing and maintaining. These two colours were possibly the translation
in those times of a duality that plays itself out in all world theatre, in other
times reflected by the difference between silver and gold, and the difference
between the two hands of man, the right and the left.
...dualism at the heart of the theatre of the planet
we live upon, demonstrated most obviously in day and night, winter and
summer, and hot and cold...
|** Note: The word Shinto carries a meaning of continuity.
Japanese music works to create a state of continuum, in which the percussion
instruments speak to the brain, whilst the flute, with its intrinsic nature
of longing, reaches out to the soul.
Likewise the percussion instruments of the Japanese movements carry a vibrant
procession of individual and varied sounds, whilst the woodwind instruments
convey the nature of a smooth changing continuum like the waves of the sea.
** So we have the difference between granulated and viscous, of electric and
magnetic, of cooling and heating, of loosening and binding. This is the dualism
at the heart of the theatre of the planet we live upon, demonstrated most obviously
in day and night, winter and summer, and hot and cold. All theatre and art appearing
here is governed by this dualism.
Bugaku dances became interwoven into the fabric of Noh drama in a time in history,
the fourteenth century, when education was flowering throughout the world, and
liberation and an evolution of the intellect and spirituality were taking place.
Theatre in Japan, similarly to elsewhere, began to take on an educational role,
evolving out from the temples and religious places into the streets and market
Noh theatre is the art of simplicity, of subtlety and finesse, of suggestion
and gentle gracefulness (yugen). It evokes states and atmospheres, and it calls
upon those who witness to enter into its world wherein a simple spiritual message
can, like a virus, be contagiously transferred.
What is interesting is that there are never rehearsals for the Noh dramas.
Each actor knows his part and the drama thoroughly, but each performance is
live with the subtleties of that particular day and all the elements that make
up that time and space.
Furthermore the lavish and beautiful costumes of the Noh theatre were intricately
and precisely crafted and, at the end of their use, were unpicked, taken to
pieces and the material stored in fine lacquer boxes. The phrase that expressed
the reason for this was:
'We begin with nothing and end with nothing'
John Turner was trained as a theatre director and has lectured internationally
in theatre studies. He continues to research and study Template Theatre and
Art with the wish to one day establish a Template Theatre School.