Oct 2, 2015

Traditional Forms of Japanese Storytelling (Timeline)

I believe that History + Storytelling = Culture. Having an interest in pretty much every component in this formula, I couldn't help but make this post on Japanese storytelling. Particularly because I discovered a side to this topic that I doubt many know about. A side that many should.

Now I'm a geek. Or a nerd. Maybe even both. But I also am an anime fan. And it struck me how little I knew about anime's history. What started as a simple question--a nanosecond pondering in the time it takes to move on from one episode to the next--became a hefty self-assigned research endeavour. And here, fellow reader, are my findings in timeline (estimated dates) format:

1000s-1300s: NOGAKU-
    • Nogaku derives from the theatre art form Sarugaku, literally translating into “monkey fun,” and originates from what is “reminiscent of the modern-day circus.” [8] Around the the 1300s, “theatrical traditions,”[9] including Sarugaku, toured and held performances in temples, shrines, and festivals. Sarugaku then developed into Nogaku—a combination of Noh (drama) and Kyogen (comedy) theatre, which is listed by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. [9] Traditionally, the performance would consist of five Noh plays and 3-4 to Kyogen ones. [9]
    • The name “Noh” theatre comes from “nō” meaning talent because unlike typical actors, Noh performers use their looks and behavior to represent the nature of the story-- and not just to act their part. [10] A Noh play uses its dialogue as a “frame for the movement and music” that already contains symbols and allusions to Japanese history and culture, and is “less that of a present action than of a simile or metaphor made visual.” [10] Noh incorporates music and dancing into “plots (that) are usually drawn from legend, history, literature, and contemporary events. Themes often relate to dreams, supernatural worlds, ghosts and spirits.” [11
    • Types of Noh Plays [10]: 
      1. Kami Play (“God play”)- about a Shintō shrine
      2. Shura Mono (“Fighting play”)- about warriors
      3. Katsura Mono (“Wig play”)- about a female protagonist
      4. Gendai/ Kyojo Mono (“Present-day play”/ “Madwoman play”)- realistic/ contemporary genre, or about a protagonist who goes crazy from loss of a beloved one
      5. Kiri /Kichiku Play (“Final/ “Demon play”)- supernatural genre
    Noh masks used in theatre. Photo credit by: Ichidoru (Flickr)
    • The stage of a Noh theatre is typically squared with pillars in every corner that support the roof. The background of one side is painted on as to provide a background for the play. [11] The Noh style uses “boldy patterned extravagant costumes,” and masks that can be assigned to many characters (human and supernatural). By only playing with shadows, the characters’ masks can express happiness or sadness. [9] To expand this range, characters are also given props, like a folding fan that can either represent “an object, such as a dagger or ladle, or an action, such as beckoning or moon-viewing.” [9]
    Kyogen theatre. Photo Credit by: Leander Kirstein-Heine (Flickr)
    • Kyogen is a theatre meant to elicit laughter through satirical humor and witty dialogue. It uses “medieval life and folktales as its main themes … and developed as a dialogue-drama.” This emphasis on words dubbed Kyogen as the “art of words.” [12] It is typically “independent comic plays that are performed between two noh plays.”[9] During the performance, a Kyogen player would speak informally to the audience, giving them the necessary context to understand the story as well as giving the main actor in the Noh play time to change costumes. Kyogen plays use masks to represent mythical and non-human beings, and other characters rely on “exuberant facial expressions for comic effect.” [9] A Kyogen play would be performed by 2 to 3 actors, and take around 15 to 20 minutes to end. [11]
    • Fun Fact: Noh theatre gets its inspiration from historical dramas and traditional literature. It’s a “dance-based performance,” while its counterpart—the Kyogen—is a “spoken comedy” that draws from medieval daily life (particularly the “shortcomings of common people.”) [13] Masks play a huge role in Noh theatre as actors use shadows to represent emotions on typically expressionless surfaces. But in Kyogen theatre, masks are specifically used to express shock and amusement. This contrast between the two different styles creates a “combination of both symbolism and realism (that) embodies the essence of human nature.” [13]

    Kamishibai storyteller's travelling set. Photo credit by: José Luna (Flickr)
    • Kamishibai literally means “paper plays,” and were basically images drawn as “picture scrolls” to teach illiterate people about moral values [4]. The storytellers who used these paper plays usually travelled from one village to another on a bicycle with a miniature stage attached. The storytellers would bring wooden clappers and use them to notify the people of their presence.  They’d make money by selling candy to kids, and whichever kids get the most end up with front row seats. When a crowd gathered, the storytellers would transition between each image to tell a story accompanied by their own narration. Each visit by the same storyteller usually meant a new development in the story, kind of like a new episode or chapter update [4].
    • Their stories were heavily reliant on visuals (between 12-20 images), and so they used the images as a way to control the pace of the story. Slow transitions = dragging the story out and having a slow pace. Fast transitions = quick story action/ conflict  [5]. This art of storytelling can be viewed as the origin of manga and anime. They both have a similar “wide-eyed” character look [4], and have similar methodology basics. Even popular Kamishibai characters grew to become “Japanese heroes” that preceded the debut of American heroes Superman and Batman [4]. 
    • Fun Fact: It hit a resurgence in popularity during World War II when Japanese citizens had to stay in bomb-shelters. Kamishibai became a popular form of entertainment that was easily transported from one bomb-shelter to another, making it integral to society. So much so that when the TV first came out, it was referred to as an “electric kamishibai” [6].  

1500s: BUNRAKU-
    Bunraku puppet controlled by puppeteer's helpers, who remain covered. Photo credit by: Autan (Flickr)
    • Bunraku, originally called Ningyo Joruri (“puppet narrative drama”), is a form of puppetry that combines music and storytelling [1]. Unlike in typical puppet theatres, the puppeteers are visible to the audience, manipulating the puppets in full transparency. [1] They stand behind a partition with railings that make it seem like the puppets are walking on ground as the puppeteers themselves move around [2]. That, along with how Bunraku stories take about a day long (literally) make this art style one of "the most highly developed puppet theatre art in the world." [1]
    • Bunraku heavily relies on sound and music, since it mainly consists of two elements: joruri (storytelling) and joruri gidayu-bushi (“narrative singing”) [3]. During the performance, the shamisen (three-stringed lute) musicians and the chanters (the ones singing the story) sit on a revolving platform for their part, switching out in time for the next performers. To the audience’s right side, there’s also another group of shamisen players and chanters. For even more sound variety, there’s an orchestra to the left of the audience who’re in charge of creating atmospheric sound like the weather with their instruments [2]  
    • For fun viewing and more info, check out this short documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=44dH7j-rITw 

1600s-1800s: KABUKI-
    Kabuki actor in warrior makeup and costume. Photo credit by: lensonjapan (Flickr)
    • Kabuki first began in the spring of 1603 by a shrine maiden who performed “exotic dances and risqué skits” on a dry riverbed in Kyoto. Her strange and quirky performances became a huge hit, and inspired groups of women and cross-dressing men to do the same. Unlike some other theatre arts, Kabuki originally included both male and female actors—who were often working as prostitutes [14]. Eventually, male Kabuki performers became the only ones acting the roles of thieves, warriors, and ladies. These actors have developed a huge fan base to the point where clubs were established to recognise them, and supporters would even buy wooden block prints (the photos of the old days) in their honor [14].  
    • Kabuki plays are “melodramatic” but also historical, and have been previously compared to Shakespearean plays. Both Shakespeare’s stories and Kabuki plays are written in an older form of a language, but while Shakespeare remains popular with younger audiences, Kabuki doesn’t—despite the efforts it makes [15]. Kabuki stories are usually well-known that audiences don’t go to  see the story, but to see how the story is performed. In fact, there are movie adaptations based on Kabuki plays, and Kabuki actors can make tabloid news and even appear on TV commercials [15].
    • In Japanese theatre, the actor has the highest level of authority (not the director as in Western theatre). This is partly because actors are a big deal in this field. Stage names are passed down from generations, from father to son, creating famous kabuki lineages [16]. And in Kabuki, there are three main styles of acting. 
      1. Aragoto: Heroes are “physically strong, impulsive, fierce and martial.” So to represent this, actors are more dramatic. Their makeup, costumes, and poses become more exaggerated. This style is also linked with “the samurai-dominated city of Edo (modern Tokyo)” [14].
      2. Wagoto: The story is more realistic, and the tone more soft and comical. Heroes are young playboys caught in a lovers’ quarrel. This style is linked with “the mercantile city of Osaka” [14].
      3. Onnagata: Male actors who played female roles, like “the high-ranking samurai lady, the young maiden or the wicked woman” [15].
    • Kabuki makeup depends on the character’s personality. For example, the Aragoto style involves dramatic makeup to help the audience identify dramatic emotions or values. Bold lines of colours represent good (red) or evil (blue), and also emphasize  anger (to represent bulging veins) [17]. Actors would apply their own makeup, and use white powder on their skin so their faces show in the dimness of the theatre [16]. Actors are also required to wear wigs, as they distinguish a character’s personality, age, status, and even emotions—like when a female character lets down her hair to express jealousy or rage [17].
    • Kabuki is performed on a large and revolving stage rigged with trapdoors and backdrops [15]. Everything is controlled by stage handlers, and the backdrop is painted in a way to emphasise beauty than realism, so that when gazed at by the audience, the play would feel like an animated old-styled painted scroll. The plays takes place during the day, and the illusion of time passing is controlled by the window shutters of the set [16].
    • Fun Fact: Actors play stock characters, and strike meaningful poses during climactic moments of the play. They would set their feet apart, gaze at the audience, swivel their head, and then make striking eye movement. They would freeze after each added movement to draw attention to a specific body part—the way closeups do in films [16].

1600s-1900s: RAKUGO-
    Rakugo storyteller performing. Photo credit by: Tulane Publications (Flickr)
    • In Rakugo storytelling, the performer sits on a cushion and tells his story facing the audience with only his fan and a towel as props. He would move his head one side to the other, change his pitch, posture, and tone to distinguish between different characters. The stories would be 10 to 40 minutes long and would include a comical monologue, like modern day stand-up, and a traditional tale based on “stock characters” of Edo-Period Japan. The comical monologue would help the storyteller decide what kind of tale would suit the audience as it would be used as a way to sense the atmosphere in the crowd [7].
    • Aspiring Rakugo storytellers would have to be apprenticed to a Rakugo master for 3 to 4 years if they want to become professionals in this field. This apprenticeship period can be strict since apprentices may not be allowed to smoke, drink, or date. They might also have to follow a curfew, as well as clean their master’s house, fold their master’s kimonos, and do their cooking. Rakugo apprentices would observe their master during their performances and not be allowed to perform themselves unless given the approval by their masters [7].

For more details on any of the above styles, I highly suggest checking the sources mentioned and the ones used below:

Source 1: http://www2.ntj.jac.go.jp/unesco/bunraku/en/contents/whats/
Source 2: http://www2.ntj.jac.go.jp/unesco/bunraku/en/contents/whats/stage.html
Source 3: http://www2.ntj.jac.go.jp/unesco/bunraku/en/contents/whats/history01.html
Source 4: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kamishibai
Source 5: http://www.presentationzen.com/presentationzen/2011/10/kamishibai-is-a-form-of-visual-and-participatory-storytelling-that-combines-the-use-of-hand-drawn-visuals-with-the-engaging-n.html
Source 6: http://www.kamishibai.com/history.html
Source 7: http://katsurasunshine.com/what-is-rakugo/
Source 8: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarugaku
Source 9: http://web-japan.org/factsheet/en/pdf/33Noh_Kyogen.pdf