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Sumo, a form of wrestling, is one of Japan's most interesting and colourful traditions. Its exact origin is obscure, but it is certainly very ancient and linked with the Japanese cult of Shinto. Sumo matches are held on a dais of banked earth, in a circle defined by small rice bales. Within this circle, the wrestlers attempt to push or throw their opponent down – the match is won even if the losing wrestler merely touches the earth inside or outside the circle with any part of his body.
Many rituals surround the matches, some of them having mystical significance; before a bout the wrestlers throw liberal amounts of salt into the ring as a form of purification. The most senior wrestlers are those holding the ranks of yokozuna (grand champion), ozeki (champion) and sekiwake (junior champion ). Ozeki, sekitwake and all the lower ranks are promoted or demoted after every tournament according to their performance, but yokozuna is a fixed rank and very few wrestlers achieve this supreme, unassailable position. Sumo wrestlers cat large quantitics of high-protein food in order to achieve massive bulk and strength; between 100kg and 200kg is a typical fighting weight.
This most esoteric of the Japanese performing arts originated in sarugaku, religious music and dance of the Heian period. Under the patronage of the military elite and the nobility, no gradually developed into a distinctive and highly sophisticated art form. In the 14th century, the Shogun Yoshimitsu personally patronized no, raising the entertainment to the high status it has enjoyed ever since.
Many of the plays which form the standard works of no were created by Kanami Kiyotsugu (1333-1384) and his son Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443). In addition to plays, Zeami wrote importani treatises on the principles of no, stressing its nobility and refined beauty. Every play centres on one main character, the shite, supported by the waki, often in the character of a Buddhist priest. These actors wear masks and costumes of great beauty, the shite costume in particular having inspired some of Japan's finest achievements in textiles and embroidery. The action of the play is further supported by an assistant, the tsure, and a group of musicians seated at the rear and right hand side of the stage. Generally, the action of the play is slow, though punctuated from time with fast dance sequences; many plays end with a dance sequence.
No is usually performed in a hall specially set aside for this purpose. The stage, a squarc platform bare of curtains or scenery, is connected to the dressing room by a roofed corridor along which the actors come and go. The five major schools of no – Kanze, Hosho, Konparu, Kongo and Kita – perform in their own halls, and occasionally on outdoor stages in the context of special festivals and celebrations. As in kabuki all the performers are male.
The theatrical performance of sophisticated puppet plays, originally called ningyo joruri katari, dates from the 17th century. As puppet plays became popular they came to be known as bunraku after Uemura Bunrakuken (1737-1810), a joruri singer and founder of a theatrical troupe in Osaka called the Bunrakuza. The originator of the bunraku repertoire, however, was Takemoto Gidayu (1651-1714), founder of a puppet theatre called the Takemotoza, also in Osaka; he created this repertoire, based on historical dramas, in collaboration with Chikamatsu Monzaemon, one of the greatest playwrights for the kabuki theatre (sec S-26-2-5/6).
Bunraku puppets vary in size, the largest, the most important characters, being about two-thirds lifesize. They are controlled by rods and levers in the neck, hands and feet and the large puppets are capable of a great range of facial expression. The puppeteers, standing behind the puppets in full view of the audience, raise themselves up to the required height for the size of puppet they are manipulating by wearing special platform geta (see S-3-7-3/4) shod with metal; the stamping of these geta punctuates the action of the play. Large dolls require the manipulation of three men: a senior member of the troupe and two assistants.
Vocal accompaniment to bunraku, in the form of a narrative called gidayu-bushi, is sung by one man, accompanied by samisen. Since 1963, the art has been supported by the Bunraku Association and performances have been given in many countries overseas.
The origin of kabuki lies in a popular entertainment of the 16th century devised by a shrine maiden named Okuni. This lady, who was formerly in the service of the Grand Shrine of Izumo in Shimane Prefecture, gathered together a troupe of male and female dancers and performed on the dry river beds of Kyoto. Due to the frivolous nature of the entertainment – and suggestions of immorality – the kabuki dances of Okuni and her followers were banned, but they were followed soon after by all-boy wakashu kabuki and then all-men yaro kabuki. To this day, kabuki dance drama is performed only by men, the female parts being taken by actors called onnagata or oyama.
Most of the theatrical developments in kabuki took place in the 17th century and early 18th century when dramas were added to the repertory by Chikamatsu Monzaemon (noted for romantic tragedies) and Takeda Izumo, Namiki Senryu and Miyoshi Shoraku, the creators of the most famous of kabuki dramas, Chushingura, in 1748. A Contemporary performance is made up of drama based on historical events, pure dance pieces and genre dramas of the Edo period.
The presentation of kabuki is vividly colourful and animated. The historical dramas and dance pieces in particular are characterized by brilliant costumes, dramatic make-up and stage devices of the most elaborate kind. The stage itself is very wide and shallow compared to the stage of a Western theatre and it is connected to the rear of the auditorium by a ramp, the hanamichi, the setting for many of the most dramatic setpieces in kabuki drama. Kabuki is performed in large theatres (principally Kabukiza) in large cities and it is very popular among people of all classes. It has also been staged in the United States of America, Canada and Europe.
Yose, Japanese vaudeville, is perfomed in small theatres, many of them in the entertainment districts of Japanese towns. It is a lively, unsophisticated show with the emphasis on dramatic storytelling, humour, magic, feats of agility and strength, dance and song. Many of the elements of yose have been transferred in recent times to television and, at the same time, modern elements have been incorporated into the yose theatre. Among the most interesting entertainments found in yose is the monologue rakugo. Rakugo stories, which have been handed down from generation to generation, are full of wit, innuendo and pathos. They are delivered with great skill.
The earliest records of manzai players go back to the Kamakura period (1192-1333) but it is thought that the origins of manzai lie in a New Year dance from the T'ang dynasty of China. At one time, manzai enjoyed the patronage of both the imperial court and the shogunate. Contemporary manzai players, of which there are few, roam the streets in the New Year singing a song ending with the refrain "Yore manzai, sore manzai" : manzai means "ten thousand years" and the inference is that those who hear the song may enjoy long life – if not for ten thousand years! The costumes of the two players represent Ebisu and Daikoku, two gods said to bring good fortune; one carries a tsuzumi drum and the other a fan. Manzai in the yose theatre bears little resemblance to traditional manzai; it consists of a lively and dramatic comic dialogue.
The monkey showman (sarumawashi) trains monkeys to dance to the accompaniment of a drum. These shows became popular during the Kamakura period through the introduction of a popular Chinese belief that an epidemic could be cured by showing a monkey to a horse. Thus, sarumawashi went from door to door during the New Year holiday entertaining the residents and showing the monkey to their horses. In return, the household made a gift of money to the showman. In 1970, the custom is almost extinct.
As many as 80% of Japanese television viewers watch this year-end programme, broadcast from 9 pm to 11.30 pm on New Year's Eve by NHK (Nihon Hoso Kyokai : Japan Broadcasting Association). Some time before the programme, an announcement is made of the singers who will take part in the festival and they are divided into two competing teams: red, female singers, and white, male singers. The programme was first broadcast on January 30th, 1951, but in 1953 it was moved to New Year's Eve and has since developed into something of a national institution. The title of the programme in Japanese is Kohaku Utagassen.
The contents of this site are excerpted from THE OFFICIAL RECORD OF TIME CAPSULE EXPO'70(March 1975). Please note that company and organization names may differ from those of the current ones.
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