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Japanese Culture

Japanese Culture

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Published by Rattana Ny

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Categories:Topics, Art & Design
Published by: Rattana Ny on Aug 07, 2012
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04/05/2013

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Japanese Culture
 
For many people, the mention of Japanese culture conjours up images of weird masks andextravagantly made-up actors twirling red umbrellas on a stage and elegant, kimono-cladladies demurely pouring cups of tea in tranquil cherry-blossomed temples. Well, even todayyou can still experience all that kind of stuff, if you know where to look.The traditional arts of Japan offer an opportunity to experience something truly exotic or findinner calm. For the serious practitioner, solemn awareness of the history and intimateknowledge of the past-masters of your chosen form of expression are essential if you wish topractice at the highest level. These ancient 'ways' are not for the faint of heart, but manyforeigners come to Japan each year to enlighten themselves through their study. For the rest of us, just a nibble at this great banquet of culture will be more than enough.The Japanese do know how to kick back and have fun, too. You might be surprised by justhow wild a Japanese festival can get! Snow festivals, fire festivals, fertility festivals - youname it, they have it. When it comes to food, the Japanese are as enthusiastic as anybody onearth - the changing seasons bring new delicacies and an excuse to travel the length of thecountry to sample local dishes. Spring also brings the cherry blossoms - symbol of life's all-too-brief span and a good excuse to get drunk and dance around in a cemetery! The beauty of summer fireworks and autumn's spectacular changing leaves can also take the breath away.
The Japanese performing arts have made some unique contributions to world culture
 
 
 
 
 
 
The quieter and more contemplative arts have developed followings world-wide
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Japanese royalty has a history dating back many centuries
 
 
Many cultural events fill out the annual calendar, with something in every season
 
 
 
 
 
 
Japanese costume is unique, differing greatly even from those of other Asian cultures
 
 
 
Japanese food, sushi in particular, is popular arould the world and renowned for itshealth benefits
 
 
 
 
Alcohol - Sake, Beer and more As was the stage tradition in Elizabethan England, kabuki is performed entirely by men.Strangely enough however, this art form was created by
Okuni
, a female shrine attendant, inthe 17th century. Although greatly influenced by the aristocratic noh,kabuki was largely popular entertainment for the masses. A large part of the popularity of the early, all-femaleperformances was due to their sensual nature. The performers were also prostitutes and maleaudiences often got out of control. As a result, women were banned from performing by the
Tokugawa Shogunate
. Ironically, the young male actors who took over kabuki also engagedin prostitution and audience disturbances continued to break out. Again, the Shogunateclamped down and troupes composed of older actors were required to perform moreformalized and strictly theatrical dramas, based on kyogen.Changes were made to the traditional noh stage, such as adding a draw curtain and a
hanamichi
(catwalk) through theaudience to allow dramatic entrances and exits.
Nakamura Matazo in'The Wisteria Maiden' (Fujimusume)
 
Detail of a Kabuki-za poster showing theprincipal performers
 Widely considered as Japan's greatest dramatist,
Chikamatsu Monzaemon
(1653~1724)spent the mid-part of his career writing kabuki dramas, although his greatest works werebunraku puppet plays. When he returned to bunraku, many fans went with him and kabukiactors began to incorporate elements of bunraku in an attempt to woo them back. Among thegreat kabuki dynasties, the
Ichikawa Danjuro
line is perhaps the best known and continuesto this day. Ichikawa Danjuro II (1688~1758) premiered many great works and adaptedpuppet plays for the kabuki stage. Successors played a huge part inraising the status of kabuki in society. Other great acting dynastiesinclude Onoe Kikugoro and Bando Tamasaburo.The actors who play female roles are known as
onnagata
or
oyama
(such as National Living Treasure
Nakamura Jakuemon
,left, born in 1920). As kabuki gained a level of respectability, theimportance of these roles increased. The first great onnagata was
 
Yoshizawa Ayame I (1673~1729). Many of the great kabuki actors have built theirreputations solely on these roles. The performances are not so much 'acting' in the Westernsense as stylized representations of female beauty or virtue. While early onnagata wererequired to maintain their feminine persona and dress even in their private lives, this practicewas abolished in the Meiji Restoration of 1868.Kabuki is performed on a large, revolving stage and has such familiar stage devices as scenicbackdrops and trapdoors for surprise entrances.
Kamite
(stage left) is often where you willsee the important or high-ranking characters, while
shimote
(stage right) is occupied bylower-ranking characters. Actors perform
kata
(forms) as they have been performedthroughout the generations. An example is
mie
or striking an attitude, often with one's eyescrossed and an exaggerated expression for dramatic effect.The
aragoto
or 'rough style' of acting is exemplified by suchexaggeration and dramatic make-up and costume (left). It isassociated with the Ichikawa Danjuro line. Die-hards in theaudience join in the action, calling out the
yago
(house or familyname) of the actors at prescribed moments in the performance.Standard male kabuki roles include the handsome lover, thevirtuous hero or the evil samurai; for an onnagata, roles include thehigh-ranking samurai lady, the young maiden or the wicked woman.Traditional kabuki is highly melodramatic but strictly historical.Like the work of Shakespeare, the old stories and characters in theplays are all familiar to those in the know even though the language itself is often antiquatedand hard to follow. But while the Bard's masterpieces are still widely popular among all ages,kabuki is no longer of much interest to younger Japanese people. Audiences tend to be madeup of older people and refined young ladies. One of the most famous stories,
Chushingura
- atale of revenge and loyalty - owes most of its popularity today to its many movie adaptations.Various actors and troupes have worked to incorporate avant-garde elements into kabuki andhave worked in other areas such as TV and film. The actors themselves seem to do alright, atleast the ones from the famous kabuki dynasties. Their romantic escapades make tabloidheadlines and they appear in the odd TV commercial so I suppose there's life in the old artform yet.Kabuki is truly a theatrical spectacle, combining form, color and sound into one of the world'sgreat theatrical traditions. But as far as dipping your toe into this particular cultural pond isconcerned, a half hour spent at the
Kabukiza
theater in Tokyo,
Shin-Kabukiza
in Osaka orthe
Minamiza
in Kyoto is probably all you'll need. At Kabukiza, for example, there is aseparate box-office for seats on the 4th floor, where you can enjoy a single part of theprogram for as little as 500 yen. Seats for the full program range in price from 2,400 yen to16,000 yen. An English "Earphone Guide" is available (except on the 4th floor) to give youthe rundown on what's going on and also give you a bit of background. Feel free to get up andleave when you've had enough!In November 2005, UNESCO announced its decision to designate kabuki as one of theMasterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. It certainly didn't hurt itscandidacy that the director-general of UNESCO at the time was Matsuura Koichiro, aJapanese. Kabuki joined Nohgaku Theater,similarly designated in 2001, and Ningyo Johruri Bunraku Puppet Theater, usually simply referred to as Bunraku,designated in 2003.

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