Entertainment is a prime example of how the old, in some cases stretching back centuries, co-exists with the modern and evolving. In some cases it might be struggling to survive, in others it’s thriving.
Noh is the oldest form of theatre in Japan, supported now by only a hard core of devotees. It developed out of rituals associated with rice harvesting and entertainment in Buddhist temples. Action is minimal, and much of the dialogue, in chant form, borders on the incomprehensible. The chant is accompanied by four musicians who also sit on stage. The main actor wears a mask, the expression on which indicates the actor’s mood.
Kabuki theatre began in the mid-16th century, initially with women playing all characters. Due to the hostile nature in which audiences reacted to their dancing styles they were eventually replaced by young men, but they also met with the same reception, so finally only adult male actors could take part, dressed in whatever manner their role required. Kabuki costumes are very colourful, including long wigs which are flung around with jerking movements of the head, and over-sized clothes giving actors a larger than life appearance on stage. The themes of most plays are based on Japanese history, plus well-known love stories and other adventures. For the Japanese today, attendance at noh and kabuki theatres, and bunraku puppet shows is uncommon, television being the usual medium to experience these forms of culture.
English speaking visitors to a kabuki theatre may find themselves better catered for than the Japanese patrons, with programs sometimes containing a summary of the story in English, whereas most Japanese find it impossible to understand the arcane Japanese used in many of the actors’ lines.
Bunraku theatre, featuring puppets about half human size, became popular during the Edo era. A voice singing in a chant-like way tells the story and provides the puppets’ voices.
Go, shogi and mah-jongg are the most popular board games in Japan. Go has two players, using a board containing a grid of 19 x 19 lines, making 361 cross points. The players take turns in placing stones, black for one player, white for the other, on these points, each with the objective of enclosing an area on the board larger than the other person’s. Stones can only be removed from the board if captured. One or both of the players decide when the game has ended, at which point the controlled area is determined and counted along with captured stones to ascertain the winner.
Shogi, which means generals’ chess and is thought of as Japanese chess, also has two players, using a board with 81 squares. Similarly to chess, the objective is to neutralise the opponent’s king, each player having twenty pieces of eight varying levels. It probably was the first form of chess to introduce the ‘drop rule,’ where captured pieces are returned to the board for use by their captor.
There are professional players of both games, the very top players in some cases achieving fame akin to pop stars. Both games came to Japan in about the 8th century, but mah-jongg, which is a four player game using 136 pieces, was only introduced in the 1920s.