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Kabuki theatre and Bunraku puppet plays

Kabuki performance originated from seventeenth-century variety shows by itinerant entertainers. One group led by a young woman called Okuni is particularly well-recorded. She may have been raising funds for a shrine. Females were banned for lewdness in 1629 and replaced by youths, who were in turn replaced by adult males in 1652. Indoor theatres were built and by the Genroku era (1688-1704), Kabuki was an artistically mature art form using sophisticated texts, lavish costumes, highly exaggerated make-up and stage effects including the hanamichi walkway for dramatic entrances. Two distinct styles developed: the aragoto ('rough stuff') was performed in Edo from around 1673 by Ichikawa Danjūrō and his descendants. In Kyoto and Osaka, Sakata Tōjūrō favoured a gentler, more realistic acting style called jitsugoto or wagoto ('gentle stuff').

Bunraku is a much older form of theatre. Strictly it is known as ayatsuri jōruri ('puppetry with text and chanting'). Its true origins are obscure, but it may be related to performances by itinerant puppeteers on Awaji Island in the eleventh century. Jōruri refers to Lady Jōruri, the heroine in a primitive puppet play performed with chanted narrative in the sixteenth century. At first biwa (lute) accompaniment was used, but the shamisen introduced from Okinawa was soon adopted for such performances. Mature Bunraku was a combination of half life-size puppets each worked by three puppeteers, a shamisen player and a narrator/chanter.

During the Edo period, Kabuki and Bunraku were sometimes in competition. From about 1686, the famous chanter Takemoto Gidayū collaborated with the playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon to produce outstanding works which overshadowed Kabuki for a while. However, from the 1730s, Kabuki made a comeback, becoming the most popular of the performing arts. It still flourishes today. Bunraku, which requires skilfully carved and constructed puppets and rigorous training for the puppeteers, has proved more difficult to sustain.

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