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Links with Nature Complete the Arts of Japan〜From Traditional Performing Arts to the Modern Stage〜


During the Japan Cultural Expo, countless performances will take place across Japan, ranging from the presentation of traditional performing arts to diverse local folk traditions and modern performances featuring cutting-edge technology. To learn more about the significance and appeal of these performances, as well as their connection to nature, we spoke to Orita Koji, who has been involved in stage productions since the National Theater of Japan was first established.

織田紘二Orita Koji

Traditional performing arts producer and director Member of Japan Cultural Expo Planning Committee

The Arts: A National Treasure Crafted from a Heritage of Speech and Movement

Through your work with the National Theater of Japan, you are deeply involved with artforms like kabuki, bunraku, and noh. How far back can we go to find their origins? Did they have performance art thousands of years ago in the Jomon period?

Clay figures excavated from Jomon ruins do show many different forms of artistic expression. Some of them are laughing; others are singing, dancing, or playing an instrument. We can't hear their words or voices, but the figures convey the movement of performers at the time.

Here in the present day, people in Japan use the Japanese language to formulate thought. We dream in Japanese. Movement, which we're all naturally equipped with, is done unconsciously. It has been handed down through the generations, changing gradually over the years. Movement and voices are the components of language, which is vital to understanding people, and understanding the country.

Since the Heian period, the movement and voices important to generations of Japanese people were passed down through artforms like noh, kyogen, kabuki, and bunraku, in turn strengthening them as art forms. Japanese culture isn't just about written words, but also about listening and seeing. And about telling stories. If you watch kabuki, bunraku or similar shows today, what you'll hear is relatively modern Japanese, but generations of performers have passed these artforms down through time. When it comes to performance, those torchbearers are national treasures.

For over 50 years, the National Theater of Japan has recorded and preserved the movement and voices of performing arts. The Japan Cultural Expo is a chance for people to see that valuable work. Whether viewing video or watching live, please pay attention to the movement and voices. For example, when drawing a deftly curved Japanese sword, one must smoothly adjust the angle of the blade in relation to its sheath. That curved moment is an important characteristic of the world of the samurai. And it is preserved perfectly in kabuki. The Japan Cultural Expo goes beyond simply seeing things; people will be able to experience them, too. You will be able to get inside the mind of a kabuki performer and think about the performer's every movement.

Japanese Sensibilities
in the Form of "Snow Moon Flower"

What aspects of Japanese arts reveal links with the natural world?

Noh was established by Kan'ami (1333-1384), the father of Zeami.. Kan'ami said, "Perfect theater requires quality performers, a quality program, and a quality audience, and, ultimately, the weather at the time." Back then, performances took place outside. Conditions such as humidity, temperature, and wind affected how drums sounded and how costumes looked. The sound of the wind and the flickering flames of the torch became part of the show. Performing arts didn't treat nature simply as a theme. The performance was right there amid nature.

Japan has beautiful seasonal variation. Consider the words used in the Japanese title of the performance at the opening ceremony of the Japan Cultural Expo: "Moon Snow Flowers." This phrase expresses an affinity for the natural world. Traditional music and stage performances have a formal structure: an introduction, development, twist, and conclusion. In times past, this structure was conveyed by the court-music term "jo-ha-kyu," indicating a beginning, a shift, and a change of pace. That term came from China, in medieval Japan it was replaced with words from nature: "moon, snow, and flowers."

I understand that the Japan Cultural Expo offers a chance to enjoy other regional folk entertainment in addition to traditional performing arts.

Japan is home to three realms of dance: kabuki dance (Nihon buyo) from Edo (modern Tokyo), mai dance from Kyoto and Osaka, and kumi odori (okansen odori) from Okinawa. In these styles, dancer and audience are separate—the audience simply watches. But in other styles, such as bon odori, everyone joins in. This kind of dance has a huge presence in every corner of Japan. Rather than simply watching, you yourself dance. Folk entertainment such as the onikenbai (devil's sword dance) or the shishi-odori (lion or deer dance) has roots in faith. There's a massive variety, and each dance has its own character.

Whether you want to watch, or join in yourself, the Japan Cultural Expo offers a variety of dance forms to choose from. The opportunity to experience Japanese performing arts has never existed on this scale before. The six northern prefectures of Tohoku, a region hit so hard by disaster in 2011, will present performances on the theme of reconstruction. That's just one small part of an incredible program. It's truly impressive, and I'm looking forward to it myself. I'm also delighted that the Japan Cultural Expo has inspired people across the country to become torchbearers of Japanese culture. It's an outstanding cultural heritage project.

Some experimental performances are themed around coexistence with science and technology. One example is an opera performed by androids.

I myself was involved in a kabuki performance at the National Theater of Japan that featured robotics. A mythical creature called a kappa was displayed on a transparent monitor, and made to move like a human would. Kabuki keeps pace with the times. The android opera is a glimpse of the future of performing arts. It's very exciting.

It certainly is something to look forward to. Lastly, is there anything else you'd particularly like to tell the people of the world?

Japan is an unusual country in that the old religion, language, songs and dances have always been preserved. I'd love for people across the world to see and hear the performing arts that have been cultivated in this small island country. We're looking forward to offering you a very warm welcome, so please do come and enjoy yourselves!

Reiko Kado
Rika Matsumoto