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The true origins of Japanese Dance are lost in the mists of time, although the Nihon Shoki (日本書紀 "The Chronicles of Japan"), which chronicles the earliest legends of Japan, contains the myth of one Amenouzume no Mikoto, who danced in front of the ama no iwato (天の岩戸 "The Gate of the Celestial Rock Cave"), in order to open the entrance and free Amaterasu Ohmikami, who had concealed herself inside.
Japanese dance, as we know it today, is an amalgamation of five original, separate dance forms. Foremost amongst these is the kagura (神楽), the ritualistic dancing and music associated with the Shinto faith, which still forms the basis of Shrine festivals (祭り matsuri) today.
The earliest imported dance was a form of masked dance-drama called gagaku, (雅楽 "Old Japanese court music"), which was bought to Japan from Korea in 612 A.D. This was later complimented by the addition of bugaku (舞楽, "court dancing"), which came into the country from China during the 8th century. These formed the basis of the entertainment of the Imperial court and the nobility. Around the same time the dengaku (田楽 lit. "field dancing") and sarugaku (猿楽 lit. "monkey dancing") came into vogue as a form of entertainment amongst the Japanese farmer class. The former was derived from a fertility rite, normally performed in the fields before sowing the new crop and the latter was a circus-like performance, also imported from China.
From these various styles, the uniquely Japanese Noh theater (能楽堂 nōgakudou), with its highly formalised and stylistic moves, came into existence during the 14th century. In turn Noh, which was seen as entertainment for the elite, exerted its own influence on Kabuki (歌舞伎) dancing, which became more popular with the growth of the merchant classes during the Edo Period.
The current incarnation of this form of Japanese dancing is the direct descendant of Iizumo Okuni's Nenbutsu Odori (念仏踊り "A dance for Buddha"). This dance differed to Noh, in that is was more free-flowing and less stylised than Noh, having its roots in the ethnic dengaku and sarugaku dancing. The dances of Izumo Okuni on the banks of Ōsaka's rivers, is seen as the start of what is known today as Kabuki.
Kabuki started as simple dance routines (踊り odori), but later began to incorporate elements of performance and acting, especially once women were banned from taking part in kabuki performances (the Edo Period Shōgunate were concerned that they might be immoral). Regardless of this suppression, kabuki passed down from generation to generation, with gradual changes in style over the years. Today, the shosagoto (所作事 "dance drama") pantomime dances incorporated in kabuki plays are a throwback to the art form's origins and reflect kabuki's love of gaudiness and spectacle.
Bon odori (盆踊り "festival dances") are regional folk dances, closely linked to Buddhist festivals, especially obon (お盆 "the festival of the dead") which honours one's ancestors, as well as local historical events. In many ways the dances, which all differ from region to region, resemble the Western Maypole dances, in that participants will dance in a circular motion around a central "tower" or "scaffold" (櫓 yagura).
The stylised posturing within Japanese dancing, combined with the vocalization alongside traditional Japanese music and the stage presentation have all been carefully preserved over the years. Continued interest in both Noh and Kabuki is ensuring that schools dedicated to teaching are still going strong, each one concentrating their efforts on continuing both the legacy and evolution of Japanese dancing as an art form.
Nihon Buyo (日本舞踊, "classical Japanese dance"), is a new genre of Japanese theater closely related to Kabuki. They are essentially kabuki dances adapted for their own, separate stage performance, rather than as part of a larger story. The performers wear elaborate kimono and traditional hairstyles and makeup similar to those of the geisha of kabuki's early days, who were also accomplished musicians, storytellers, and dancers in their own right.
Shinbuyo (心舞踊 lit. "dancing from the heart") was a further development of kabuki. Pioneered during the late 1950s and ‘60s by Fujikage Shizue, it provides ordinary people with the opportunity to perform kabuki dance as an independent art form and is especially popular among women.
Sūpā kabuki (スーパー歌舞伎 "Super Kabuki") is another new innovation within Japanese dance culture, which combines the traditional elements of Kabuki, with modern synthesizer music, innovative lighting and modern stories.
- Nojima Jusaburō; Kabuki Jōruri Gedai Yomikata Jiten (歌舞伎浄瑠璃外題読み方事典) Reading Encyclopaedia of Kabuki; Nichigai Associates; 1990
- Fu'kuchi Yoshihiko; Kabuki Nyūmon (歌舞伎入門 An Introduction to Kabuki); Fujingahōsha; 1995
- Zarina, X; Classic Dances of the Orient; Crown; New York; 1967
- Benito Orolani; The Japanese Theatre: From Shamanistic Ritual to Contemporary Pluralism; Princeton University Press; 1990