Posted in Research for Project 2 Examples

Example 4 Research, Part 3: Taiko Drums in the Japanese Classical Theater Forms

In this post I will take a look at koten geino, the classical performing arts of Japan and then see the way taiko drums were used. The first of Japan’s two classical theatres is Noh (Fig. 1a and Fig. 1b) – Japanese musical dance-drama with masks. Despite a lot of research, its origin isn’t very clear. Zeami, founder of Noh writes in his treatise Fushikaden, about two versions of its origin – one Shinto, one Buddhist and states that:

“Time has passed, and with the interposition of the ages it no longer lies within our abilities to learn how it first appeared.” (2013:11/30)

noh 3.jpg

Fig. 1a. Painting from National Noh Theatre

noh estampa.jpg

Fig. 1b. Woodblock print by Chikanobu Toyohara

However, the roots may be somewhat traced. In the seventh century, sangaku, a popular entertainment form from China was imported. It included mime, song, dance and acrobatics and became so popular that the performers organized into Sangaku House called Sangakko for training purposes, in the early eight century. However, the court abolished this school of performance, in 782. Somewhere around this time the word sangaku started to disappear, with sarugaku, or ‘monkey dance’ (Fig. 2), taking its role. The confusion between about this transition is left unexplained, as it seems that people of Heian period did not care to distinguish the two, sometimes using them interchangeably and sometimes as two different arts. (Raz, 45)


Fig. 2. Illustration of sarugaku


Here is the explanation about the change of characters:


There are many other interpretations, listed here by Ortolani (1990: 57):


Cut off from their court support, a large number of sarugaku performers were seeking for new support, found mostly in the Buddhist temples, where they became known as sarugaku hoshi (monks). (Asai: 226) In some temples, shushi sarugaku also appeared. These were the performer monks that started to carry out esoteric rites. In order to make the significance of these rites clear, they used simple theatrical pieces. For example, if spells, designed to drive away devils, were recited, a scene could follow showing such evil figures being overcome by Buddhist teaching.

Another style was also constitutive for Noh theatre, called dengaku or ‘field music’. It was an offspring of the folk forms of rice-fields, ta-asobi and ta-mai. It was first performed as songs and dances by villagers during rice-planting to ensure a good year and also provide entertainment during the tiring season of harvest. This remains its pure and simple form. But soon, it was turned into a theatrical style, where a number of forms from the sarugaku tradition were taken over by dengaku professionals. Meanwhile, the sarugaku professionals assimilated elements from the dengaku tradition. Hence, there are uncertainties in the definition of which art belonged to which tradition. But what is clear is that sarugaku performers found professional sponsorship in the Buddhist center of the worship, while dengaku found it in Shinto shrines and became known as dengaku hoshi (Fig. 3). (Ortolani, 1990: 73)

dengaku monks.PNG

Fig. 3. Illustration of dengaku monks

By 11th century, sarugaku and dengaku developed along parallel paths, with the growth of performing tradition, advancing in the direction towards becoming performers at the court of the Shogun. The noh which means skill or ability was added to both their names, indicating the high professional skill that the performers of these forms acquired, or which was needed in order to perform them. Despite being rivals, each with its own school of performance, they were greatly mutually influencing each other.

At the time of genesis of Noh, in the second half of the fourteenth century, both sarugaku noh and dengaku noh appear to have had a strong affinity in both content and style. Varley notes that the fact that sarugaku, rather than dengaku, was transformed during the Kitayama epoch into Noh, was partially fortuitous (1999:114). In fact, the sarugaku-noh and dengaku-noh were two noh prototypes (Malm, 36) and Raz (61) points out that:

“Throughout the Kamakura period, no other art enjoyed more fame, protection and popularity than dengaku.”

However, its popularity might have led to its disappearance, as the dance brought its audience to the collective ecstasy (Ikegami, 107). Raz (62) writes that some accounts called dengaku a craze and an epidemic, with people saying there was “the dengaku disease.” It’s no surprise since people of all classes would commit acts of larceny or lewdness, dance semi-naked in the streets and dress in clothing forbidden to their class or gender.

Dengaku, along with dogfighting, the passion of Shogun Takatoki’s and his noblemen’s, is charged in Taiheiki (Tale of the Grand Pacification) to have brought ruin to his house and the military regime and government. The performers were even accused to being animal spirits disguised as humans. It was especially blamed after a famous incident that took place in 1349. In one of the dengaku performances, while a boy of around eight or nine performed an acrobatic monkey dance, the members of the audience roared with laughter and excitement, when suddenly, all 60 stands collapsed. Over a hundred people of the audience died. The Taiheiki made a comment about this well-known incident and again blamed the rulers’ excessive fondness for dengaku theatrics for the fatal outcome. The shogun’s enthusiasm for dengaku was “not a good act” and invited punishment from Tengu – a mountain goblin.

Another source lists an interesting point: dengaku in its folk form had underlying elements that suggest fertility and in its Shinto form, it was also tied to supernatural female powers and unbridled female sexuality. In contrast, sarugaku is connected to the calm Buddhist burial rites. Nijo Yoshimoto, highest ranking nobleman and a famous literati, who was present during the above mentioned incident, did his best so that the samurai could be weaned away from the irrational by associating dengaku with female madness, and help them accept sarugaku, associated with masculine values. This could suggest “victory over unruly, emotional female forces by calm, ‘rational’ Buddhism and stoic male warrior.”

Among sarugaku troupes, one that had a good fortune to act before the Shogun Yoshimitsu in 1374, was Kanami and his son, Zeami’s. Yoshimitsu was so moved by the performance that he lavishly patronized their art. Kanami refined sarugaku to a dramatic art of great beauty that appeals to aristocratic sensibilities, and is credited with the transition from sarugaku-noh to the modern noh. Kanami structured his plays as virtual mono dramas, in which the crucial event in the life of the chief character – Doer, often a grieving spirit of a dead person, was remembered and re-enacted in kuse mai, where Kanami combined kuse, a popular narrative song of the time with rhythmic dance – mai.

Zeami continued his father’s tradition, and as it was the main religion of the court, under Zeami’s guidance, Zen artistic principles of restraint, austerity and economy of expression were incorporated into noh plays. As sarugaku lived on through noh, by the end of Muromachi period, the urban dengaku disappeared, while country, folk gengaku still survives in many parts of the country. (Raz, 57)

In the current practice, noh ensamble includes three drums: ko-tsuzumi, o-tsuzumi and one taiko. In Noh performances, the drums calls – kakegoe were used to mark time and coordinate the performance. The Noh taiko – shime-daiko (Fig. 4) is carved out of zelkova block. The two drum skins – cowhide or horsehide, are held by ropes. It rests horizontally on a stand stuck with two lightweight sticks whose ends taper slightly. There are variations of shime-daiko used in the folk performing arts, which were, as described, the roots of noh. These have thicker heads, and higher pitch and better durability.


Fig. 4. Shime-daiko

Ko-tsuzumi (Fig. 5) is the smallest drum, similar to san-no-tsuzumi – shaped as hourglass made of zelkova wood, and has two rope-fastened horsehide heads. It is placed on player’s left shoulder and struck with the fingers of the right hand. It is tuned by the tension of the ropes and with its skillful manipulation, and finger strokes, it produces 5 basic sounds.


Fig. 5. Ko-tsuzumi

O-tsuzumi is very similar, only slightly bigger. It is played similarly, but is held by player’s left hip and struck by sideways motion of right hand.

Second classical theatre is Kabuki (Fig. 6), a product of “… restless, assertive, mercantile society that flourished in the great cities of Kyoto, Osaka and Edo (Tokyo)”. (Brandon and Banham, 147) Tradition has it that kabuki began with a visit to the ancient capital of Kyoto by a mysterious dancer called Okuni (Fig. 7) in 1596. She performed in the dry river bed of Kamogawa (Peterson, 37) and advertised as a shrine maiden of the Grand Shrine of Izumo, a major Shinto religious center, under the authority of a Buddhist priest at the time. She is said to have performed nembutsu-odori, a Buddhist exorcist dance, but with a performance decidedly secular (Malm) and quite in-tune with the early use of the word kabuki with connotations of the lascivious.


Fig. 6.  Kabuki theater, Triptych woodblock print by Utagawa Toyokuni III


Fig. 7. Okuni, cross-dressed as a samurai

Okuni’s dances paved the way for other female performers and yujo – courtesans to practice kabuki. But, this period of all-female kabuki, was cut down, as government banned the female performers in order to minimize prostitution. This gave rise to the kabuki performed by young men – wakashu. Not too long after, these young male performers were banned in their turn, since they as well, were eligible for prostitution. Although the performances by yujo and wakashu were labelled as dances and reviews, they actually played radical gender and class acts within the context of their seductive performances. (Shimazaki, 45-46)

However, it was when the troupes of older men – yaro appeared that kabuki began staging productions and made its turn from the lascivious dancing to the narrative theater. Finally, during the golden age of kabuki – Genroku, that the theaters gradually began catering to a broader audience and pioneered the kind of theatrical experience audience in later periods would call kabuki. Just as Leiter writes, today, much of kabuki’s appeal lies in its vivid contrasts: the stylized sets similar to woodblock prints, occupied by human actors who often move like puppets; the unsurpassable grace and femininity of the female impersonators; the wicked samurai, noble outlaws and virtuous prostitutes who turn the social order upside down.

In kabuki, instruments of Noh ensemble were the major source of musical accompaniment, joined by shamisen (three-stringed Japanese lute). Drummers in kabuki, just like in Noh, use drum calls for timing and performance coordination. In addition to the ensemble music, there were musicians concealed in an offstage area called geza (Fig. 8a and 8b) to provide sound effects. Geza has a myriad of percussion, including the drums of Noh ensemble and larger odaiko and okedo-daiko.


Fig. 8a. Hidden geza


Fig. 8b. Inside the geza

Like the noh’s shime-daiko, odaiko (Fig. 9) is barrel-shaped and carved out of a single block of wood, but is very larger with two cowhide drumheads, fastened by a ring of metal tacks, like gaku-daiko. Odaiko were originally used to advertise kabuki performances. In those days, audiences would not know whether performances would take place until they heard the sound of odaiko. Today, it is concealed in geza, played with long, thin bamboo rods to create sound effects, such as falling snow or rain.


Fig. 9. Odaiko

The okedo-daiko (Fig. 10) is cylindrical in shape, constructed out of individual staves, not carved out. The staves are held by two hoops, and drumheads are fastened with ropes to the body. It is similar in dimensions to the odaiko. Since it originated as a folk instrument, it is used in geza for the atmoshpere of a folk festival. Along with several types of gongs and mallet percussion, geza musicians augments the sounds of these two taiko drums with already gaku-daiko from gagaku, for scenes depicting war and with a fan drum, uchiwa-daiko (Fig.11), for other effects.


Fig. 10. Okedo-daiko


Fig. 11. Uchiwa-daiko

In my next post, I will write about the final form -the ritual and folk style of traditional Japanese performances and the drums used there.

List of illustrations:

Fig. 1a. Painting from National Noh Theatre

Fig. 1b. Woodblock print by Chikanobu Toyohara

Fig. 2. Illustration of sarugaku

Fig. 3. Illustration of dengaku monks

Fig. 4. Shime-daiko

Fig. 5. Ko-tsuzumi Museum of Art

Fig. 6.  Kabuki theater, Triptych woodblock print by Utagawa Toyokuni III

Fig. 7. Okuni, cross-dressed as a samurai

Fig. 8a. Hidden geza

Fig. 8b. Inside the geza

Fig. 9. Odaiko by Rachel and Christine

Fig. 10. Okedo-daiko

Fig. 11. Uchiwa-daiko


Zeami In: Wilson, William Scott (2013) The Spirit of Noah: A New Translation of the Classic Noh Treatise for Fushikaden. Boston and London: Shambala Publications

Raz, Jacob (1983) Audience and Actors: A Study of Their Interaction in the Japanese Traditional Theatre. Leiden: E. J. BRILL

Ortolani, Benito (1990) The Japanese Theatre: From Shamanistic Ritual to Contemporary Pluralism. Leiden, New York, Kobenhavn, Köln: BRILL

Asai, Susan Miyo (1999) Nōmai Dance Drama: A Surviving Spirit of Medieval Japan. Westport and London: Greenwood Press

Varley, Paul H. (Updated and Expanded) (1999) Japanese Culture, 4th ed., Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
At: (Accessed on )

Malm, William P. (2000) Traditional Japanese Music and Musical Instruments, Volume 1.  Tokyo: Kodansha International

Ikegami, Eiko (2005) Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and the Political Origins of Japanese Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Brandon, James R. and Banham, Martin (ed.) (1997) The Cambridge Guide to Asian Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Petersen, David (2007) An Invitation to Kagura: Hidden Gem of the Traditional Japanese Performing Arts. David Petersen

Shimazaki, Satoko (2015) Edo Kabuki in Transition: From the Worlds of the Samurai to the Vengeful Female Ghost. New York: Columbia University Press


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