It might not be as famous as anime, manga, or sushi, but Japan has a rich theater tradition that goes back centuries.
Kabuki is the type of Japanese theater most people are likely to know. If you want to see Kabuki today, you have three main choices, Shochiku’s Kabukiza in Ginza, The National Theatre or Shinbashi Enbujo .
Kabuki is usually performed as a marathon program beginning in the morning and finishing in the late afternoon. But you can purchase so-called makumi tickets for single acts or the shorter performances that are part of the day’s schedule. These are cheaper and offer an appetiser before you commit to more.
What to expect?
A Kabuki performance is a rowdy affair, with plenty of applause, carefully timed calling-out from the audience, elaborate sets, and flamboyant make-up and costumes.
…the stories are bombastic and straightforward—and the melodrama irresistible
While the dialogue is poetic and hard even for native Japanese speakers to make out, the stories are bombastic and straightforward—and the melodrama irresistible.
Audiences will generally be older but there are always plenty of overseas tourists, and you can hire headsets offering audio guidance on the story and the various elements of the performances.
Noh and Bunraku
Older and less accessible than gaudy Kabuki is Noh and Japanese puppet theater.
– National Noh Theatre (Tokyo)
– National Bunraku Theatre (Osaka)
Bunraku is traditionally based in Osaka, though its company also tours to Tokyo’s National Theatre.
Noh and Bunraku
Compared to Kabuki, Noh and Bunraku are slower-moving events that require patience, but their unique beauty is undeniable.
The biggest contemporary theater events are Festival/Tokyo and Kyoto Experiment, both of which usually take place for several weeks each over the autumn in their respective cities and feature line-ups of international performances and local talent.
Public theater and fringe theater productions generally play for a maximum of two weeks at a single venue. Commercial productions will run longer but only certain exceptions like “The Lion King” have open-ended runs.
Commercial Theater & Musicals
For musicals, the Shiki Theatre Company is the most successful and popular troupe. It owns several theaters around Japan. The Takarazuka Revue also stages musicals but as all-female spectacles—very kitsch, but very Japanese!
For large-scale commercial plays and other performances, including touring overseas productions, you can always check out what’s playing at the Imperial Theater, Bunkamura, or Parco.
Shimokitazawa is the heart of Tokyo fringe theatre, with several small venues packed into the district.
The neighborhood is the only place in Tokyo (or probably anywhere in Japan) where you can always see crowds of people gathering outside small theaters such as The Suzunari, to attend matinees and evening shows. The posters for the current performances (most change weekly) are displayed on boards and just a glance at these will show the vibrancy of the scene.
The only other district in Tokyo that can rival Shimokita is Ikebukuro
The only other district in Tokyo that can rival Shimokita is Ikebukuro, in the northwest of the city. It boasts the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, one of the capital’s three premier venues, as well as a fringe theatre complex (Theater Green, actually three tiny performance spaces crammed into one building) and another public theatre, Owlspot, run by the local ward.
Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre
Other major theater venues in Tokyo include the New National Theatre, Tokyo in Shinjuku, and the Setagaya Public Theatre and Theatre Tram, in Sangenjaya.
Major new public theaters and facilities have also appeared in Kyoto and Yokohama in recent years and the regional cities have used these to establish their own cultural credentials. Today they are not just hosting performances on tour but also nurturing their own companies and festivals.
As the 2020 Olympic Games approach, we can expect more events and performance spaces to pop up around the country.