New acquisitions: Kabuki and Nō

This gorgeous set of two books on traditional Japanese theatre was kindly bequeathed to the library by Richard Marlow, Fellow of Trinity from 1968 until his death in 2013, and has recently been added to our collection. Both contain numerous photographs, both in colour and black and white, and useful reference information, such as illustrations of the various costumes of standard Nō characters and a timeline of famous Kabuki actors. To find out more about these beautiful theatrical forms and to see these exquisite books, request them in the Library.


231.a.96.1 – Kabuki. Text by Masakatsu Gunji, photographs by Chiaki Yoshida, introduction by Donald Keene, translation by John Bester. Tokyo : Kodansha International Ltd., 1969.

Kabuki is a form of popular theatre dating from 17th century Japan involving singing, dancing and lavish staging.

“In kabuki, tragedy and comedy, realism and romanticism go hand in hand. Elements of the musical and of the realistic drama exist side by side within one and the same play, creating a rich and varied beauty.” – Gunji, page 16

“Kabuki” can mean either the art of singing and dancing or it can refer to a swaggering or outlandish manner. Early kabuki performances were often located in red light districts, with a merchant class audience. Gunji euphemistically says of the origin of the word kabuki,

“It requires little effort today … to imagine the ways in which the word was used, and the kind of people and behavior to which it referred.” – page 18

Indeed, many of the actors were available to hire as prostitutes and, as was the case in Western theatre, the profession of acting was for much of its early history considered a lowly one until kabuki became more widely accepted after the Meiji Restoration.

The staging of kabuki was often elaborate, with platforms that extend into the audience, flying rigs, scenery changing before the audience’s eyes and revolving sections of the stage. Performances would be day-long programmes of popular entertainment, with the subject matter of the plays often being directly related to the season.

Inside front cover
Inside front cover
Title page
Title page
Plate – a Kabuki performance

231.a.96.2 – Nō : the classical theatre of Japan. Text by Donald Keene, photographs by Kaneko Hiroshi, with an introduction by Ishikawa Jun. Tokyo : Kodansha International Ltd., 1966.

Nō theatre, characterised by its use of delicately carved wooden masks, high poetry set to music and stately, stylised gestures, dates from as early as the 14th century. In contrast with Kabuki, it is restrained, understated and elegant.

“The purpose of Nō is not to divert on the surface but to move profoundly and ultimately, to transcend the particular and touch the very springs of human emotions.” – Keene, page 21

The forms and staging of the plays are highly codified and deeply symbolic. Subject matter varied from every day experience to legendary or supernatural themes, but the characters adhere strictly to a few main categories, demarcated by their masks, the style of their clothing and their movements. Since the masks are unchanging, emotion is expressed by the actors in other ways.

The masks themselves have elaborate rituals associated with them. They are invariably carved from cyprus and are treated with reverence by the actors.

“Before a performance … the mask to be worn is displayed in the dressing room and honored with ritual salutations.”- page 19

Nō is a complex art form that makes high demands of the audience. The language is archaic and poetic and the audience is expected to invest belief in the idea of, for example, a young child actor playing a fierce demon, or an old man playing a young woman. However,

“The appeal of Nō is by no means entirely intellectual or aesthetic; it moves many in in the audience to tears, and leaves haunting and poignant remembrances.” – page 21

Inside front cover
Title page
Plates – traditional masks

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