Japanese no-how: Japan's traditional drama is in crisis: next week London hosts a radical fusion of three classic genres. Clare Bayley sets the scene

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The Independent Culture
In Japan, the 600-year-old theatre traditions of no and the more recent (only 400 years old) bunraku and kabuki are increasingly popular among youth audiences. But there's a problem. According to Takayuki Fujinami of the Japan Arts Council, there are only 1,400 no enthusiasts in Japan, and a mere 20 per cent of those are professional performers. For kabuki there are only 256 professional performers, and for bunraku puppet theatre 88 - a poor show considering that for each bunraku puppet you need three puppeteers and several musicians, as well as actors to recite the lines. 'It means that only one production can ever be performed at any time,' sighs Fujinami. 'Behind the scenes there have been a lot of problems, but the biggest one is how to get people to take the traditions over into the next generation.'

So the Japan Foundation has launched a radical project, Shunkan. An ancient story from 14th-century battle annals, Shunkan was a no favourite until the 18th-century playwright Chikamatsu adapted it for bunraku theatre. From there it was taken up by kabuki actors, and now for the first time the three different versions will be seen on stage together in one performance. 'It's never been done before,' Fujinami reveals. It was previously deemed impossible because mixing no and kabuki was considered as sacrilegious as mixing Greek tragedy with the Folies Bergeres. 'We wanted to see what new developments could arise from it, and where we can go from here,' Fujinami explains.

Shunkan, a rebel, led an attempted coup in the 12th century. When the coup failed, Shunkan and his two co- conspirators were exiled to an island. Later all three were pardoned, but Shunkan, the leader, was never allowed back into the capital. In the no version of the story, Shunkan never leaves the island. 'Chikamatasu's version was much more humanist,' explains Shizuo Goto of the National Theatre of Japan. 'He created a female role, a woman called Chidori, who falls in love with one of Shunkan's companions. Shunkan is permitted to return to the mainland, but in order to allow the lovers to be together, he chooses to stay and let Chidori take his place in the boat.'

Shunkan was first made into a no play by Zeami Motokiyo, the father of acting in Japanese theatre and author of the first treatise on no. Zeami incorporated Zen principles into his methods: economy of expression and austerity of visual design were the touchstones of the form, and his advice to actors was: 'move seven if the heart feels ten.' Masks are used to heighten the focus, and music is a crucial part of the whole. The no part of Shunkan will be performed by a main actor and three supports, plus four instruments and eight singers who act like a chorus.

No was a lofty form performed by and for the upper classes. When the merchant classes began to swell in the 18th century, they devised their own forms. Both bunraku and kabuki are based on stories which are narrated while simultaneously acted out: in bunraku by puppets, in kabuki by real actors. The origins of kabuki lie more in the brothel than the temple: the first actresses in the 17th century were prostitutes, and the tone of these plays tended towards the bawdy. Kabuki continued to thrive despite the end of feudalism, and when Japan emerged from self-imposed isolation in the mid-19th century, a sanitised kabuki became the national theatre form.

'The challenge is how to tell the story of Shunkan with these three very formalised styles, bringing out the best in each of them,' Goto says. The stage will be divided into three parts for each of the different forms. The no version will be performed in its entirety by a total of 13 actors, musicans and singers, in exactly the same format it has had for 600 years. The bunraku and kabuki versions will be intercut. 'If Shunkan has continued to exist among us Japanese in ever-changing forms from the Middle Ages to the modern era, then does this still apply today?' Fujinami asks. 'From now on we believe all these forms should be looking to see what each can give to people from other cultures, as well as what they can take.'

'Shunkan' is at Sadler's Wells, London EC1 on 18-19 Jul (071-278 8916)

(Photograph omitted)