THEATER REFORM

   At the beginning of the Meiji period, Japanese theater consisted of the traditional dramatic forms no, kyogen, bunraku, and kabuki and popular vaudeville-like variety acts and oral storytelling found in the yose theaters. Two prolific playwrights, Kawatake Mokuami and Kawatake Shinshichi III, helped preserve that classical kabuki tradition even as they incorporated new sources (including Western plots and tales from the storytelling theater) into works that continue to be performed today.
   New political and social developments, such as the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement and the establishment of Japanese newspapers, led to theater reforms at both the traditional and popular levels. Political reformers incorporated kabuki-like bravado into soshi shibai (hooligan shows) aimed at rallying the masses. These improvisations on political issues developed into the new shinpa theater reform movement. A major shift occurred when Kawakami Otojiro and his wife, Sadayakko, adapted Shakespearean works for performance at home and abroad. At the same time, such writers as Ozaki Koyo adapted works of Western drama, and such playwrights as Osanai Kaoru rose to the performance challenges these new works presented and created theater troupes to adapt Shakespeare, Moliere, and Henrik Ibsen for the Japanese stage. Mori Ogai and Tsubouchi Shoyo updated kabuki, no, and kyogen into more modern, colloquial Japanese. Theatrical realism also moved to center stage with a shift from verse to colloquial speech and from stylized dance patterns to realistic movements.
   By the early 20th century, established playwrights were to be found in production residency at newly built theaters in both Tokyo and Osaka. Throughout the 20th century, Japanese drama witnessed constant change and metamorphosis, including a period of underground theater during the 1960s, and continues to serve as a bellwether for many political and social movements.

Historical dictionary of modern Japanese literature and theater. . 2009.

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