Sajikidōji and a sketch of the contemporary Japanese theatere scene

Suzunari is a legendary small theater. It was opened in 1981 and made Shimo-kitazawa a Mecca for small theater companies.

This red tent is the symbol of Jūrō KARA
From Kara-gumi's latest performance in Inokashira Park
Sketch of the stage
"Hakata wangan Taifu Kozō"

"Hakata wangan Taifu Kozō"

"Fuuraibo Raijin Yashiki"

Funuke show some love, you losers! - reference to a relevant page of Nippon Connection

The best way to understand the thoughts and feelings of the people of a different country is to watch good drama. But, because of the difficulty of understanding foreign languages, the privilege of theater-going is often denied to foreigners. Films with subtitles can, of course, give us to a glimpse into the mind of foreign people. But the number of good films is limited and the film cannot replace theater played by living people. So, I would like to give you some clues to the Japanese theater world.

Traditional theaters and their challengers

Many foreigners might have heard about Kabuki and Noh as Japanese traditional theater forms. They are worth experiencing, but not suitable for understanding contemporary Japan. Noh belonged to the tradition already in the 16th century. Kabuki, on the other hand, was very popular and reflected the life of ordinary Japanese people before westernization started in Japan in the mid 19th century. Kabuki came to be forced thereafter and in particular after WWII to preserve its purity as a traditional theater, and thus lost its ability to evolve together with the rest of society. Kabuki is still a very successful commercial theater type. But, it is destined to replay old programs, similar to the opera in the Western world, and you can hardly learn from Kabuki something about Japan and Japanese people today.

If you are interested in the real mind of Japanese people under their amicable facades, you should try to visit small theaters for example in Shimo-Kitazawa or Shinjuku. You can discover there the truth from the avant-garde activities of Japanese theaters with all their different kinds of experiments. There are about 40 so-called small theaters (*) in Tokyo and there are also troupes who perform in a tent like a circus.

Shingeki and angura

When westernization started, the Japanese establishment tried to modernize Kabuki, the sole form of theater at the time. On the other hand, imaginative and progressive people wanted to introduce the Western style of theater and started various groups of "shingeki"(*). These were mostly influenced by the realism theaters in Europe and gradually became the mainstream in the Japanese theater world. Now there are lots of shingeki groups such as Bungakuza, Haiyūza, Mingei and Seinenza and their actors and actresses play actively in films and TV dramas. By the 1960s shingeki became a sort of establishment and authority in the theater world and a new movement started in the form of "angura"(*) theater with Shūji TERAYAMA and Jūrō KARA as its leaders. They passionately presented an antithesis to the prevailing values and brought anti-authoritarian feeling and estheticism together with all kinds of deformity, decadence and fantasy into the theater world. Shūji TERAYAMA died young. But, Jūrō KARA continues to create and perform extremely actively in his red tent.


My favorite company "Sajikidōji" is led by Kenji HIGASHI, who started his theater experience with "Shinjuku Ryozanpaku" whose leader had been an important member in KARA's company. This makes Sajikidōji the authentic heir of the angura tradition.

A few years ago, I fell in love with small theaters and visited various performances one after another, at least twice a week, for a year or so. Sajikidōji is the most interesting theater I encountered at that time. The first play I watched was "Hakata Wangan Taifū Kozō" (*), which describes the painful life of outcast people in a village in North Kyushu. The time is set at the beginning of the industrialization of Japan. All but one, Zakobe, have lost their hope of living an ordinary life. There comes a group of women workers, who have fled from a match factory because of cruel and inhuman treatment. The relations between Zakobe and women workers give rise to unforeseen developments.

Flyer from the latest performance "Golden Ape".
Exploitation and oppression are no longer a trendy themes in the majority of the Japanese theaters. However, Sajikidōji creates highly impressive plays from seemingly outdated but in their essence fundamental human problems and in this way attracts many theater lovers. The audience is stunned by the touching but extremely beautiful world of fantasy and folklore. The passionate and devoted performance of all actors, has magical power to move the audience to tears. On top of all such theatrical allurement, near the end of a play the audience can experience a fantastic stage-technical surprise which has no match in other companies.

After angra theater

Following the "angura" movement, many new theater groups mushroomed and are still mushrooming in Japan. But, their character changed in the mid 1970s. Until that time most Japanese theater groups were somewhat politically oriented and emphasized the political messages in their productions. This was quite natural in the light of the political atmosphere at the time. But, after the student movement reached its peak around 1968, the process of depoliticization progressed in the 1970s and people wanted to have a share in the fruits of economic growth and enjoy life. Therefore, the theater groups which were formed after the 1970s are mostly entertainment-oriented, while there are still some troupes who have some sort of philosophy and ideology and try to experiment with new ideas.

Another change took place in the 1990s, when in addition to shingeki people TV stations started to engage actors and directors of small theaters. The people in the small theater world are generally very poor. They prepare for performances which take place only a few times a year and each time only for a few to several days. During the rest of the year they engage in part time jobs and try to try to finance their living and theater activities. Poverty nourishes their creativity and vitality. But, since the 1990s some lucky people found the way to become rich and have luxury life, thanks to the media and big capital. Some people say that this chance has had a negative effect on the small theater activities as a whole, because they have been overwhelmed by commercialism and lost their dedication to the theater activities.

Some of my other favorite small theater companies

At the end of my short essay, I would like to introduce a few favorite groups of mine, though they are not necessarily the most famous groups in the Japanese theater world today.

Sketch of the stage "He meets girl"
"Lolita-Danshaku" is a group formed in 1995 by Shigenori TANABE with his schoolmates of Tama Art University. They perform comical musicals with using foolish and deliberately unskilled expressions. I was enchanted by their "He meets Girl", which is a fantasy drama featuring manga freaks. It is a dominant trend among small theater troupes, to avoid the realistic and skillful expressions which is the basis of shingeki, i.e. Western theater world, but to intentionally cultivate lack of skill. I think this lack of skill is a tool for inviting laughter and gaining the sympathy of young audiences who are accustomed to the stiff and unprofessional expression of student theater.

"Seinendan" was established by Oriza HIRATA in 1983. Hirata is one of the leading theorists of the contemporary theater world in Japan. For Hirata dialogues are the most important element of a drama and he tries to construct natural dialogues based on his "contemporary colloquial theater theory". HIRATA studied in Korea when he was young and is actively engaged in international exchange with Korea and other countries. Seinendan gave performances in some Asian and European countries, using a special computer program to make subtitles developed by the group.

"Gekidan Motoyayukiko" was created by Yukiko MOTOYA in 2000. She is a highly talented sceario writer and uses her own name for her troupe. She finds material for her drama in the passion and fantasy characteristic to women and sheds light on the darkest parts of soul. Her first production "Funuke show some love, you losers!"" was recently filmed and it participated in various international film festivals including Canne and Warshaw.

There are of course many other attractive theater companies. Please try to visit not only famous traditional theaters such as Kabuki, but also small theaters in Shimo-kitazawa, Shinjuku or elsewhere. You have to pay in most cases only 3 thousand yen ($30) for a ticket and you can experience a world you have never dreamt before.