Japanese Traditional Drama

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Module code
FHEQ Level

Module overview

The module aims to provide students with a working awareness of the main texts and underlying aesthetic principles of premodern Japanese drama from the earliest times to the mid 19th century.  The module will be taught in English and will involve close reading and discussion of both dramatic and theoretical texts, as well as examination of visual materials including videos and prints. The primary textual focus will be upon the dramatic genres of noh, joururi (bunraku) and kabuki, and a major theme of the course will be the ways in which these genres recast and recycle plots, structures and thematic elements from older prose and poetry canons. In addition to looking at genre transformation and interaction, by reading translated extracts from theoretical writings the course aims to examine how premodern Japanese dramatists, actors and associated practitioners conceptualised their own working practices.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this module a student will be able to:

  1. gain both factual knowledge and theorized understanding of the major texts, authors, and the underlying aesthetic principles of premodern Japanese drama from the 14th century to the mid 19th century
  2. explore the relationship between drama and poetry/prose literature, and the performative aspects of literature in Japan
  3. develop a knowledge and understanding of the historical framework, periodization, indigenous aesthetic terminology; students’ ability to explore their own reactions to these texts as well as “read” them in their own respective social, cultural and historical milieux
  4. examine how live theatre has been represented and appreciated traditionally through text, image and musical notation


Total taught hours: 20 hours. 1 hour lecture and a 1 hour tutorial per week for 10 weeks.

Independent study: 130 hours

Total hours for module: 150 hours

Scope and syllabus

Each week will have a reading of a 'play' text and at least one reading of a 'theory text. Students will take turns presenting on the 'theory' reading in the tutorial hour. There will also be video sessions of representative plays form the three main genres of Noh, Bunraku and Kabuki.  Weeks one to five will cover Noh drama and weeks seven to eleven will cover Bunraku and Kabuk.

Method of assessment

A book or play review of 2000 (30%); an essay of 3000 words (70%).

Suggested reading

WEEK 2: Gods and men - Noh as religious theatre.

  • Lecture Reading:  “Takasago”. In Tyler, Japanese Nō Dramas. pp. 277-292.
  • “Kamo”. In Brazell, Traditional Japanese Theatre.  pp. 44-60.
  • Zeami. “Transmitting the Flower Through Effects and Attitudes” in Hare, Zeami Performance Notes. pp. 24-76. Discussion reading:  Royall Tyler. “Buddhism in Noh” in Japanese Journal of Religious Studies Vol. 14, No. 1 (Mar., 1987), pp. 19-52. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30234528

WEEK 3: Warriors and ghosts – Noh, history and narrative fiction.

  • Lecture Reading:  “Atsumori”. In Tyler, Japanese Nō Dramas. pp. 37-48.
  • “Tadanori”. In Tyler, Japanese Nō Dramas. pp. 264-276.
  • (Optional reading, not on Moodle) Zeami. “Figure Drawings of the Two Arts and the Three Modes” and “The Three Courses” in Hare, Zeami Performance Notes. pp. 139-163.
  • Discussion reading:  Steven T. Brown. “From Woman Warrior to Peripatetic Entertainer: The Multiple Histories of Tomoe” and “The Hegemon as Actor” in Theatricalities of Power, pp. 105-128.

WEEK 4: Women: Psychology and the power of poetry.

  • Lecture Reading:  “Izutsu”. In Tyler, Japanese Nō Dramas. pp. 120-132.
  • “Matsukaze”. In Tyler, Japanese Nō Dramas. pp. 183-204.
  • Tales of Ise. Sections 17, 23, 24.
  • Discussion reading: Etsuko Terasaki. “Matsukaze: Desire, Madness and the Myth of Unity” in Figures of Desire. pp. 233-262.

WEEK 5: Madness and Ghosts

  • Lecture Reading:  “Aoi no ue”. In Goff, Noh Drama and The Tale of Genji. pp. 134-139.
  • “Nonomiya”. In Tyler, Japanese Nō Dramas. pp. 205-214.
  • (Suggested reading, not on Moodle) Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji. Chapters 9 & 10.
  • Discussion reading:  Gary Mathews. “Zeami’s Confucian Theatre” in Asian Theatre Journal, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Spring, 2013), pp. 30-66. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/asian_theatre_journal/v030/30.1.mathews.html

Seminar 1: date/location to be advised. Viewing and analysis of a Noh play.

WEEK 7: Ningyô Jôruri: Self, society and theatre.

  • Lecture Reading: “The Love Suicides at Sonezaki”
  • “The Loves Suicides at Amijima”. In Brazell, Traditional Japanese Theater. pp. 333-363.
  • Intro to Gerstle, Chikamatsu: Five Late Plays (2001), pp. 1-35.
  • Chikamatsu on puppet theatre, from Shirane, Early Modern Japanese Literature (2002), pp. 347-51
  • Discussion reading:  Steven Heine. “Tragedy and Salvation in the Floating World: Chikamatsu's Double Suicide Drama as Millenarian Discourse”. The Journal of Asian Studies. Vol. 53, No. 2 (May, 1994), pp. 367-393. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2059839

WEEK 8: Ningyô Jôruri: Jôruri and history

  • Lecture Reading:  Donald Keene (trans.) Chûshingura, the treasury of loyal retainers.
  • Discussion reading: Jacqueline Mueller. “A Chronicle of Great Peace Played Out on a Chessboard: Chikamatsu Monzaemon's Goban Taiheiki” in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Jun., 1986) (pp. 221-267) http://www.jstor.org/stable/2719081

WEEK 9: Kabuki & Jôruri: Narrative transformations.

  • Lecture Reading: “Suma Bay”. In Brazell, Traditional Japanese Theater. pp. 442-457.
  • “Kumagai’s Battle Camp” from Shirane, Early Modern Japanese Literature. Selections from Kezairoku.
  • Discussion reading: Kominz, Laurence. “Origins of Kabuki Acting in Medieval Japanese Drama.” In Leiter, The Kabuki Reader. pp. 16-32. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25161488
  • Pronko, Leonard C. “Kabuki: Signs, Symbols, and the Hieroglyphic Actor.” In Leiter, The Kabuki Reader. pp. 238-252.

WEEK 10: Kabuki: Representation and realism (Video showing to be arranged.)

  • Lecture Reading: “Sukeroku”. From Brandon, Kabuki- Five Classic Plays.
  • C. Dunn and B. Torigoe, The Actors Analects (1969), Introduction, ‘One Hundred Items on the Stage’, ‘Mirror for Actors’ and ‘Words of Ayame’ pp. 3-66.
  • Discussion reading: Maki Morinaga. “The Gender of Onnagata as the Imitating Imitated: Its Historicity, Performativity, and Involvement in the Circulation of Femininity”. Positions, 10:2, 2002. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/positions/v010/10.2morinaga.html
  • Jay Keister. “Urban Style, Sexuality, Resistance and Refinement in the Japanese Dance ‘Sukeroku’”. Asian Theatre Journal, Vol.26, No.2 (Fall, 2009). http://www.jstor.org/stable/20638821

WEEK 11: Kabuki: Visuality & Performance

  • Lecture Reading:  Gerstle, 'The Culture of Play: Kabuki and the Production of Texts', Bulletin of the School of Oriental & African Studies, 66, 3 (Nov. 2003). http://www.jstor.org/stable/4146099
  • Gerstle, ‘Creating Celebrity: Poetry in Osaka surimono and prints’ in Keller Kimbrough & Satoko Shimazaki (eds.), Publishing the Stage: Print and Performance in Early Modern Japan (Center for Asian Studies, University of Colorado Boulder 2011). http://www.colorado.edu/cas/event-publications
  • “Yotsuya Ghost Stories”. In Brazell, Traditional Japanese Theater.  pp. 456-483.
  • “Kasane”. In Brandon & Leiter, eds., Kabuki Plays on Stage. Volume 3: Darkness and Desire, 1804-1864, pp. 118-133.
  • “The Hamamatsu-ya Scene”. In Brazell, Traditional Japanese Theatre.  pp. 484-505.
  • Discussion reading: Satoko Shimazaki, “The End of the World: Tsuruya Nanboku IV’s Female Ghosts and Late Tokugawa Kabuki”. Monumenta Nipponica, Volume 66, No.2, 2011, pp.209-246. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/monumenta_nipponica/v066/66.2.shimazaki.html


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules