Shinpa Theatre – Investigating Japanese Theatrical Forms

We have all heard about Japanese theatre, like Noh theatre and Kabuki theatre, however there is much more to this aspect of culture apart from these two old and traditional forms. Amongst a variety of different performances one little known kind of theatrical form is Shinpa (新派). It is never shown abroad, and even in Japan it is not commonly on stage.

When Japan was opened up to the world in the 1850s a variety of different ideas flowed into Japan, and Japanese people travelled abroad too, and so they discovered Western versions of theatre. Of course it was not possible for theatre groups to just start performing foreign plays as it would have confused audiences, but they did begin to change. In the 1880s a liberal called Otojiro Kawakami (川上音二郎) was involved in theatre that was different, with plays such as ‘Mr Itagaki’s True Distress’ (板垣君遭難実記) that were very popular. These melodramatic tales retained elements of Kabuki, but also more contemporary elements which led to this style of theatre being named Shinpa.

In 1629 the Tokugawa government banned theatre shows which had a mixed cast of female and male actors, but after this law was abolished in 1890 Shinpa theatre led to the first mixed gender cast in hundreds of years. It is claimed that Chitose Beiha was Japan’s first modern actress when she stepped onto the stage of ‘A Lady’s Chastity: A Useful Story of Political Parties’ in 1891.

Meanwhile Kawakami’s theatre group became more and more popular, and went on two tours of Europe and America between 1899 and 1902. Foreign audiences were enthralled by these Japanese plays that included traditional Japanese dance and music alongside more contemporary theatrical elements. It was also while they were performing in America that Kawakami’s former geisha wife was persuaded to start appearing onstage, partly because American audiences were so curious to see a real geisha. This time abroad had a strong influence on both kawakami as following his return to Japan in 1903 he staged Shakespearean plays. Although he was not the only Shinpa playwright to be influenced by Shakespeare.

At this time Shinpa seemed like it was becoming the dominant theatrical form, even rivalling traditionally popular Kabuki.

Sadly it didn’t last long, perhaps at most a few decades, before it was replaced by more modern, or westernized, theatrical forms. Today even very traditional theatre like Kabuki is very well known, but Shinpa is barely remembered even amongst Japanese people!