Gigaku (Japanese silent dancedrama in which performers wear masks) (伎楽)

"Gigaku" is one of the traditional theatrical performance in Japan. According to Nihon Shoki (The Chronicle of Japan), Mimashi of Baekje introduced gigaku to Japan from Wu of Southern China during the reign period of Empress Suiko in 612. It was also performed at the consecration ceremony of the Great Buddha in the Nara period (in 752), and the gigaku masks supposed to have been used for this performance exist in Shoso-in Temple. It is composed of gyodo (moving pageant in which the participants wore masks covering their heads and led by a figure called Chido who cleans the road) and a series of comical pantomime performances. It was widely played for Buddhist services at temples throughout Japan during the Asuka to Nara periods, but gradually declined in later periods.

The history of gigaku

Also known as 'Kuregaku,' (literally means the performance of Wu) or 'Kureno Utamai' (the music and dance of Wu), it was a singing and dancing brought from state of Wu located in Southern China within the cultural sphere of Buddhism. According to the studies, there are various possibilities regarding its origin, derived from Southern China, Central Asia, Greece, India, or Indochina.

The description about 'gigaku' first appeared in the chapter of emperor Kinmei (reign period: 540-572) of "Nihon Shoki." This chapter mentions that Yamato Kusushino omi, the descendant of the king of Wu, offered a 'series of instruments for gigaku performance' along with the Buddhist scriptures and statues. However, it is unknown today whether gigaku was actually performed or not. The oldest record of gigaku actually performed in Japan is the article of "Nihon Shoki," entry in May, 612, saying that it was introduced by Mimashi of Baekje and he gathered young boys to teach it in Sakurai, Nara.

Encouraged by Prince Shotoku, it became the major performance for the Buddhist services at temples. Gigaku trainers were officially protected and supported by government with exemption of taxation and so on. According to "Engishiki" (three major code books of Heian period), the groups of gigaku were held at Daian-ji Temple, Todai-ji Temple and Saidai-ji Temple (Nara City). It was performed at least twice a year, on April 8 for Bussho-e (Buddhist mass celebrating Buddha's Birthday) and on July 15 for Gigakue. It was also held in 685 at Tukushi Region to entertain honored guests from a foreign country. As shown above, it was performed not only at Buddhist ceremonies but also at other events.

It was performed in a grand scale with other performances during the Buddhist ceremony to consecrate the Great Buddha of Todai-ji Temple in 752. It has been often performed in the Nara period, however, gradually declined in the Heian to Kamakura periods. However, reminiscences of gigaku can be found in other performances of 'shishimai' (Lion dance) and 'Onerikuyo' (the Buddhist ceremonial parade, wearing the masks and costumes of various Bodhisattva) performed in temples around the country.

In 1980, a part of ancient gigaku was restored as a major project, to be showcased at the Buddhism ceremony celebrating the completion of restoring the Hall of Great Buddha at Todai-ji Temple. The restoration process was completed by the efforts of Mr. Sukeyasu SHIBA, an ancient music performer of the musical performance department at the Imperial Household Agency (for re-composition of the musical part), Mr. Kingo HOTTA, a TV producer of NHK (Nippon Hoso Kyokai [Japan Broadcasting Corporation]) (for planning), Mr. Wataro TOGI, a bandmaster of the musical performance department at the Imperial Household Agency and the chairperson of the Ono Gagakukai (for choreography), Mr. Fumio KOIZUMI, a professor of Tokyo University of the Arts (for project supervision), and Mr. Tsuneo YOSHIOKA, a professor of Osaka University of Arts (for production of the consume) and so on, based on the existing documents. The acting and performance was conducted by the department of the ancient Japanese music at Tenri University. Since then, this department at Tenri University has continued the attempt to restore gigaku performance described in "Kyokunsho," (the oldest comprehensive music book of Japan) while the re-composition of the music part of the performance was continued by Mr. Sukeyasu SHIBA of the Imperial Household Agency. This department has been also performing an original gigaku called "Sanzo hoshi" (Xuanzang with three collections of Buddhist scriptures) at Yakushi-ji Temple since 1992. Another project called 'Shin Gigaku' (genuine gigaku) to revive gigaku for today's audience has been developed since 1980's, to be performed at temples in Nara Prefecture.

Performance style of gigaku

Performance style of gigaku played at Buddhist temples during the Nara period is as follows.

The performance begins with a kind of parade called gyodo. It is considered to be accompanied with sutra chanting in praise of the Buddha. This parade is led by chido (road keeper) with a mask like a Tengu (long-nosed goblin). Then a band playing prelude with flutes and tsuzumi (hand drum), a vocal group called onjo, a lion, a group of dancers, then another band for playing postlude, and a group of Buddhist priests called hoko (priests wearing crown cap).

Once the parade reaches to the performance site, there begins shishimai. It plays a role to appease the site ground by stepping onto it. Then, a theatrical performance with a dramatic twist begins with the characters including the king of Wu, Kongo (Vajra), Karura (Garuda), Kuron (Konron), Rikishi (wrestler), Baramon (Brahman), Taiko (an old Buddhist) and Suiko (Drunken Persian King). The performance is presented as dances and pantmime without any dialogue, played by the actors all wearing masks. This performance is accompanied with wind instruments and percussion instruments.

Following the dances of King of Wu and Kongo, various dance performances are played by different characters; a speedy dance of Karura represented as a spiritual bird gobbling up a snake; the performance of Kuron making a play for a woman of Wu in obscene actions, to be punished by Rikishi; the act of Baramon taking off his loincloth to wash it himself; a performance of an old man named Taiko to pray for Buddha; a comical play between Drunk Persian King and his attendant.

Kuron seduces the woman of Wu by hitting an exaggerated imitation of a male genital called Marakata with a fan, then Rikishi punishes Kuron by pulling and hitting Marakata by roping it. It is considered to have been performed to warn for the human nature with lust, but the performers' action would have set the audience burst into laughter. Also, the play of Suiko represents a king who lost his dignity as he drank, showing the generous hearted criticism. However, the act of Taiko performing the Buddhist service expresses the devout behavior and spirit of people approaching toward Buddhism, which could be the reason that gigaku was performed at Buddhist temples even with the comical aspects of the performance.

The influence of gigaku

Gigaku performers were assigned to Utaryo (Bureau of Traditional Music) regulated by the Taiho Code and supported by the government. On the other hand, however, the gigaku performers were imposed some restrictions on such as residential location. Gigaku is considered to have been also closely related with Sangaku (form of theatre popular in Japan during the 11th to 14th centuries). Gigaku was widely spread throughout Japan, according to the evidences. As released from the governmental support and restrictions, gagaku has transformed into various ways.

The acts of 'Marafuri' by Kuron or 'Mutsukiarahi' of Baramon (the performance of washing his loincloth) were inherited to sarugaku (form of theatre popular in Japan during the 11th to 14th centuries) developed in later years. Also, many of musical accompaniment for gigaku were adopted to the repertoire of gagaku (the court music of ancient Japan) and lasted long. Further, it would be fair to say that shishimai performed nationwide could have been originated from gigaku. Although gigaku itself declined in the Kamakura period, it has largely influenced to other performing arts.