Japanese Theater Gains Audiences Rapidly After Lift Of Cultural Ban

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Japanese Theater Gains Audiences Rapidly After Lift Of Cultural Ban

The Korean National University of Arts recently hosted a rare performance of Japanese puppetry, Bunraku, which is one of Japan's best known forms of theater along with kabuki and noh.

Bunraku is more precisely a composite art consisting of joruri (narration), background music played on the shamisen (a traditional Japanese instrument) and the puppet show itself. In Bunraku, each puppet is controlled by three men who take charge of different puppet body parts, such as its face, arms and legs. The most amazing thing about bunraku is the detailed facial expressions the puppets are capable - conveying anger, sorrow and joy - even though they are just a meter high. It is said to take 15 years to learn to manipulate the puppet.

The performance, organized by the Japan Foundation, was extremely successful - so much so that standing room only tickets were in demand.

But the popularity of the performance is less surprising when considered in the light of the increased contribution of Japanese productions to Korean cultural life these days. Since 1996, when restrictions on cultural exchanges between Korea and Japan began to be relaxed, the number of Japanese performances in Korea has increased every year, and doubled from 1999 to 2000.

All of the foreign theater companies that have performed and are scheduled to perform in Korea this year are Japanese. Five theatrical companies from Japan, including Warabi-za and Kazenoko Kyushu, have performed in Korea already; about two Japanese plays are being introduced to Koreans every month. Even "Monkey King" ("Super Sonogong"), a play produced jointly by artists from Korea, Japan, and China and staged this month at the Seoul Arts Center, was planned mainly by Japan's Kageboushi Theater Company.

Japanese companies enjoy coming to Korea, as their works are enthusiastically received. Kazenoko Kyushu broke records by selling out of tickets for every one of its 20 performances at the Seoul Arts Center last month. Warabi-za, which impressed theatergoers with its imaginative and clever production of "Hibiki," also did well at the box office, taking profits of 10 million won ($7,700) in spite of comparatively expensive tickets for a small venue.

Many experts think that good marketing, cultural similarities and Japanese government financial support are key factors in Japanese productions' success in Korea. According to Kubo Kazuaki, the chief of Japanese Cultural Center in Seoul, "Cultural exchanges between Korea and Japan, sluggish before due to the invisible barrier between the two countries, has gained momentum since 1996 and is increasing rapidly."

by Park So-young

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