After studying photography at a university in Japan, Hiroshi Watanabe left the field and left the country, spending several decades in the United States working on TV production. But when he found himself drawn back to his first passion, he also felt a compulsion to return to his homeland. In particular, his gaze was drawn towards the diverse modes of theater in Japanese culture: from the dancing monkeys of Sarumawashi, to the expressive masks of Noh, to the life-like puppets of Ena Bunraku, to the stylized human actors of Kabuki.

These four distinctive traditions come from different regions of Japan and varied periods of history. They also vary in subject from mask to monkey to human. But despite their seeming differences, Watanabe links each subject through the commonalities between theatricality and portraiture, revealing the undeniable connection between appearance and performance.

Sarumawashi

Sarumawashi, literally "monkey dancing", evolved over a 1,000-year history in Japan. Ancient Japanese chronicles refer to it as a form of religious ritual designed to protect the horses of warriors. Today, Sarumawashi is ranked alongside Noh and Kabuki as one of the oldest and most traditional of Japan's performing arts. It features acrobatic stunts and comedic skits performed by highly trained macaque monkeys. The monkey and trainer perform as one unit to create a bond between man and primate.

Noh

Derived from the Sino-Japanese word for "skill" or "talent"— Noh is a major form of classical Japanese musical drama that has been performed since the 13th century. Many characters are masked, with men playing both male and female roles. By tradition, Noh actors and musicians only rehearse together once, a few days before the actual performance. Generally, each actor, musician, and chorus member practices his or her fundamental movements, songs, and dances independently, under the tutelage of a senior member of the school. Thus, the mood of a given performance is not set by any single performer but established by the interactions of all the performers together. In this way, Noh could be seen as exemplifying the medieval Japanese aesthetics of transience — "one chance, one meeting".

Ena Bunraku

Ena Bunraku is a traditional Japanese stage art performed with puppets that was created during the Edo period. The puppets are about one meter tall and are usually manipulated by three puppeteers who make the puppets appear alive. While the puppeteers are visible on stage, they are dressed in black outfits and the audience's attention is drawn to the puppet’s vividly emotive faces. 

The tradition of Ena Bunraku is now in the hands of twenty members of the Ena Bunraku Conservatory in Kaware village, whose current population is only 280. There are only sixty-five puppet heads remaining and the puppets only come out a few times a year. Mostly, they remain locked in a small warehouse on the playground of the village’s elementary school. 

Kabuki Theater

The Kabuki players pictured here are not members of the major, commercial Kabuki companies in Tokyo. They are part of small, local groups scattered across Japan. These players are amateurs, often spending quite a bit of their own money to put on small-scale productions. Even at the amateur level, Kabuki is marked by its lavish costumes, make-up and staging.  Each of these players commits to a production because of their love for performance and the joy of being part of an age-old tradition.

—Hiroshi Watanabe, Alexander Strecker

Editor's Note: These photographs are only a small selection of Watanabe's wide-ranging oeuvre. Make sure to explore his profile to see the projects in full.