Kagura is a form of ritual performing art associated with shrine festivals (matsuri), considered as the oldest of the so-called Folk Performing Arts. Kagura rites were known in Japan since early medieval times, but were spread especially during the Muromachi and Edo periods. The performance styles and repertoires of many kagura schools were molded and developed during the Edo period.
The most distinctive characteristic of kagura that defines it as a unique genre of ritual performing art is that it always creates a symbolic universe on stage. This special characteristic is probability due to the deep influence of Esoteric Buddhist thought and practices that permeated Japanese religious life since medieval times. The stage-universe was created as a mandala, a ritual stage of Buddhist inspiration, with the combinatory Buddhist/Onmyôdô system of five colors. Different kagura schools construct a variety of mini-universes in their stages or performance arenas. These stages are often elaborate and complex constructions of wood, bamboo, straw and paper that require the concerted effort of a whole village, and the artistic craftsmanship of many folk.
During the late Edo period, many kagura schools came under the influence of Yoshida Shinto and changed their stage appearance and some of their original texts accordingly. With that, many Buddhist features were shadowed by the predominant and reinterpreted gogyô system. Further changes were imposed on kagura performances during the Meiji period and its drive toward Shintoization. These can be seen in the appearance of many kagura stages today.
This paper will track some of these changes in the construction of kagura stages from Edo to Meiji in two or three particular case studies, and will reflect on their meaning.