What is Jidaigeki?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Jidaigeki is a genre in Japanese performing arts. The term literally means "period piece," with most jidaigeki dramas being set in the Edo Period of Japanese history, which ran from the early 1600s to 1868. Some pieces are set in even earlier periods in history, with a handful spilling over into the 20th century. This genre in the performing arts is quite popular both in Japan and outside of it, with viewers enjoying jidaigeki pieces for the taste of old Japan they offer.

Woman painting
Woman painting

Many jidaigeki performances are set in Edo, the historical capital of Japan, although characters may also wander the countryside, especially if they are samurai. These pieces typically feature a range of characters including stereotypical villains, merchants, government officials, entertainers, and craftspeople, and the accuracy of a jidaigeki performance can vary widely. In some cases, the setting and characters are meticulously accurate, whereas in the chambara or "swordfighting" subset of the jidaigeki genre, creators may play fast and loose with history for entertainment value.

Several characteristics distinguish a jidaigeki piece, in addition to the obvious historical setting. Typically, the actors use old-fashioned dialects or accents, to emphasize the sense of being in the past, and these performances are often heavy on the cliches, with very stylized characters who may be especially familiar to Japanese viewers. It is common for the hero to have a catchphrase which is repeated at various points in the performance, and the hero is generally victorious in the end.

Some notable examples of this genre include the films Ran and Rashoman, but jidaigeki performances can also be seen on television, on the stage, and sometimes in videogames as well, allowing viewers to take a more interactive role. Some animated features are also clearly derived from jidaigeki genre, with scenes and characters which are meant to evoke the essence of old Japan.

Much as Westerners enjoy watching period pieces set in Western culture to get a sense of living history, Japanese enjoy jidaigeki performances for their taste of the past. Some actors in the genre become quite well known for their performances. For Westerners, such performances are culturally interesting, although many may miss the fine and subtle references to Japanese culture in a jidaigeki performance. They can still enjoy the sweeping views, characters, and scenes of these performances, however, even if they miss nuanced details.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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