Sarugaku is a Japanese art form that was popular during the Heian and Muromachi periods. Until 1880, the term also referred to the art form that was established, based on the above, by Kanami and Zeami during the Muromachi period. The following explanation concerns the former. Refer to Nogaku for details on the latter.
Sarugaku (猿楽) is also written in Chinese characters as 散樂 (Sangaku) or 申樂 (Sarugaku).
Sarugaku's other pronunciation is 'Sarugau.'
Leading players (including those of Kyogen (a farce played during a Noh play cycle)) were called gakuto (masters of performance) or tayu (leading players), and other players were called sarugakushi or sarugaku. Sarugaku is the accent of Sangaku. The Chinese characters "申楽" were used in "Densho," written by Zeami. In this book, the author explained that 申楽 should be used for Sarugaku because it was basically Kagura (神楽, or sacred music), and therefore the right portion of the Chinese character 神 should be used.
The Nara period
It is thought that Sarugaku was created when the art called Sangaku was introduced from China. The precise content of Sangaku is not clear, because there is a lack of historical literature. What we can guess from 'Dankyu Sangaku zu,' one of the Shoso-in gyobutsu (Shoso-in Treasures), is that various arts such as acrobatics, the conjuring of tricks, mimicry, stunts, dance and music, etc., were included in Sangaku. The Imperial Court protected this art by establishing 'Sangakuko,' a training school for Sangakushi (Sangaku players).
The Heian period
Sangakuko was abolished in 782, during the era of Emperor Kanmu. After losing the protection of the Imperial Court, Sangakushi started giving performances in temples/shrines or on the streets. Subsequently, various arts of Sangaku merged with other arts and began to evolve on their own.
It is said that the comical arts of Sangaku, especially mimicry, evolved into Sarugaku. Originally, Sarugaku players displayed various arts inherited from Sangaku, such as acrobatics, the conjuring of tricks, stunts, and something similar to magic.
One aspect of the reality of the above activities is described in "Shin Sarugakuki" (a kind of textbook about the manners and cultures of Kyoto) as 'Azumabito (people of eastern Japan) visit Kyoto for the first time' or 'a nun who has come from Myoko is asking for clothing for a newborn baby.'
The above book also mentioned magicians, who were called Shushi. Based on the above, some people have asserted that something that combined the rituals Jugondo (way of vanquishing monsters, spirits, etc., through the use of charms) and art existed at that time and eventually evolved into Okina Sarugaku.
As their performances became more popular among ordinary people, groups of Sarugaku players were organized in many locations.
The Kamakura period
It is believed that the original model of the current Nogaku (Noh music) was created during the Kamakura period after Sarugaku, which was created in the Heian period and was in its early stage at the time, was combined with music and dance.
The periods of the Northern and Southern Courts and Kamakura
During these periods, the Sarugaku of the Kamakura period further evolved thanks to Kanami and Zeami, as well as the establishment of Sarugaku, which was nearly equivalent to the present-day Nogaku.
The Shokuho and Edo periods
The art form that is currently called Nogaku was commercially performed by 'Sarugakushi' under the name 'Sarugaku.'
Sarugaku was also performed by Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI, Ieyasu TOKUGAWA and Tsunayoshi TOKUGAWA (who later became shogun), as well as other feudal lords. Akifusa MANABE moved up the ladder of promotion from Sarugakushi to Sobayonin (Lord Chamberlain).
The players of Sarugaku
Originally, the players of Sarugaku were 'shichido no mono' (people of the lowest social class) in the Yamato region. Along with wandering shirabyoshi (a woman who performs traditional Japanese dance), miko (a medium), Hachi-tataki (a begging priest) and Saruhiki (a monkey showman), they belonged to the lowest social class and were under the control of the shomonji.
Some Sarugaku groups were protected by shrines and temples and therefore gave performances at rituals. Though such performances were at first seen merely as entertainment, Sarugaku was gradually incorporated into the rituals of shrines and temples. Sarugaku groups also performed short plays in order to explain the histories of shrines and temples or the relationships among deities, Buddha and the people. It is believed that these performances became known as 'Noh of Sarugaku' and eventually evolved into Noh and Kyogen under the protection of court nobles and warrior families.