Like in almost all things, Kansai is usually seen as the characterful but undeniably poorer brother of Kanto. Osaka is like the shabby uncle thundering around the dance floor at the wedding party of his slick, wealthy nephew, Tokyo. Kyoto is elegant but without metropolitan clout. Kobe has sparks of interest – but is too small to register beyond the region.
However, having lived in Osaka for over three years, there is more to meet the eye, at least in terms of its theatre.
Firstly, to start with traditional genre, every summer there is outdoor Noh in Osaka, including at Ikutama Shrine and the Castle. Perhaps more prominently there is the National Bunraku Theatre, which hosts wonderful but long performances of puppetry, in the run-down Nipponbashi district. Kyoto also has a lot of Kabuki.
There are also commercial theatres (Theater Brava, Umeda Arts Theater, ABC Hall, HEPP Hall) which catch tours from Tokyo (rather the tour tends to consist of just Tokyo and Osaka). The Shiki Theater Company permanently bases itself out of Kyoto JR station and there are likewise other musical theatres at Osaka Universal Studios and in the Osaka station area.
The famous Takarazuka Revue is berfed in a suburb in Hyogo Prefecture.
As for shogeki (fringe theatre), again there is more than you would think. The best and most prolific is the Seika Shogekijou. It is actually an old elementary school and this alone is impressive, in that the building stands in the middle of the Ebisubashi arcade and surrounded by sex shops, love hotels and karaoke chain shops. In the Shinimamiya area there is the In-dependent Theater, which actually has two auditoria.
One of the more unusual venues is the so-called Osaka Creative Center, a very versatile and flexible space. It is based in the disused Namura shipyard and hosts performances (as well as art and club events) in the warehouses, the harbour area and the other buildings of the site. Although not especially dirty or dangerous-looking, the grounds are in a distinctive state of disrepair – and in fact some of walls have fallen down. I have seen promenade theatre there (moving around the corridors in the night), epic plays performed on specially erected outdoor stages, as well as smaller dance and drama pieces.
It is part of a collection of venues (so-called Art Complex), which also includes Art Complex 1928 in Kyoto and Osaka Shiritsu Geijjutsu Sozokan (on the outskirts of Osaka City). Both host only occasional performances as the organization rents out its premises to fund itself. (It gets no public money as far as I know.) They also run an artist-in-residence scheme at Namura and even a dormitory for performers and staff. An ambitious and praise-worthy company.
AI Hall in Itami, Hyogo, regularly has dance. The former Art Theater dB is now based in Nakanoshima but I never saw the new location. At any rate at its old home at the Festival Gate it often hosted Ankoku Butoh and other dance.
Other than what has been previously mentioned, Kyoto also has the Kyoto Performing Arts Center, part of Kyoto University of Art and Design. There are two auditoria, one of them vast. Most what happens here seems to be dance.
As for companies, perhaps the most successful is Ishinha (who have performed, to name a few examples, on outdoor stages in Osaka port, at a space in the Castle park, and even on the shores of Lake Biwa) and they regularly take their work to Kanto and overseas. Lowo=Tar=Voga is an ambitious fringe theatre troupe with a strong following. As are Kyoto-based Mono (when in Tokyo they perform at Kichijo Theater sometimes). One of my personal favourite performances was by hmp, an Osaka company.
I don’t know much about Kobe, except that there is a commercial theatre in the Oriental City mall near the shinkansen station.
Here are some links:
NATIONAL BUNRAKU THEATER
ART THEATER dB
KYOTO PERFORMING ARTS CENTER/SHUNJUZA
http://www.artcomplex.net/index.php (from here you can go to all the venues controlled by the group, including below)
OSAKA CREATIVE CENTER
http://www.namura.cc/index.html (they seem to have somewhat reduced their website recently)
SHIN-KOBE ORIENTAL CITY THEATER
http://www.ishinha.com/index.php (the English pages seem never to be updated)
This has been a mere sampling of what is out there. For more comprehensive coverage check out: