Three ways of enjoying noh theatre

Noh 能 or nōgaku 能楽 is a multifaceted art combining music, dance, chant, masked acting, and beyond them all a kind of cultural memory shared by the performers and the audience, which allows for details of the story to be left unsaid, only alluded to.

The best way to know this theatre form is unarguably through the performance itself – to experience the tempo of the actor’s movement on stage, to feel the chills at seeing the expression of the mask he is wearing, to hear the music of the flute and the rhythm of the drums – all hinting at the fact that you are witnessing an apparition from another world. The acting techniques and all the details of the performance have been handed out through generations of actors and the long history of this tradition gives noh its specific atmosphere.

Noh Izutsu (C) Hibiki-no-kai

On the other hand, a more accessible way of appreciating noh is to direct your attention the stories that noh plays allude to. Most of these stories seem to come from a distant, magical past. That is why the plays feature ghosts appearing in the dreams of those who come to search for remnants of that past.

In one play, the ghost of a woman who had been the wife of the poet Ariwara no Narihira comes at the water-well near the grave of her husband and remembers the time they spent together. As she looks into the well, instead of her own reflection she sees the face of the one whom she dearly misses.  (Izutsu)

In another play the ghost of the famous warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune himself comes before us to tell of the fierce battles during the Genpei war (1180-1185), which decided the course of Japanese history. Because he lived his life as a warrior, he is damned to spend the rest of eternity in the hell of the ashura, where the fighting never stops. By the end of the play, you don’t know anymore whether the scenes of war he described were of the battles between demons in hell, or of the cosmic battle between night and day, as you awaken from your dream. (Yashima)

Yet another play shows the story of a woman wandering the country in search of her child, who had been kidnapped. Her heart breaks with sorrow when she finds the child’s grave on the bank of river Sumida. She would do anything to see him again. In her distress she has a vision of him coming out of the grave to embrace her. But he is no longer in this world and all she can do is pray for his soul. (Sumidagawa)

These are all stories that have been performed for centuries, embodying the dreams of those who enjoyed them. Nowadays, even just by reading these plays, we cannot help becoming enraptured by the refined feelings that underlie them.

There is still one more way of getting closer to the world of noh, namely through the writings left by actors, such as Zeami (1363-1443). Written about six centuries ago, these treatises have been handed down through generations of performers until nowadays, when they are available in various languages. They contain a theory on acting, impressive in its consistency, taking into account that the art of noh was only at its beginnings in Zeami’s time. These writings are extremely detailed and practical, showing their author’s dedication to his art and the way he sought for the best technique to create and to hold the illusion on the stage for the enjoyment of the audience.

I wouldn’t know how to begin writing an introduction to the world of noh. What I can do is to recommend you the excellent webpage of for more information. And also to invite you to follow the articles on noh theatre on this blog.  Due to very objective reasons, there will be a lot of them, trust me 🙂

On the coexistence of modern and traditional performing arts

Noh Matsukaze (C) Hibiki-no-kai

The presence of traditional performing arts gives a very special dynamics to the theatre environment in Japan. To be sure, noh and kabuki enjoy great popularity nowadays and attract large audiences through their own specific style. However, surprisingly enough, the various performing arts are handled separately in public discourse and although they coexist, they rarely interact. We sometimes hear of theatre companies that employ noh acting techniques in their work or of kabuki actors performing contemporary theatre, but such projects tend to be temporary.

The reason for this rift between the Japanese performing arts is that there is a practical need on the part of traditional ones to keep their specificity. Their style developed at separate stages in history and holds the mark of very different circumstances in terms of Zeitgeist and social background.

Like everywhere in the world, the first performing arts in Japan were ritual dances and plays offered to deities in ritual services. It was around the middle of the 14th century when one of these practices, sarugaku no noh, began receiving the support of the resourceful warrior class and developed into a stage art with a high level of sophistication. Because the competition between actors and troupes was fierce at the time, the only way for the actors was to devote their life to the art, paying utmost attention to their acting style and to the choice of subjects and of words. Their performances had to captivate their patrons, who had great admiration for the past, for the elegant culture of the Heian period (794-1185). In this sense, noh 能 embodies the aesthetic ideals of the dignified warrior class.

Advertisement for a Kabuki performance (to be held in November 2012)

By the 17th century, when noh became an art restricted to the enjoyment of the military elite, a new kind of performance was receiving passionate applause from the commoners – kabuki  歌舞伎. Its appearance was possible because Edo period was a time of peace, allowing for a certain degree of freedom in every area of artistic expression. Kabuki reflects the taste for dramatic developments and spectacular stage effects of the chōnin, the people living in the cities. With an aesthetic ranging from stylized beauty to the grotesque, with characters displaying strong emotions and plots brimming with dramatism, kabuki has been captivating audiences for over three centuries.

The restoration of imperial power (1868) brought with it the abolishment of the warrior class. For noh this meant the loss of its supporters and it risked falling into oblivion, if it weren’t for the intervention of Japanese ambassadors to the West, who saw in it the equivalent to Western opera and asked for it to be preserved. On the other hand, kabuki also had a hard time when Western theatre, called shingeki  新劇, was introduced at the beginning of the 19th century. Shingeki (which means, by the way, new theatre, in relation to the old theatrical forms) has had its own history of turning points since then and had to take up the challenge of producing original creations that reflected the present times.

Actually, the presence of performing arts with long tradition accounts for some of the general characteristics of the Japanese stage. The fact that you can go to the theatre any time of the year (there is no off-season) or the fact of one company having two or three performances in a single day, for example, might be explained through the theatre practices that existed before shingeki began to be performed in Japan. In short, even if direct interaction is seldom, the different performing arts do influence each other and their coexistence results in a very stimulating environment for theatrical expression.

Tsuki no misaki『月の岬』“Cape Moon”

Matsuda Masataka’s play Tsuki no misaki “Cape Moon” has been staged twice this year – once by Seinendan in June, and a second time by P Company in July. I was able to see the latter and it left a powerful impression on me.

Matsuda Masataka, presently active as director of Kyoto based theatre company Marebito no kai, is one of the prominent playwrights of contemporary Japanese theatre and a proponent of shizukana engeki – silent theatre .

Focusing on scenes of real life and using everyday speech, silent theatre seeks to direct attention to the drama within the seemingly uneventful daily life. The depths, the tensions and the crises it unveils lead to a reassessment of human connections and of what it means to belong to a community.

As you might guess, silent theatre appeared as a reaction to the abundance of spectacular theatre, which is most of the times very entertaining, yet thought provoking – sometimes bordering the surreal, other times challenging the spectator’s power to believe that such stunts are even possible. Researchers of contemporary theatre in Japan go as far as stating that the spectacular theatre had its peak in the 80s, being followed by the advent of silent theatre, which gained popularity in the 90s. The fact is that silent theatre and spectacular theatre coexist nowadays, with remarkable achievements on both sides, making up for the diversity of the Japanese performing arts scene.

The works Matsuda Masataka is best known for are set in Nagasaki region and employ the local dialect. His characters are common people, whose lives are marked by history and social customs, while the reality of life that comes to sight in his plays has a warm, nostalgic feel to it.

The plot of “Cape moon” unfolds in a space that appears to be a usual Japanese style room. It is actually a platform elevated above the level of the stage, reminding one of the loneliness and danger of a stone peak rising above the sea. The drama centers on a woman named Sawako and her younger brother Nobuo, who are living together in their parents’ house, and on how their life changes after Nobuo gets married. Along with their relatives’ opinion that she should move away, it happens that a former lover of Sawako returns from Tokyo to meet her again. His pressures on her bring unrest to the family. In addition, the very particular kind of bond that exists between Sawako and her brother and a scandal involving one of Nobuo’s students become a pressure to his bride, whose pregnancy ends in miscarriage. On the following night Sawako disappears without trace. Apparently, she had gone to the cape, which was now separated from the island by the tide water. There is the possibility that she had drowned herself in the sea. While still unclear of what happened to her, Nobuo’s wife gradually assumes her role as the lady of the house.

What is fascinating about the performance of this play is that what can be seen is only the tip of the iceberg, with the largest part of the story unfolding in the imagination – a challenge for the audience to reconstruct the whole story only on account of the details suggested through the characters’ conversation. As you find yourself relying more on your imagination than on your eyes, you embrace the images as they come, but sometimes you feel it is better to wait before jumping to conclusions. This is when your imagination comes to a standstill. To put it another way, if imagination were a muscle, this kind of drama would be a very good exercise.

One of the most powerful images invoked by this play is the full moon over the sea, an image that I would place in a gallery of dangerously beautiful landscapes, right along a forest of cherry trees in full bloom. (The play reminded me of an excellent short story by Sakaguchi Ango on the fearful beauty of such a forest, Sakura no mori no mankai no shita).

After seeing “Cape Moon” and having shared with the characters the burden of what remains unseen to the eye, you are left with the lingering impression that you climbed yourself on the lonely cape lit by the moonlight and even looked down into the sea, only to feel the danger of being lost in its depth.

For the latest news on Matsuda Masataka’s work, visit the website of Marebito no kai. The company will be participating in this year’s edition of Festival Tokyo F/T with their latest performance, Antigone e no tabi no kiroku to sono jōen  (“Records of the journey towards Antigone and its staging”).