When the Performing Body Becomes a Voice – “Prolog?”

Elfriede Jelinek’s drama texts are a challenge to any theatre director because they are completely open to all interpretations. The writer provides no “characters” or “plot”, let alone stage directions, so there is nothing there for the director to determine the way in which they should be staged. Surely, Jelinek’s series of plays prompted by the nuclear accident at Fukushima – “Fukushima –Epilog” and “Kein Licht.” – were not written with the Japanese stage in mind. Those texts are there for anyone to direct, and they have actually already been staged – in Cologne (2011), Salzburg (2012) and recently in Vienna and Graz. But since the Japanese were affected by the disaster directly, there is indeed a kind of expectation that Japanese directors would be the ones to make the most out of these plays.

It must be said from the start that Jelinek‘s plays are not meant to be enjoyable. They have a quality of addressing the listener directly: provoking the audience with outrage, anger and irony. In “Prolog?” the author seems to take on the role of a “shaman”, a medium-like presence, bringing to light the voices which otherwise would be left unheard. However, these voices are not, so to speak, “characters”. For instance, in Jelinek’s dialogue between “me” and “you”, between the accuser and the accused, between victim and perpetrator, the boundary is very thin, almost indiscernible. With no characters and no narrative, the text is completely open. The director is free to choose the number of characters he brings on stage, the theatrical genre or method he employs (“Kein Licht.” was a “Sprechoper” on the Austrian stage, for example), and he can even choose which part of the play he would like to focus on in order to emphasize certain aspects of the content. That is why Akio Miyazawa’s attempt to stage “Prolog?” with the means of Noh theatre, unarguably the most “formal” performing art extant in Japan, has been a most inspired one.

First and foremost, the stage borrows the structure of a Noh stage, with its typical hashigakari – a prolongation that connects the stage with the left side of the backstage. In mugen nō (“dream Noh”), which is probably the most popular category of Noh plays, the main character is usually a ghost appearing in a traveler’s dream. Here the hashigakari is seen as the path that connects “this world” with the “other world”, the place where the ghost is coming from. In other words, right from the beginning of the performance, just by seeing the structure of the stage, we already receive a hint about the key in which Miyazawa interpreted the dramatic text: the characters will most probably be apparitions, souls of the dead wandering around unappeased. In fact, the director went a step further by covering the stage in dirt, making it look like a burial ground.

In this tension-laden space the bodies of the five actresses enter slowly, in a slow tempo reminding us again of Noh. As they take over their roles, they go in and out of the slow tempo. All the actresses get their turn to speak, but just like in Noh theatre, the performers are responsible for roles, they do not represent characters. Their roles and their lines are handed over from one to the other, suggesting the image of a sea of voices–as one voice comes into the forefront, the others fade out. As to what they say, their lines are fragments of statements, words of resentment, disrupted dialogues and shouts – directed toward the audience rather than to each other.

F/T13 Jelinek series: Prolog?, directed by Akio Miyazawa (Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, Nov 30th - Dec 8th)

F/T13 Jelinek series: Prolog?, directed by Akio Miyazawa (Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, Nov 30th – Dec 8th)

Among them all there is a particular phrase that is repeated over and over again: “The staging will fail!” In German, there is the same word for “staging” and “representation” – “Darstellung” and the Japanese translation of the work (by Tatsuki Hayashi) uses both words, well aware that the dual nuance is important for the meaning of the play. Director Miyazawa focuses on “staging”, a self-mocking allusion to the performance for which he is responsible. However, these words are meant to be a menacing prediction which definitely cannot mean only the staging of the play itself. If we think about the tension that is the theme of this play, the tension between representation of reality and reality itself, then it becomes clear that Jelinek’s prophecy has a long range. Although written as the last in her series of texts triggered by the nuclear disaster as an extension of “Kein Licht.”, this work is a “prologue” because it is a prophecy. It predicts that the scenario that the authorities in power are putting up will fail, because no one will believe a representation of reality that is fake.

By using the space and the basic ideas regarding movement and tempo from Noh theatre, Miyazawa manages to give form to a dramatic text that is open-ended, making it possible for it to be staged and its message conveyed. It is only with a directorial approach that this work becomes complete and performable. However, the director seems to be fully aware that it would be a mistake to force the formality of Noh theatre into Jelinek’s text. That is why the form is powerfully disrupted at a certain moment, when the actresses dance frenetically to very loud and high-paced hard rock – the ultimate expression of rage and counter-reaction to a state of affairs that is imposed on the individual.

When faced with a dramatic text, there are several options for the theatre director. One can respect the original meaning and intent of the play, but interpret it as originally as possible, conferring one’s own “colors” on it through the staging. The second option is to completely dismantle it and take an opposing stance towards the playwright, turning the meaning of the text upside down. Or, the third option is that the director can do everything in his powers to render the message of the play as accurately as possible, paying respect to the auctorial voice.

After a careful and in-depth reading of “Prolog?”, Miyazawa has managed to ensure that Jelinek’s voice takes the foreground and reaches the audience. The author speaking on behalf of the dead possessed only words at first, but the bodies of the five actresses and the “form” borrowed from Noh theatre now make the work complete, functioning as means for that voice from beyond to come out and reach us, the audience. It is a powerful, provocative voice, calling out for us to keep questioning the validity of the images and representations that are imposed on us.

(* This article has first appeared on the “Blog Camp in F/T” platform, a Festival/Tokyo 2013 program for young critics lead by performing arts journalist Iwaki Kyoko, and was reblogged with permission.)


Impressions from this year’s Zeami memorial seminar

Every year on the 8th of August there is a meeting of Noh researchers and enthusiasts, organized in memory of Zeami (1363-1443) in the Nara prefecture by the Association for Noh and Kyōgen Studies. Please read this past entry – Remembering Zeami, where I explained in detail what the seminar consists in.

Luckily, I had the chance to go there this year too, so I would like to share some more images and thoughts on this event.

On August 7th we went as usual to the temple of Hōzanji in Ikoma, for the yearly exhibition of manuscripts. Some of them are written in Zeami’s or Zenchiku’s hand, while others are later documents related to the Komparu school of Noh.

Hōzanji - a smaller prayer hall (beyond it, the Hannya cave)

A prayer hall of the Hōzanji complex (beyond it, the Hannya cave)

View over the town of Ikoma from Hōzanji

View over the town of Ikoma from Hōzanji

As you might guess, taking photographs of the manuscripts is forbidden. So I’ll use for illustration an image that was already on the web – a fragment of the “Eguchi” manuscript by Zeami.

Noh "Eguchi"

Noh “Eguchi”

Like the other Noh manuscripts by Zeami (“Tomoakira”, “Unrin’in”, “Morihisa”, “Kashiwazaki” a.o.), it’s written mostly in katakana – for very practical reasons in fact. Besides it being the simplest way to ensure the correct pronounciation of the words, this kind of script helps synchronizing the syllables to the chant (fushi 節) . Not to mention that it makes easier the use of kakekotoba – projecting two meanings on one word, the stylistic device that accounts for much of the typical flavour of Noh texts.

Leaving back Hōzanji, for the ones in the area August 8th begins with a visit to Fuganji 補厳寺, the place where Zeami deepend his studies of Zen in his late years. There is not much left of the temple itself, as it burnt to the ground about two centuries ago. However, the family which owns the place now has inherited the old temple records, which mention Zeami (his Buddhist name Shiō 至翁), as one of the donors of the temple.

The gate of Fuganji

The gate of Fuganji

Pine tree guarding the entrance to Fuganji

Pine tree guarding the entrance to Fuganji

The seminar, usually held in Nara, took place this time in Tawaramoto, the town where Fuganji is located. The reason behind this change was the celebration of 30 years since the creation of the monument marking Fuganji as a place related to Zeami.

Zeami sangaku no chi - "The place where Zeami came for his Buddhist studies "

Zeami sangaku no chi – “The place where Zeami came for his Buddhist studies “

The monument was created at the initiative of Noh researchers Omote Akira and Itō Masayoshi, the ones who discovered the names of Zeami and his wife’s in the old temple records. The donations of many Noh enthusiasts from all over Japan made the completion of this monument possible.

One more image from the surroundings of Fuganji, located in the Ajima district of Tawaramoto.


If you ignore the utility poles in the background, do you think that this landscape has changed much since Zeami’s time? Facing the broadness of this view, I found myself trying to imagine what Zeami’s eyes saw, in the hope of catching a glimpse of the environment that shaped his thought and of what inspired him to write his plays. Not much of a clue for research, but I somehow have the feeling that just by seeing this landscape we get a little closer to Zeami.


Noh as a method – “The Maids” by Ren’niku kōbō

I first heard of this work about three years ago when it was touring Europe. Our professor of Japanese theatre theory presented it as an example of a stage where the “roles” are flowing from one performer’s body to another, with one role not being confined to one body. I confess I was at a loss to imagine such a performance at that time and a great question mark would have probably still remained in my mind I hadn’t had the chance last year to actually see the work.

Renniku kōbō’s signature style is defined by the use of Noh acting methods in creating contemporary theatre. While the great majority of their works is based on original scripts by founder and director Okamoto  Akira  岡本章, they also approach other plays, such as it was the case of Oedipus, performed last year in March.

The process of staging Jean Genet’s “The Maids” has undergone several phases before the variant I was able to see last year in August at Za-Kōenji. The three characters in the play – the lady and the two maids – have been previously performed by a mixed male and female cast, but this time the cast consisted of five actresses. Nevertheless, the concept of having several performers share one role has remained unchanged.

At the core of Genet’s “The Maids” – Jochūtachi『女中たち』in Japanese – stand the emotional conflicts between master and servant, the mixture of adoration and hate towards the master – psychological realities that are depicted with no intention of beautification. However, this play is more than about the hierarchical relationships of Western society that were on the brink of collapsing during the first half of the past century. It depicts the very subtle and painful interdependence between master and servant, between the adored and the adoring. The lady knows the two maids hate her and she keeps stimulating their hate, as if feeding on it. Genet’s style tends to be real to the grotesque, for there is a culmination of repressed hate just waiting to get manifest, reaching for a most dramatic climax.

Ren'niku kobo "The Maids" (Za-Koenji, August 27-28, 2013)

Ren’niku kobo “The Maids” (Za-Koenji, August 27-28, 2013)

The three roles are played by five actresses – Yokota Keiko, Maki Michiko, Yoshimura Chihiro, Tomosada Kyōko and Muramoto Hiroko. At first they take on the roles in turns, but as the tension gets higher, the speed of each role being handed over from one performer to the other increases. This results in a stiff exchange of lines that reminds of an automat. Behind it stands the concept of “a play within a play”, for the actresses are mimicking the maids who are mimicking the lady. Indeed, there is no attempt of “identifying” with the role. The distance between the actresses and their roles is obvious all throughout the performance. In director Okamoto Akira’s words the intention was to question the “role” and to dismantle the individual identity behind a role in search for the multiple selves that lie in the depth of the actor’s psyche. It was an attempt to revive the part of the “chorus” of ancient Greek tragedy, the collective voice that is supposed at times to take part in the action and at other times to take a critical stance towards the developments on stage.

This kind of conceptual theatre depends heavily on the imagination of the spectators or, to be more precise, it would not be possible at all without the participation of the audience. Taking to account that one role can be played in turns by all the actresses on stage, the spectators have to notice every change in voice inflexion or bodily movement, so that they can keep hold of which character is talking at a certain moment. Furthermore, apart from the red dress confined to its chair in the background, there are no other props used. Any other objects are suggested by gestures or only mentioned in the dialog. This is another point where the imagination of the spectators is called to fill in the gaps. In this sense, we are dealing with a very concentrated form of theatre, one that instead of dispersing the tension towards the outside – by making the characters’ conflict visible through suggestive objects and aggressive behaviors, it actually keeps the tension oriented towards the inside until the very last moment. The whole tension of the play, although latent, gradually rises to such a degree that it can only end up in murder. The killing of the mistress by the two maids was suggested on stage by an act of strangulation. However, in that single moment it was obvious for the spectators in which body resided the role of the mistress, such as it was obvious that the role of each of the maids was shared by two bodies. It seemed as if the hate felt by each of the maids towards their mistress had needed more than one body to be expressed accurately.

One of the most interesting aspects of this work is its relationship to Noh. What is the key element that connects Genet’s world of maddening passions to the world of Noh? If we look at the most popular types of characters whose stories are at the center o Noh plays, we find either restless souls of the dead (in case of mugen nō  夢幻能 “dream noh”) or monogurui – “desperate” or “mad” people (in case of genzai nō  現在能 “present day noh”). In both cases we deal with characters whose selves are alienated – they do not belong to themselves anymore, so to speak. This fact is expressed effectively through the chant of jiutai 地謡 – the chorus in Noh, consisting of eight performers who sing the lines on behalf of the main character at certain moments. There is an obvious attempt of director Okamoto Akira to establish a fruitful exchange between the role of the chorus in Greek tragedy and the one of the jiutai in Noh.

As far as the expression itself is concerned, the deep, powerful voices and the strict control of bodily movements are also connected to Noh acting techniques. The stiff, tension-filled choreography mentioned earlier reminds one of kata 型 – the fixed sequences of gestures and movements, which form the base of Noh acting. Keeping the tension of the conflict oriented towards the inside results in the restrained expression so often associated with Noh.

With this work Ren’niku kōbō managed to present a very subtle form of theatre, involving the audience in a psychological play that kept them alert until the last moment. When the red dress spread on the chair in the background was replaced by a white one in the end, a feeling of relief spread through the audience. There is no redemption through murder, but a great load of hate had been certainly done away with. It is through meticulous concept, informed by explorations in the essence of theatre, that Ren’niku kōbō keeps pushing further the limits of dramatic expression.

The company’s upcoming project is the staging of a Noh play written by contemporary poet Naka Tarō 那珂太郎, entitled  Shikōtei  始皇帝 “Qin Shi Huang”. This stage will be a collaboration with nōgakushi Kanze Tetsunojō 観世銕之丞, himself a performer very open to expanding the possibilities of the art of Noh through experimental theatre. The performance will be hosted by the National Noh Theatre on March 20th.

Remembering Zeami

This year marks the anniversary of 650 years since the birth of Zeami 世阿弥 (1363-1443) and 680 years since the birth of his father, Kan’ami 観阿弥 (1333-1384). They were the first in a long line of performers who contributed to shaping Noh theatre into the refined form that reached our time.

Apart from the anniversary itself, there is actually a commemorative seminar dedicated to Zeami, held every year on the 8th of August in the city of Nara. The event is organized by the Association for Noh and Kyōgen Studies and spans over two days, consisting of a short symposium, a display of old manuscripts related to Noh and a visit to Zeami’s bodaiji (family temple).

The way to Hōzanji

The way to Hōzanji

This year’s seminar debuted as usual with the exhibition of documents at Hōzanji 宝山寺, a temple located in the mountains near the city of Ikoma, Nara prefecture. Zeami’s famous treatises on the art of Noh and several Noh plays in his own handwriting, manuscripts by his son in law Komparu Zenchiku, registries and other very precious original documents related to the history of Noh are taken out from the archives of the temple on this day and displayed publicly. Besides responding to the curiosity of researchers interested in seeing the original manuscripts, there is very practical reason to this display. In order to be kept in good condition, old documents need to be taken out and aired at least once a year (a practice called mushiboshi). The story of how these documents came into safekeeping at Hōzanji is pretty interesting in itself. They all had been handed down in the Komparu family (Zeami left many of his writings to his appointed successor, Zenchiku), but during the second half of Meiji period (1868-1912), when the Noh theatre world was shaken by a severe crisis, the head of the Komparu line of performers of that time, Komparu Hachirō, feared for the safety of the archive, so he sent all the documents into the trusted custody of his brother, who was the chief priest of Hōzanji.

It is there that they have been discovered in the early days of the past century. A large part of the documents has been donated to the Nogami Memorial Noh Theatre Reaserch Institute, where they can be found today under the name of Hannyakutsu bunko 般若窟文庫 (the “Hannya Cavern archive”), which alludes to the huge cavern visible from the precincts of the temple, where it said that the ascetic En no Gyōja had read the Hannyashin-kyō (“The Heart Sutra”) as part of his religious austerities. However, the most valuable manuscripts – the ones written in the hand of Zeami and Zenchiku themselves – have been designated important cultural property of Nara prefecture and have remained in Hōzanji, being shown to the public only once a year on August 7th, the day before Zeami’s commemoration.

Flowers on the path to the temple related to Zeami

Flowers on the path to the temple related to Zeami (how suitable for the man who wrote about the “Flower” of Noh in his treatises)

For the participants to the seminar dedicated to Zeami, the day of August 8th starts early in the morning with a visit to Fuganji 補厳寺, the temple where Zeami and his wife’s names are registered. Fuganji, located in the countryside of Nara prefecture, was a large and influential temple of the Sōtō Zen sect, but its main building burned to the ground at the end of Edo period (1603-1868). The old front gate serves as a reminder of the once flourishing temple. Apart from it, some documents remained and were handed down to the present owners of the property. Zeami’s name appears in the register of people for whom the temple performed ceremonies after their death. It is only on this day, August 8th, that the registers can be viewed by anyone interested. In front of a small altar with a memorial plate bearing Zeami’s name, we have the chance to remember the man whose creations have the power to enchant us to this day.

The seminar itself is being held during the afternoon, usually in the conference hall of the Nara National Museum. Each year researchers present their latest studies on Noh history, in an attempt to deepen the understanding of how Noh was performed in Zeami’s time. This year’s keynote speech was held by professor Takemoto Mikio (researcher in the field of Noh studies, Waseda University) and tackled the characteristics of a manuscript handed down by Zeami to Zenchiku, called Nōhon sanjūgoban mokuroku “An inventory of 35 Noh plays” (the document belongs to the Hōzanji archive). Most of the plays mentioned on that list are no longer extant, while others exist with a different title, making it difficult for researchers to grasp whether such inventories can be indeed relevant to the history of Noh. It is nonetheless fascinating to know that there is still much to search for and to discover, in order to understand how Noh developed in its early days.

Nara tōkae, the festival of lights

Nara tōkae, the festival of lights

All in all, it is a pretty exciting event for Noh enthusiasts, who gather from all the corners of Japan to Nara just to take part in this meeting. It just happens that the Zeami memorial seminar coincides every year with the famous Nara tōkae, the light festival at the beginning of August. Thousands of candles are lit all over the city, creating a sea of lights – both as a remembrance of those departed and as a prayer for peace. It is just another reason to conclude that Nara is the place to be every year around the 8th of August.

Delving into darkness to find the light – Ren’niku kōbō’s “Oedipus”

In early March this year we had the chance to see the latest work of theatre company Ren’niku kōbō 錬肉工房,「オイディプス」Oedipus, performed at Ueno Storehouse.

In its over 40 years of activity, Ren’niku kōbō has developed an original performance style, combining Nō acting techniques and contemporary theatre. The founder of the company, actor and director Okamoto Akira 岡本章, has found inspiration not in the themes and stories in Nō, but in the performing style itself, in which he saw an unexpected actuality and depth of meaning. Ever since its founding in 1971, Ren’niku kōbō has been functioning as a laboratory of theatrical experiments, exploring the possibilities of applying Nō acting techniques in contemporary theatre.

Some of the works for which Ren’niku kōbō is known are Mizu no koe “The Voice of Water” (1991), in which the background music consisted of drops of water falling from an icicle through wood, metal and stones, MU (1998), which hosted the performance of butō dancer Ohno Kazuo, or the performance of Heiner Müller’s play Hamlet Machine (1998) – where the Nō mask was exploited to its limits when it was taken off by the actor on stage. From the recent ones we could mention the performance of Jean Genet’s “The Maids”, which won high acclaim last year in Europe, or Haru to shura “Spring and the Warrior” (2012), based on the original text by Miyazawa Kenji.

Oedipus_renniku kobo


After “The Bacchae” (2009), Oedipus is the second challenge in a series taking on ancient Greek tragedy. Well aware that bringing new life into Sophocles’ tragedy is not an easy task, director Okamoto Akira gathered a group of actors with various backgrounds: Nō performers Uzawa Hisa and Sakurama Kinki, actors Fueda Uichirō, Kitabatake Asami (Ren’niku kōbō) and string-puppet masters Tanaka Jun and Shioda Yuki (former members of Yūki-za).

In order to bridge the gap between ancient Greek tragedy and our present day on the one hand, and the one between Nō and contemporary theatre on the other hand, the text of Sophocles’ “King Oedipus” was adapted and rearranged by poet Takayanagi Makoto. In its new form, the tragedy borrows the setting of mugen-nō (dream Nō), as the dead – Oedipus, queen Iocaste and all the ones involved in the story – wake up from the darkness of eternal sleep and slowly begin to recollect their memories of the past.

The sound of dripping water is what brings them back to life. And it is through these sounds that the dead learn to speak again…


…the sound of water running down the cliffs flows into our ears. Into the frozen darkness a deep blue night is spreading. A night sky sprinkled with stars is spreading. Drip, drip, music is dripping from the sky full of stars and under those drops our bodies begin to squeal. Drip, drip, darkness flows into our limbs. The knees, the ankles recover their senses little by little. The elbows, the wrists, return where they belong. The eyelids open wide and the darkness of the night rushes in.

Sound is the incentive that puts everything in motion, that is why particular attention is given to voicing onomatopoeia (“words with a body”, how Okamoto calls them) and bursting sounds (破裂音 haretsu-on), which associate with coming to life.

The story slowly takes shape, as the bodies of the actors begin to enact the characters’ memories. This performance focuses on the last part of the tragedy, when Oedipus finds out the truth about his birth, about killing his own father and marrying the very woman who gave him birth.

The roles, beginning with Oedipus and Iocaste, are actually shared between all the actors. A role does not stick to the body of one actor, but seems to flow from one performer to another, from the individual to the chorus. This flexibility of the role has its origins in Nō, where the main performer’s lines are taken over by the chorus (地謡 jiutai) in the scenes where the dance is the highlight. Through this technique, tradition seems to flow naturally into present day theatre, suggesting new ways of dealing with a role.

With the episodes rapidly unfolding and the tension rising to a critical point, the main role moves from the body of the actors to a puppet body. It is in this shape that Oedipus decides to punish himself by piercing his eyes with Iocaste’s golden hairpin. The use of the string puppet was a brilliant solution to enacting this gruesome scene by means of an actor’s body, which would have ruined the elegant balance sought by the performance. Moreover, it reminded me of the old ritual of destroying puppets which have taken over through a magic spell the curses, the illness or the sins that torment their owner.

After Oedipus’ sacrifice, the perspective moves slowly back to the realm of the dead, and from there to the stars:







The song of celestial bodies fills the deep blue sky   

in my heart a heaven full of stars is spreading…

The song of celestial bodies from faraway, turning into a dim echo,

is shaking the jelly-like membrane of sedimented time,

rushes into the layer of memories, shakes the folds of the heart, 

and disappears again into the bottom of the universe…

The voices of the dead become diffused and their song melts in the end into the sound of stars, returning into cosmos. The souls of the dead are appeased and it is with peace of mind that they become one with the universe. The sin has been expiated and order seems to be restored.

The serenity of this ending made me think of catharsis – the purgation of the audience’s emotions, an effect that tragedy is supposed to have according to Aristoteles’ Poetics. Whether intended or not, by projecting Oedipus’ story onto the image of the cosmos and by synchronizing it to the dynamics of the universe through a keenly polished acting technique, the effect that this ending has upon the audience reminded one of that once much sought after catharsis. In any case, it was a welcome corollary to the effort of aligning a contemporary performance of “King Oedipus” to the spirit of ancient tragedy. Just like after a Nō play, the images and the voices keep lingering for a long while and you cannot help but asking yourself whether it wasn’t just a dream after all.

Noh “Taema” – an image of the Pure Land

In spite of being a beautiful Noh that endured through the ages ever since Zeami’s time (1363-1443), Taema 当麻 is considered a difficult Noh and is rarely performed. It belongs to the fifth category of Noh plays, the so called kiri-noh, as it involves the miraculous apparition of otherworldly beings.

The most recent staging of this play was held at Hōshō Nōgaku-dō on October 13th last year, with Kanze school nōgakushi Uzawa Hisa 鵜沢久 in the role of shite and Uzawa Hikaru 鵜沢光 as tsure. My discussion of this Noh will be based on that particular performance.

taema_omote6ol.aiAs most of the Noh plays created in the early Muromachi age (1336-1573), the plot of Taema originates in a legend that was well known to the audience of that time. In this case, it is the story of Chūjō hime 中将姫, a young lady who is said to have lived during the late Nara period and who later became a saintly figure due to her deep devotion to Amida Buddha. After taking Buddhist vows and entering Taema temple, she swore not to leave the temple until she sees the incarnation of Amida Buddha. One day an old nun came to her and said that her wish would come true if she gathers a large quantity of lotus stalk. After seven days the old nun appeared again and miraculously dyed all the thread made from lotus stalk gathered by Chūjō-hime in five colors.  A young woman descended from the sky and wove the lotus threads in a beautiful mandala during only one night. After the weaver returned to the celestial world, the old nun explained the meaning of the mandala to Chūjō-hime: it represented the Pure Land, inhabited by celestial beings and by the souls rescued by Amida. In the end she revealed that she herself was the incarnation of Amida Buddha and had come in human form in response to Chūjō hime’s sincere faith. After the apparition left, Chūjō-hime kept longing to be reunited with Amida and soon her soul would be welcomed in paradise by the boddhisatvas.

During Zeami’s time, the legend of Chūjō-hime was extremely popular, with people from all provinces coming in pilgrimage to Taema temple, where they could pray at the miraculously woven mandala. The Buddhist thought of previous ages (Heian and early Kamakura) had taught that women could not hope to be reborn in the Pure Land unless they are first reborn as men. However, the legend of Chūjō-hime affirmed that women were also able to gain access to Amida’s paradise and the Taema mandala was a tangible proof of Amida’s vow that no one who believes in him shall be left behind. This accounts for the great popularity of the legend and of the mandala itself. (You can read here an excellent article about Taema mandala)

Zeami’s Noh adapts the contents of the legend for the stage. An itinerant monk reaches Taema temple and meets an old nun accompanied by a young woman. They show him around the temple: the famous lake, where the lotus stalk threads have been dyed in five colors, the cherry tree on whose branches the threads had been left to dry. Enchanted by the scenery spreading before his eyes, the monk asks them who they are. After revealing that they are the old nun and the weaver from the legend about Chūjō-hime, the two disappear enshrouded in a purple cloud. In response to the monk’s prayer to see more of the revelation, the spirit of Chūjō-hime appears in second part of the play. She is now an inhabitant of Amida’s Pure Land, enjoying the heavenly music and dances of the boddhisatvas. After reminding the monk about Amida’s sacred vow to rescue all beings, she expresses her joy in a celestial dance and eventually disappears. This is when the monk wakes up from his dream.

There are several fascinating points about this Noh, whose creation is attributed to Zeami himself. With its original story being a famous legend, known beforehand by anyone, the author intently omitted some episodes, in order to concentrate on others and to even rearrange the contents to fit his auctorial purpose. The highlight of the play consists in the way the mandala is woven into the text, in a manner so subtle that it often remains unnoticed, both by audiences and by readers. In the scene where the old nun shows the monk around Taema temple, the place appears to be identical to the image of Amida’s Pure Land such as it is depicted in the famous mandala. The colors of the landscape are the five colors that the lotus threads had been dyed in and even the pond and the cherry tree remind one of the sacred realm in heaven.

With the underlying theme of Taema being the rebirth of women in the Pure Land, it is all the more significant that the main role was played by a female Noh actor. Uzawa Hisa and her daughter Uzawa Hikaru belong to the very few women Noh actors (joryū nōgakushi 女流能楽師) active at the moment. A member of the Tessenkai group for Noh studies and involved also in projects related to contemporary theatre, Uzawa Hisa’s activity spans over the borders between performing arts. She will perform Hagoromo this year in June at the Hōshō nōgaku-dō.


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 Noh.com 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 🙂