Tokyo theatres in January

The Japanese word for hibernation is tōmin 冬眠 🙂 Apart from some notable noh and kabuki performances this month, there are very few stages I can recommend. I guess everybody is recovering after the very intense last months of the past year or preparing for TPAM – The Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama (February 8th – 16th), which is the most awaited event of the first half of this year.

After contemplating the idea of introducing some commercial theatre shōgyō engeki 商業演劇 for a change or maybe some popular drama taishū engeki 大衆演劇, which really never rest, I soon concluded it might be too tricky, so I’ll be staying on safe ground with the few titles I’m sure I can trust.

"Okina" (Tessenkai, January 13th 2014)

“Okina” (Tessenkai, January 13th 2014)

The first performance of every year in the world of Noh is “Okina”『翁』, a very special and very old play which is considered to be at the roots of Noh. Closer to sacred ritual than theatre, it is a performance where the actor in the leading role wears the mask of a god on stage – a mask called hakushikijō 白式尉 used exclusively for this play – and performs a dance, which is a prayer for a peaceful and prosperous year.  For more information on “Okina” and stage photos, please visit this page on Noh.com. “Okina” is featuring in the program of the National Noh Theatre on January 7th, however only as chant (suutai 素謡) performed by shitekata Komparu Yasuaki. It will be followed by kyōgen Neongyoku 『寝音曲』and the noh Taema『当麻』. I would actually recommend the Tessenkai program on January 13th, which features the whole performance of “Okina”, but it seems all tickets have been already sold out.

Noh "Koi no omoni" (Yokohama nogakudo, January 25th)

Noh “Koi no omoni” (Yokohama nogakudo, January 25th)

Another very interesting Noh performance will be held on January 25th at the Yokohama nōgakudō, where Kanze Tetsunojō will be performing Koi no omoni 『恋重荷』. It is the story of an old gardener who falls in love with a court lady of high rank. In order to cure him of his passion, she challenges him to lift up a heavy rock, but the task proves to be too much for the old man. He dies and appears again as a vengeful spirit, tormenting the court lady by placing an invisible weight on her shoulders. As she repents, he changes his heart and becomes her guardian spirit. As you can probably guess, it is a Noh play with many subtleties, although the plot seems very simple at first sight.

Meanwhile the world of Kabuki will be celebrating the revival of a work which will be performed in its entirety for the first time in 150 years – Sanzen ryō haru no komahiki 『三千両初春駒曳』(information available in English here). The story brings together Edo period anecdotes about to a plot to kill a shōgun, however transposed in late Azuchi-Momoyama period, when the successors of Oda Nobunaga were fighting over power. The arrival of a beautiful Korean princess brings a charming twist to the story. This work is known to Kabuki lovers for two particular scenes, which are usually played separately. However this time the entire original script has been revised and arranged, as to make possible the staging of the whole play – a kind of kabuki performance known as tōshi kyōgen 通し狂言. Behind this very ambitious undertaking stands Kabuki actor Onoe Kikugurō VII, who will play the lead role. Onoe Shōroku IV, Onoe Kikunosuke V and Nakamura Tokizō V will also be starring. Sanzen ryō haru no komahiki is being performed in the great hall of the National Theatre 国立劇場 from January 3rd through the 27th.

"Tokaido Yotsuya Kwaidan" (Haiyu-za, January 16th-26th)

“Tokaido Yotsuya Kwaidan” (Haiyu-za, January 16th-26th)

Turning our eyes towards contemporary theatre we find… Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kwaidan 『東海道四谷怪談』on the stage of Haiyū-za!! As intriguing as it may sound, Tsuruya Nanboku’s kabuki play was adapted to the modern stage and performed for the first time in this version fifty years ago. We’ll get the chance to see this adaptation again, this time under the direction of Yasukawa Shūichi, in a series of events commemorating 70 years since the inauguration of Haiyū-za 俳優座, one of the places that serves as reference point in the history of modern Japanese theatre. Those of you who didn’t have enough of Oiwa’s story after this year’s Festival/Tokyo could check out the Haiyū-za version of it.

By the way, there is another modern adaptation of a kabuki play by Tsuruya Nanboku – Sakurahime 『桜姫』, performed by Hmp Theatre Company エイチエムピー・シアターカンパニー at AI-HALL in Itami (Hyōgo) from January 31st through February 2nd. This work seems to be the first in a series entitled “The roots of Contemporary Japanese Theatre”, initiated by the company. The concept of this stage sounds very interesting and I wouldn’t miss if I were close by.

I’ll stop here before I bump into more modern stage versions of kabuki or noh plays. Not that anyone would mind, but it starts feeling somewhat… haunting.

Don’t you think? 😀

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 🙂