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.

tanbo

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.

 

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? 😀

Tokyo theatres in September

Daylight time getting shorter and rain falling almost every day are signs that we are enjoying the last days of summer. However temperatures are still high, good over 30°C, so there is probably no better place than the theatre for those seeking shelter from the heat 🙂

The event that everyone is talking about right now is the SIS Company production of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” 『かもめ』Kamome at the Bunkamura Theater Cocoon, running from September 4th through the 28th . Not only does it boast the direction of Keralino Sandorovich, one of the most original theatre creators of the moment, but it also comes with a remarkable cast, featuring names like Ikuta Tōma, Aoi Yū, Nomura Mansai and Ōtake Shinobu, who are best known as stars of the screen.

The performance that I’m personally looking forward to is “Dear Late Summer Sister” 『夏の終わりの妹Natsu no owari no imōto, which is the latest work of U-ench saisei jigyōdan 遊園地再生事業団, the theatre company run by Miyazawa Akio. I had the chance to hear a reading of the play back in July, that’s why I can tell for sure it is worth it. It is the story of Jahana Motoko, a woman born in Okinawa, who moves to Tokyo. She tries to get a license as an interviewer, in order to be able to ask people questions – about the earthquake that hit the Tōhoku region in 2011, about the U.S. military bases in Okinawa, things that the people around here have the tendency to avoid talking about. The whole frame of the story is permeated by the healthy humor and the broad theatrical vision that are Miyazawa’s trademark. It will be running at the Owlspot in Ikebukuro from September 13th through the 22nd.

Talking about play readings, the Kyōto based theatre company Chiten 地点, whose unforgettable staging of Elfriede Jelinek’s “Kein Licht” last year at Festival/Tokyo is stiil vivid in the memory of Tokyo audiences, will be doing a reading of Büchner’s “Lenz” at the Goethe-Institut Tokyo (September 13th -14th). Given the affinity of Chiten’s director Miura Motoi with the theatre of German speaking countries, it promises to be a very original interpretation of the classic. This reading is part of a series of events marking the anniversary of 200 years since the birth of Georg Büchner. A performance of “Woyzeck” combining dance and theatre in an experimental attempt to project this 19th century work into our times, is also part of the program (Komaba Agora theatre, September 13th-23rd). For more information, please visit the webpage of the Goethe-Institut.

From the smaller scale performances going on this month I picked up “Kappore!” 『かっぽれ!夏』of theatre company green flowers, winner of last year’s edition of Ikebukuro Theatre festival, an event organized by the local authorities of the Toshima district in Tokyo. Their prize-winning work Fukigenna Maria no kigen (“The deadline of bad-tempered Maria”) featured the story of Mori Mari, daughter of writer Mori Ōgai, and her inner struggles concerning the publication of her own novels. “Kappore!” focuses on a fictional family of rakugoka, performers of the art of rakugo – a kind of stand-up comedy that thrives in Japan ever since the Edo period. Where there is rakugo, there is laughter, so the play promises to be interesting. It will run from September 6th through the 8th at the Owlspot Theater.

Two performances at the Ōji shogekijo, Hana to sakana (“Flowers and fish”) by theatre group Jūnana senchi 十七戦地 (September 12th-17th), which promises to be a good-taste SF, and Ma-n-da-ra, an adaptation of a three-century old horror story by Gekidan Rokkotsumikandōkōkai 劇団肋骨蜜柑同好会 (September 19th – 23rd), are also among my pick-ups for this month.

Hagoromo © Noh.com

Hagoromo © Noh.com

The most awaited event of the month in the world of Noh is a special performance marking the anniversary of 30 years since the opening of the National Noh Theater, which will be held on September 17th. After the opening act – Tsurukame, a short congratulatory Noh, played by Kondō Kannosuke (Hōshō school), the program will feature Hagoromo “The Celestial Feather Robe”, with actor Tomoeda Akio of the Kita school playing the main role, then a kyōgen piece, Iori no ume, starring Nomura Man, and another Noh play in the end – the very entertaining Shakkyō, performed by Kanze Tetsunojō.

Hagoromo 『羽衣』is the story of a celestial maiden, whose robe of feathers is about to be taken away by a fisherman. As she cannot fly back to heaven without her robe, the maiden promises to perform a celestial dance, so she receives her robe back. After her dance of joy she thanks the fisherman and disappears into the sky. This very simple plot is the subject of various legends that are close to the heart of the Japanese, that is why this Noh play is one of the most often performed ones. The words of the angel – “doubt is a thing of the earth, there is no deceiving in the realm of the sky” – have a special echo and are the highlight of this Noh, besides the dance itself.

Please take the time to have a look at the stage photos of Hagoromo on Noh.com, as they will reveal why this Noh is held dear by everyone who has heard the story of the celestial maiden and her feather robe.

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

©宮内勝

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…

…岩を伝う水の音が耳のうちを流れる。凍りつくような闇の中に紺碧の夜空が広がる。星々をちりばめた夜空が広がる。ひたひたひた、ひたひたひたと、星空から音楽が滴り落ち、その滴りを浴びて体全体がきしみを立てる。ひたひたひた、ひたひたひたと、手足に闇が満ちてくる。膝が、足首が、少しずつ感覚を取り戻してくる。肘が、手首が、あるべき位置に戻ってくる。目蓋がくっきりと見開き、夜の闇が流れ込む。

…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:

星辰の歌が紺碧の空に満ち溢れる

わたしの心に満天の星空がひろがる…

遠い星辰の歌が、かそけき響きとなって

堆積した時間のゼリー状の膜を震わせ

記憶の層に侵入し、心の襞をゆすぶって

また、天空の果てへと消え去ってゆく…

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 🙂