Video del nō “Shōjō” con sottotitoli in italiano

The video of Udaka Tatsushige’s full performance of the nō play Shōjō with English and Italian subtitles is now available online.

Sono molto felice di condividere con voi il video completo del nō Shōjō (猩々), con sottotitoli in inglese e in italiano! La performance e’ prodotta da Udaka Tatsushige e Norishige, ed e’ stata filmata nell’autunno del 2020 presso il teatro della Scuola Kongō, a Kyoto. Il ruolo di protagonista (shite) e’ interpretato da Udaka Tatsushige.

In occasione della pubblicazione di questo video ho avuto il piacere di tradurre il testo del nō e ho deciso di approfittarne per studiare questo brano approfonditamente. Spero di poter pubblicare presto i risultati della mia piccola ricerca in italiano. Anche un dramma breve e apparentemente semplice come Shōjō e’ in realtà molto denso di significati e ricco rimandi a leggende e tradizioni. Purtroppo il formato “video con sottotitoli” non permette di aggiungere le note, supporto indispensabile per apprezzare appieno la molteciplità di significati che ciascun verso contiene. Nella mia traduzione ho cercato di rendere il testo comprensibile anche senza un apparato critico. Aggiungo una breve introduzione e vi auguro buona visione! (Non dimenticate di attivare i sottotitoli in italiano. Se non sapete come fare, leggete qui).

La storia del nō Shōjō è ambientata nella Cina della Dinastia Tang (secoli VII-X). Un uomo di nome Kōfu vive alle pendici del monte Kanekin, nei pressi del villaggio di Yōzu. Kōfu racconta di essere molto devoto ai suoi genitori – la pietà filiale (kōkō 孝行) è una delle virtù centrali del pensiero Confuciano, fondamento etico della società giapponese. Kōfu riceve in sogno un oracolo nel quale i genitori gli suggeriscono di andare al mercato e vendere il sakè. Lui segue diligentemente il consiglio dei genitori, apre un negozio di vino, e si arricchisce. A un certo punto, un misterioso avventore prende a visitare il negozio di Kōfu. Dice di essere “Shōjō” e di venire dal mare. Incuriosito, Kōfu si reca alla baia e attende la nuova venuta di Shōjō, il quale presto emerge dall’acqua. Kōfu e Shōjō bevono insieme, elogiando le virtù del sakè, e Shōjō celebra questo incontro con una danza. Infine, Shōjō premia Kōfu donandogli una giara di vino inesauribile, prova della sua virtù e allo stesso tempo, in termini più pragmatici, assicurazione di prosperità economica per i suoi discendenti.

Fra i molti temi che varrebbe la pena commentare, vorrei soffermarmi brevemente sull’associazione fra sakè e crisantemi, ricorrente nel testo di questo nō. Secondo una tradizione di origine cinese, durante la notte i fiori di crisantemo venivano coperti da pezze di cotone per poter raccogliere la rugiada depositata su di essi il mattino seguente. Si credeva che cospargersi il corpo con questa rugiada profumata potesse allungare la vita o curare le malattie. Questo rito veniva svolto il nono giorno del nono mese del calendario lunare. Tale giorno, noto come chōyō no sekku, era una delle cinque festività stagionali. [1] Nel periodo Heian (secoli VIII-XII) l’aristocrazia giapponese usava festeggiare questo giorno con un banchetto durante il quale si beveva sakè nel quale erano stati immersi fiori di crisantemo. La festa divenne quindi associata al sakè, ma anche alla stagione della raccolta del riso, con il quale si prepara questo vino. [2] Il crisantemo e la luna, simbolo di purezza e di sincerità, sono elementi tradizionalmente associati all’autunno. Il colore rosso, che caratterizza il costume di Shōjō, allude non solo al suo possibile stato di ebrezza, ma anche ai colori del fogliame autunnale. La veste interna surihaku e la gonna-pantalone hakama sono decorate con motivi di onde in oro su fondo rosso, mentre il kimono broccato karaori è ricco di motivi floreali fra cui sono evidenti, appunto, crisantemi di vari colori.


[1] Il significato simbolico della data e’ il seguente: il numero 9, segno dispari, quindi “positivo” (yang) e indivisible e’ il numero a singola cifra più grande. La ripetizione del 9 rende il nono giorno del nono mese il giorno più “yang” dell’anno.

[2] Questa leggenda compare in un altro nō, Kiku jidō (o Makura jidō).

Noh theatre shining in the dark

I haven’t written here for a long time. Apologies. As the “corona days” continue, noh and kyogen activities have resumed, albeit with restrictions in terms of audience capacity. Programs tend to be shorter, and in some cases plays that feature fewer performer appearing on stage at the same time are chosen. Chorus members, often reduced in number, wear cloth masks. I have also seen productions with plexiglas panels between the musicians. I think this is more a way to show that the performers “care” to reduce the chance of infection more than anything else…

Meanwhile I was asked to write a short essay for “Noh”, a small publication produced by the Kyoto Kanze Noh Theatre.

I translate the Japanese title in “Noh theatre shining in the dark”. In the essay I talk about an age-old issue: what should be done to attract new audiences to the noh theatre. Tanizaki Junichirō praised the darkness that enveloped noh performers before the advent of natural light. Much of that darkness has been lost with the advent of artificial light. Artificial, not artistic. I am drawn to the “darkness” of noh, a word which I use as a metaphor for the the unknown, the unseen, the unprocessed. Perhaps even the non-existent. Although this is what I find fascinating about noh, most of the attempts to attract new audiences to noh theatre go the opposite way. Explanations, demonstrations, workshops – all of which, I admit, are things in which I am involved, and that I myself promote. These activities provide answers to questions. They “shed light” on something obscure that needs to be understood in order to be enjoyed. This is a misunderstanding of how art appreciation in general (not just noh) works. I find this tendency to be particularly strong in Japan, where manuals on the “correct way” to appreciate noh or other arts proliferate, and performances are typically preceded by an “explanation” by a scholar or other expert (again, something I have done and will probably keep doing). I believe that enjoying noh cannot be reduced to finding confirmation in the answers we give in workshops. Noh is not Q&A. It should be more like a conversation emerging from the encounter with the unknown. The preparation we need to watch noh is not to be found in manuals, but in an education in “creative interpretation”, something that requires a much longer period of “study” than a workshop.

Learning from Corona: nō videos

In a recent interview for Tokyo Shimbun, Hōshō Kazufusa, iemoto of the Hōshō school, has commented on the current coronavirus crisis, saying that (I paraphrase) many pepole think that the tension perceived in a nō performance cannot be transmitted through videos, but there are things such as the breathing of the performers or the sweat dripping from their chins that film techniques can capture in order to convey the “drama” of nō performance.

I very much agree with this. The problem with YouTube videos of nō is that many of them are produced without the necessary attention to how the performances are filmed. Of course, there are reasons for this, including organization, timing, and, most importantly, budget. But there could also be a lack of awareness of the shortcomings and potentials of the video medium.

I think that there could be a future for nō videos if the quality improves. Filmed performances of kabuki, but also of the National Theatre or The Globe may serve as inspiration. The current crisis will eventually (hopefully) end, but the Internet is going to stay. I hope nō will be able to make good use of it.

On kamae – the basics of standing

For any actor, the most basic, yet the most difficult thing to do is to ‘just stand on stage’. We try to ‘be natural’ – but there is not one single way of ‘looking natural’, yet we can perceive ‘naturalness’, which may also be interpreted as  ‘confidence’. Since there is no set way of doing it, the inexperienced actor will try think about what kind of thing would be best to do in order to look natural.

We feel exposed, naked, we feel like we appear too neutral, too uninteresting. We feel compelled to express something by doing something. We chose to do something and we are judged by this choice.

A terrible example of kamae – The Mood performing Blackberry Way

In nō, there is no need to do all that, since we have kamae – we are told how to stand and look natural on stage – then it’s just a matter to do it properly. We are not judged on the basis of what we decide to do, but on the basis of how well we are reproducing a pre-existent form.

This actually extends well beyond just nō. In Japan you can find kamae everywhere. Hands together in front of the body, or along the sides. There is a kamae for sitting, with hands on your knees (men) or on your lap (women). 

Vr Noh: Ghost in the Shell

Performances of the “Vr noh” Ghost in the Shell (攻殻機動隊) will be held at Tokyo’s Setagaya Public Theatre on August 22 and 23, featuring young shite actors from the Kanze School, Sakaguchi Takanobu and Kawaguchi Kōhei. More info and tickets here (Japanese only – all performances seem to be already sold out, perhaps due to with-coronavirus restricted seating)

After various animation films, the 2017 Hollywood feature film (sparking controversy because of the almost-all Western casting), and a recent all-digital sequel on Netflix, Shirow’s manga is recast in nō form.

As I kid I used to collect Masamune Shirow’s manga. Appleseed, my favorite, has been one of the first available in Italy back in the early 90s, followed by Black Magic, Dominion, and Orion. His works, mixing cyberpunk with fantasy and Japanese spirituality, were extremely popular outside Japan (I think he was published by Dark Horse in the US).

Ghost in the Shell blew us readers away because of the amazing color rendition of some of its pages. How is it going to look like in “vr nō” style? I imagine the plot will play with the idea of the “ghost” or “soul” transmigrating from body to body, or from body to another material vessel, something familiar to the nō repertory, rooted in buddhist thought. From the poster we can see the female protagonist, apparently dancing wearing a purple chōken, typically used the the depiction of female spirits.

As I pointed out at the beginning of the article, all tickets are already sold out, so we can only hope for future re-runs, or for a video!

Zoom Event: “Born into a Noh Family”

The Japan Foundation London has organized Born Into A Noh Family: How the New Generation is Keeping the Tradition, an event featuring Takeda Takafumi (Kanze school shite actor), hosted by Dr. Ashley Thorpe (Royal Holloway University of London). The event is free of charge and will be hold on Zoom 2 July 2020 from 12.00pm (BST).

In the event, “Takeda will reveal the daily practices he has followed since childhood, his views on the pursuit of keeping the tradition alive, as well as how he and his family adapt to the changes and challenges of the present day.”

Recently, many nō performers have been using Zoom and other similar softwares to show bits of performances, to teach their amateur students, but also to “meet” online and share their experiences during this difficult time. I look forward to hearing how the discussion will unfold between Japan and the UK, countries that are experiencing very different levels of crisis related to the novel coronavirus.

Event information here.

Praying for the end of the Novel Coronavirus outbreak

[6/8 UPDATE] Ticket information and schedule has been updated.


The “Nogaku Festival”, planned in celebration of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, has been re-branded as “Noh Performances 2020 – A Prayer for the Eradication of the Novel Coronavirus”(能楽公演 2020 新型コロナウイルス終息祈願).

According to the official website, the performances will be held with various limitations, including allowing only a restricted number of spectators. Ticket information will be published later, but I suspect it will be necessary to book well in advance, especially because the content of the program has not changed. All events feature superstar actors performing very popular plays such as Ataka, Aoinoue, or Dōjōji.

New web resource: Noh as Intermedia

I am delighted to announce that the website Noh as Intermedia, developed by Jarosław Kapuściński and François Rose (Stanford University, Department of Music) together with Fujita Takanori (Kyoto City University of Arts) is now available.

The website explores the intermedia relationships between various elements of noh (choreography, music, lyrics, etc.) through the analysis of two plays: Hashitomi and Kokaji, performed by shite actors from the Kongō School (Kongō Tatsunori and Udaka Tatsushige). Users can watch the full performance of both plays. The videos are offered with subtitles and with a bookmark system that allows to skip to specific sections (shōdan) within the play. The website also offers a comprehensive database of music and dance patterns.

As a collaborator to this project I would like to congratulate Jaroslaw, François and Taka for their relentless efforts to complete the website. This is a much needed resource which will allow researchers and students of performing arts to access noh theatre, regardless of where they are.

Noh as Intermedia is part of the JPARC Japanese Performing Arts Research Consortium.

The new Nohgaku Performers’ Association logo

Among the various recent news from the Nohgaku Performers’ Association (Nōgaku kyōkai) is the announcement of their beautiful new logo, representing the silhouette of a nō stage – four pillars topped with a roof. In the announcement statement it is explained that the four “pillars” in the logo symbolize the four types of nōgaku performer (shite, waki, hayashi, kyōgen), while the roof is the ideogram for “person”. The logo represents the transmission of knowledge from person to person, constituting the history of nōgaku’s ancient tradition.

While the four types of performer represent those who stand on stage, it is worth remembering that there are many other people working “backstage”, including mask carvers, costume weavers, and fan makers, without whom nō and kyōgen performances would just not be possible.