Yesterday (July 9th 2010) Udaka Michishige‘s Genshigumo (原子雲, a newly-written Noh play on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) was performed in Hiroshima for the first time. I had the chance to follow Udaka-Sensei, and take part in the introductory speeches of the performance, reading messages from members of the International Noh Institute around the world, and from the William J. Clinton Foundation.
The night before the performance, sitting in the lobby of a hotel near the Peace Memorial Park, Udaka was giving an interview for a documentary on Genshigumo. While confessing the state of excitement for finally being able to perform this play in Hiroshima, Udaka described his experience of meeting with the spirits of the casualties of the bombs who, victim of a sudden and unreasonable death, cannot be released from this existential plane and be reborn. In the play, a Mother is on a journey through memory, looking for her missing daughter who died in the bombing. After the hellish scenes of the bombings are recounted, the Mother finally finds her daughter reborn as a willow tree.
Yesterday night I observed the audience watching this play for the first time. I felt the atmosphere was very tense, and the gazes of the spectators revealed that while observing the performance on stage, their thoughts were wandering elsewhere, leaving the hall and reaching out above the sky over Hiroshima. As in the classic Noh style, when the narration of the events reaches its culmination, emotions also reach the limit of verbal explicability: it is the moment when words give way to music and dance. The haya-mai dance symbolises the complex feelings of grief and happiness of the Mother who is finally reunited with her daughter, now reborn as a willow tree. While until this point the spectators where plunged into a tense atmosphere, attentively listening to the narrative part, when the jo-no-mai dance started, only a few could restrain from letting go of their emotions. I think this passage was the peak of the performance and made me wonder if in order to express such a deep message, with all its individual and universal resonances, words were not superfluous, after all.
Genshigumo is not a historical play, aimed at re-enacting those tragic events in a narrative style. Following the tradition of the pieces of the classic repertory, Genshigumo is rather a requiem for the victims of the bombs, and an invitation to the audience to take part in this prayer for peace. Noh theatre has been transmitting the ethos of Japan (its literature, its philosophy and history) throughout six centuries: it is therefore natural that even recent events such as World War II and its tragic epilogue are incorporated in the tradition of Noh. I wish this new play will eventually become part of the official canon of Noh, and will be performed by other actors in the future. Some might wonder how it is possible to render the horrors of war through the subtle beauty of Noh. How can we ‘enjoy’ the horror? While watching Genshigumo I realised how its beauty (and the beauty of Noh as an artistic means of expression) transcends earthly pleasures (the mere aisthesia) and allows the spectator to reach out to a higher level of meaning. Genshigumo is, more than anything else, a prayer offered to those suffering spirits trapped between this and the other world. At the same time, it is a ritual, a vehicle to transmit the memory of the bombings, and a chance for us and for the generations to come to reflect on the absurdity of war.