Super-Noh: “Zeami”

This year the National Noh Theatre in Tokyo is celebrating its 30th anniversary. The article on the first page of the February issue of the Nogaku Times reminded me of something I wanted to blog about a month ago or so, after a friend (journalist Okada Naoko) gave me a heads up about it: the first performance to open the special programme will be philosopher Umehara Takeshi’s ‘super-Noh’ Zeami (April 15 2013), featuring Kanze Actor Umewaka Gensho. The play was recently performed at the Kanze Theatre in Kyoto, though I could not go (it was a Wednesday, and I had okeiko).

As Umehara explains in an interview for the Asahi Asian Watch, in order for Noh to be able to speak to a broader audience, it is important to modernise its language. As Noh audiences are progressively ageing, actors and critics alike are concerned about what will be of Noh in the near future. Since the Noh establishment draws almost the entirety of its resources from the aficionados who buy seasonal passes, donate to fangroups and study as amateurs, no generational turnover means jeopardising the survival of the art. Umehara’s answer to the question of how to bring new spectators to Noh is modernising its language. “Its outdated words prevent people from enjoying Noh. If spectators cannot understand the dialogues, naturally they cannot enjoy Noh.” Umehara says (in translation).

Super-Noh "Zeami" Shite: Umewaka Gensho

I am concerned with the health of Noh spectatorship as much as Umehara is, but I am not convinced by his proposal to modernise the language. Saying that not understanding the dialogues ‘naturally’ leads to not understanding is an oversimplification to say the least. There is so much more in Noh to enjoy besides poetry. But of course one of its most important elements is the poetry that constitutes its literary basis. How does modernised Shakespeare sound to you? Sure, most people don’t understand Noh poetry (even if you knew how the verses go, Noh pronunciation distorts the words so much it is hard to follow anyway). The question that comes to mind is – what would my aesthetic experience be if the language were so familiar that I understood everything? I am not sure that ‘understanding’ is crucial to aesthetic appreciation, at least not in the way Umehara seems to put it.

“The strength of classical performing arts is their excellent techniques to grab their audiences’ attention, which have been polished over a long period. Using modern-day words, they can grab the hearts of a wide range of people,” Umehara says. Yes, and those techniques clearly stopped addressing the popular audience several centuries ago, when Noh became the art of the aristocracy, thus refining its aesthetics in ways that would have been unthinkable outside the intellectual milieu of which it became an essential component. Do we want Noh to speak the language of dorama? I say that we can leave this to other performing arts. The beauty of Noh lies in the undefined, that is, in its poetry. I wish Noh playhouses still used candles or gas-lights. There’s too much light on stage these days.

5 thoughts on “Super-Noh: “Zeami”

  1. I would love to see Noh by candlelight or gas-light. Same for Kabuki. I think it would better replicate the lighting situation of earlier times, and for Noh in particular, the dreamlike quality and various other aspects of the aesthetics could be rather heightened, I’d imagine – or, at the very least, it would be a different experience. There is still takigi Noh, of course… I’m hoping one day to get to see that.

    As for the issue of the language, the idea that people can’t appreciate it because they can’t understand the language I think reflects a misconception, or at least a very different conception, of what Noh is, or should be. Yes, of course there’s a story, a plot, and knowing the story, knowing the characters adds a ton to understanding or appreciating the message or theme of a given play. But there is so much more besides, that comes into play regardless of the specific story. The symbolism of the pine trees, the eerie verisimilitude of the masks, the beauty of the costumes, the sounds of the flute, drums, chants, and foot-stomps. The very deliberate movements of the performer. The general feeling of experiencing a vision in a dream, or of coming upon a spirit – the spiritual feeling of the performance as a whole. So many aspects not directly related to the telling of a story. I think people just have a very different conception of what theatre is or should be, and of the centrality of narrative in that.

    Perhaps a parallel can be drawn with calligraphy – the aesthetics of calligraphy are not in the content or meaning of the message, but in the style of the characters; the energy conveyed through the brushstrokes. Some of the most celebrated pieces of calligraphy in all of Chinese or Japanese history are, essentially, notes to friends. So, if I may, a Noh play is perhaps not unlike a piece of poetry; you do not need to know the story, the meaning of the characters, in order to appreciate the visual (and in the case of Noh, auditory as well) aesthetics, the energy, the movement/motion, the mood or emotion.

    (In any case, I have a hard time imagining how the clarity of the language could be improved while retaining the distinctive sound / vocal style, which is so much a part of the aesthetic.)

  2. Hi Travis, thanks for your comment. I very much like your comparison with calligraphy. I never thought about it, but it is very suitable, especially because sino-japanese characters are ideographic and not merely phonetic. Can I quote you?

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