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.

Noh performances during 2020 Tokyo Olympics announced

The program for the Nogaku festival, a series of performances organized by the Nohgaku Performers’ Association to be held during the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, has been announced (Japanese only – for now). The performances are part of the larger Tokyo 2020 Nippon Festival, starting in April and ending in September.

The program features full nō and kyōgen performances but also recital versions of plays, allowing the audience to enjoy a wide variety of characters but also of performers. Looking at the list of performances, I am glad to notice that, in addition to the “usual suspects” – leading performers from the various nō and kyōgen schools which were announced back in August 2019 – female performers will also join the roster of superstar actors. They are Uzawa Hisa, Saeki Kikuko (Kanze school), and Kashiwayama Satoko (Hōshō school).

Three performances in a program of about forty plays (including kyōgen) may seem like a relatively small number, but considering the very little exposure female actors get I would accept it as an effort of the Nohgaku Performers’ Association to represent the spirit of inclusivity on which the Olympic and Paralympic Games are based. Let’s hope to see some female performers among the musicians, too!