Any non-Japanese Noh enthusiast has sooner or later faced the bitter truth about the scarce interest of his or her Japanese peers. ‘reminds me of my grandpa’.. ‘it’s stuff only good for ojisan’.. ‘isn’t it called Kabuki?’ are only some of the responses I heard from young Japanese when engaged in a conversation on what I think is the most beautiful thing on the planet. Most of the young generation do not have a clue of what Noh is, and do not bother at all. Its language (performative, poetic, visual) does not speak to the contemporary audience – or, contemporary audience grew too illiterate to be able to understand it. Noh world has lost touch with its audience: it just takes you to go to an average Noh performance to realise the average age is around 60. Shocking, if you are used to go to the Globe.
Among the various attempts at healing this broken bound, and reconnect with the lost audience are workshops, demonstrations, exhibitions, inviting non-habitual Noh theatregoers to give it a try. In summer 2008 I attended a most interesting Parents and Children Noh performance at the National Noh Theatre in Tokyo. The programme featured a funny and engaging introductory speech by a Kyogen actor, followed by the Kyogen Kaminari (‘The God of Thunder’) and the Noh Kokaji (‘The Fox Swordsmith’).
Both plays are very dynamic pieces in the repertoire and in fact resulted in a big success: kids (8 years old on the average) laughed out loud during Kaminari and jumped on their chairs during Kokaji, imitating fights with the magic sword. Children and parents had also the chance to try out instruments and masks in the theatre lobby. Among the cutest features of the day was the printed programme, introducing Noh and its elements in a deformed manga style. I loved this day at the National Noh Theatre as much as the kids did. How long before they lose their interest?
The allure of Noh theatre reaches the world of videogames. The new release of the popular Tekken features a stage on a Noh stage – along with an interesting soundtrack with nohkan and ko-tsuzumi. At first I didn’t realise, then I zoomed a little and… check out the soundtrack and the pictures below. I am trying to figure out what play it is – judging from the costume and what look like candles on the headpiece my guess is Kanawa.
This is a demonstrative clip of Dr. Lee Stother’s The Fisherman’s Daughter, a Noh-inspired film/performance I had the chance to take part in during my first stay in Japan in Spring 2007. As a member of the International Noh Institute (Kongoh School), Lee has studied with Udaka Michishige and Ogamo Rebecca Teele in a number of different occasions, and the study and practice of Noh has greatly influenced her work as playwright/videomaker. Her The Fisherman’s Daughter is beautifully documented in the clip below.
I normally despise English puns on ‘Noh’, usually lame and trite. But after reading the delightful report of a Noh performance I found on a blog by WK Hellestal that I copy below, I couldn’t refrain from doing one myself. I personally sympathise with the spectators who really cannot cope with the Noh dramatic devices, and come up with the most fanciful observations – the variety of reactions that Noh theatre can generate is just amazing.
My first visit to the local Noh theater. I didn’t understand a damn thing, but apparently the performances are done in classical Japanese, so I’m not sure how much the native audience understood either.
Masks were interesting. Costumes were beautiful. Drumming and random shouting were cool. But I need a story, so I made one up in my head as I watched. A brief summary of the first act, as interpreted by me.
Ghost A: I don’t like you.
Ghost B: I don’t like you either.
Ghost A: Can we agree to put aside our differences for the moment, in order to join forces to terrorize these helpless townspeople?
Ghost B: My distaste for you has been ameliorated somewhat by the undeniable allure of your plan.
Mayor: No! Don’t terrorize us! We’re helpless!
Ghost A: Hahahaha! Terrorize!
Mayor: No, seriously. We’re not helpless. I’m a ghostbuster. I studied psychology and parapsychology under Dr. Venkman.
Ghost A: I don’t see no damn proton pack on your back.
Mayor: It’s, uh… being dry-cleaned. It’s due back today, though. Any time now.
Ghost B: Isn’t my fan cool? I have a fan. It’s super cool.
Mayor: Not just your fan, dude. That’s some wild-ass hair you got going on. I mean, I know it’s a wig, but it’s a fucking great wig.
Ghost A: Don’t get too chummy. We’re supposed to be terrorizing him, remember?
Ghost B: You’re not the boss of me.
Ghost A: Am too.
Ghost B: Are not.
Ghost A and B: Argh!
Mayor: My plan of setting the two against each other has succeeded. I’m now going to sit in the corner and remain there for the rest of the performance, moving only to shift my weight when my legs start hurting from this uncomfortably formal kneeling style.
End Act 1
The rest of the story continued in a similar vein. I assume.”
Here the link to the original post.
I didn’t dare taking pictures during the performance, however here is how the stage looked like before it began. One of the most interesting aspects of the performance was the hanging scroll-like matsubame, painted by Nihonga artist Allan West.
It will take me a few days to digest what I saw yesterday night at Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London. Theatre Nohkagu’s double bill of Kiyotsune and ‘shinsaku eigo noh’ Pagoda, written by British playwright Jannette Cheong and Richard Emmert has been a rich experience, and I already know I will want to come back to my notes again and again later. I would rather not give a review of the play, as it would be a limiting practice for something so formative. Aesthetic evaluation apart, the central question rising is ‘what is Noh’? Previously, in SOAS canteen, Emmert and I were talking about the nature of Noh from the perspective of the foreigner, and the purpose and future of Noh in English. The mind immediately goes to European opera, whose language was transformed from Italian into French, English, German, etc. We now accept all these languages as if they legitimately belonged to the opera world. My teacher Udaka Michishige was never involved in such transcultural Noh productions, however his judgment on postmodern experiments is rather positive, as they might be seeds that cross-fertilise a theatre form on the verge of stall. Experiments done in the West might well be source of inspiration for Japanese-based performers. Yokomichi Mario’s heavily debated Takahime, (re)appropriation of Yeats’s At the Hawk’s Well, already provided an example in the 1950s. It is pointless to discuss the value of Noh in English on the basis of personal taste as what floats on the surface of aesthetic judgment is not meant to stay. Let us look at what this new way of writing and performing Noh is telling us, about how issues of authenticity and cultural ownership have to be re-examined. Whose Noh was that? Will Noh be multilingual in the future? Probably its performers will be.
I am back from the Symposium Japanese Theatre Transcultural: German and Italian Perspectives held in Trier University in collaboration with Università Cà Foscari, Venice 27-29 November 2009. Thanks to a wonderful organisation and to the good-will of a good number of students from the Japanologie department (from Germany, Belgium, Japan, etc) the conference was a success and all participants were satisfied with the fruitful discussions on the theme of the encounter of Japanese theatre with Italy and Germany. Organisers Andreas Regelsberg and Stanca Scholz-Cionca did a great job, indeed.
Germany boasts a huge tradition both in Japanese studies and in theatre studies: it is very much interesting to attend conferences outside the anglo-saxon environment and notice so many differences in style and scholarly approach. Any international student working in the UK knows well how British research tends to be critical-theory oriented, sometimes to the extreme: PhD students are now sorted by ‘who they use’ (be it Lacan, Merleau-Ponty, Bourdieu, etc.) rather then what they write about. It is almost impossible to write a paper without at least one or two references to post-modern philosophers, whose theories are often inappropriately borrowed and abused. Theory for theory’s sake. For people like me, coming from a different academic background, it is hard to cope with what over here sometimes seems as the only possible way of academic enquiry. I have heard similar comments from students from France, Hong Kong, Greece, Germany, Japan, etc. It goes without saying that critical theories offer transversal perspectives necessary for the development of a thesis. However, the oversimplification and labelling of modern philosopher has created a division between ‘primary sources’ on one hand, and ‘academic tools’ on the other. Not to mention the fact that ‘acceptable’ critical perspectives only come from recent and mostly, of course, Western philosophy.
The most interesting aspect of the symposium was the combination of papers by scholars and practitioners – if this is rather common in UK and USA, in Germany and Italy it is still rare. This has been a successful attempt at an attempt at bridging the fictional gap between ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ as well as between ‘Japan’ and ‘the West. There is so much to learn from the language of the practitioner, so different from that of the onlooker. Practice is all that theatre is about, after all. We are all looking forward for this to happen again.
Following up my previous post, and since December festivals are getting closer, I could not help associating the madwoman of the Noh play Kanawa 鉄輪 and the Scandinavian representation of St. Lucia. Obviously the two iron crowns with candles have very different meanings – while the Japanese is part of a revenge ritual of a jealous woman, the Scandinavian candles are symbols of the return of the light after the 13th of December.
A still from Federico Fellini’s Intervista (1987), portraying actor Marcello Mastroianni in equivocal attitude with a ko-omote mask. I find the picture rather disturbing – Fellini style.
Next week I will talk at the International Symposium Japanese Theatre Transcultural: German and Italian Perspectives 27 – 29 November 2009. Universität Trier, Germany. Here is the abstract of my paper, entitled ‘The International Noh Institute of Milan: Transmission of Ethics and Ethics of Transmission in the transnational Context’.
The paper explores the intersection of aesthetics and ethics in Noh practice. Noel Pinnington (2006) has discussed the primacy of the concept of michi as ‘path through life’ in the writings of Zeami and Konparu Zenchiku, where spiritual and ethical virtues are a necessary condition for aesthetic achievement. Today Noh is taught in various contexts outside Japan, reflecting different agendas of teachers and trainees. How are the ethical aspects of Noh considered in contemporary non-Japanese teaching environments? What are the implications of introducing the ethics embedded in Noh practice outside its original context? Taking on Levinas’s ‘ethics of responsibility’, the paper will use theories of ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ (Lave & Wenger 1992) to explore the community of learners and the teaching methodology of the International Noh Institute.