“Kayoi Komachi/Komachi Visited is not just a revolutionary new mix of western chamber opera with Japan’s ancient Noh theatre. It’s a rare chance to see the rarest of Noh performers: women.”
“The first thing you come up against is just being non-Japanese is a challenge. None from outside the country have become professional Noh actors,” says [director and playwright Colleen][…] Lanki. “And I’m a foreign woman—I never even cared to or attempted to be a professional. Plus I started too late; you’d have to devote your life to it. I just love studying it.”
Being a woman and starting late may be the real challenges, and both apply to Japanese nationals, too. Should a foreign exchange student age 18 or 19 decide to relocate to Japan and start studying in earnest (read: dedicate all the time to practice) we may be able to see a non-Japanese become a professional. The real issue may be: all foreigners (including myself) start late, and do not want to (or cannot) dedicate their entire lives to the practice of noh. It makes sense: with a very grim outlook for getting a job in the noh world, even for the Japanese, it takes a fool or a billionaire to decide to give up everything for noh.
Tessenkai is producing a special event in Tokyo on March 25th (details below) featuring the noh Kiyotsune. On the day of the performance, the audience will be able to follow the action on the scene while reading subtitles appearing directly on personal tablets or smartphones via an app. The service is provided by Hinoki Shoten, publisher of noh books. I took care of the English edition of the subtitles.
A kyogen-inspired rendition of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (Le nozze di Figaro) will be performed at the Kyoto Furitsu Keihanna Hall (Main Hall) on March 22. While the headline is rather vague, the cast list is revealing: a small orchestra of oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, and contrabass accompanies kyogen actors Shigeyama Akira and his son Dōji, along with famous noh and bunraku performers. Apparently, there will be no opera singers involved.
On February 25th (Sunday) 2018 two noh plays, Kinsatsu and Yoshino Shizuka will be performed at the Kongo Noh theatre in Kyoto.
Kinsatsu (shite: Teshima Michiharu) is a first category (god noh) play, not performed frequently. The main character is the demon-quelling deity Amatsu Futodama, appearing with bow and arrow in the second half of the play. (Illustration: Kinsatsu, by Tsukioka Kogyo)
Yoshino Shizuka (shite: Udaka Tatsushige) is a third category (women noh) play, centering on the figure of the shirabyoshi dancer Shizuka Gozen, lover of Minamoto no Yoshitsune.
Noh masks by Otsuki Kōkun and costumes of the Orinasu-kan collection are being displayed at the Orinasu-kan in Kyoto until February 25th (see map below). The event is a follow-up of the successful exhibition at the Portland Japanese Garden in December 2017.
Today has been an eventful day at the Oe Noh theatre with performances of Yashima by Miyamoto Shigeki and Aoinoue by Washio Yoshiko. The latter is a young female performer belonging to the Kyoto Kanze group of performers. As it often happens, the mask and costume used for this performance did not suit the small stature of the main performer. This is all the more thought-provoking in the case of a female role. We watch a female body in female clothes designed to be worn by men – and it does not fit. The sleeves are too long, the bottom hem too low. The body is lost in the costume. The large mask hides the chin. As long as masks and costumes meant to be worn by men will be put on women, it will be hard to consider performances on par. I share this experience of unfitness on the other extreme: my arms, as those of many Caucasian males, are longer in comparison to our east-Asian ounterparts (this applies to buying shirts at Uniqlo, too), making kosode costumes such as karaori or atsuita difficult to wear.
While I do not see a pressing need for costumes that white males could wear, I think it is very important that efforts are put in creating costumes for women. Noh costumes are extremely expensive, and actors buy costumes individually – not everyone could afford a rich wardrobe in male and female sizes. But important households such as that of the iemoto grandmaster also purchase costumes with the intention of renting them to other actors. I think that a fair share of that budget should go to purchasing costumes for female performers. The same counts for masks. My teacher, Udaka Michishige, and some of his mask-carving students, such as Rebecca Ogamo Teele, have been making masks for women for several years now, and the results are excellent.
Event on katari (narration) in Japanese medieval performing arts. Prof. Fujita Takanori from Kyoto City University of the Arts talked about two traditions still performed today: Kōwaka-mai in Fukuoka and Daimokudate in Nara. Fujita analyzed musical aspects of the chant-narration such as melody and meter. It was interesting to compare styles of chant that are thought to pre-date noh (this point is currently debated by scholars) with noh chant. Videos of training and performance were also shown during the lecture. This is rare footage as these traditions are currently transmitted only within small local communities. The videos from Kōwaka-mai are available as DVD here.
In the second part of the event waki actors Yasuda Noboru (Hōshō school) and Arimatsu Ryōichi (Takayasu school) discussed narration drawing from the plays Aoinoue and Sumidagawa. It was interesting to see actors from different schools who usually do not appear together on stage (or backstage!) discuss differences in narration styles.
Yesterday I attended an event on the internationalization of Noh at the National Noh Theatre in Tokyo. The event was organized by the Nohgaku Performers’ Association and featured an award ceremony for the three winners of the English composition contest. These were carefully selected out of 80+ submissions. They all stressed the need for a better understanding of Noh in order to appreciate it more. Two papers, in particular, focused on the need for multilingual surtitlesand explanations as a way for the audience to appreciate performance through the understanding of the text. Does good art need explanations? Hard to give a single answer to this question… no, and yes. No, good art should be able to be at least partially appreciated for most of those who receive it. However, a greater appreciation of an artwork may (not must) depend on a deeper knowledge of its history, cultural context, techniques, etc. Does good art need explanations? The counter-question should be: who is the audience we are considering when asking the question? Greater appreciation of Noh will depend on the ability of its practitioners to understand their audiences better. As long as communication is one way (art producers instructing art consumers), we will see little improvement in the appreciation of noh. It would be a shame.
I am studying the maibayashi from the noh Yōrō (養老) which inspired Yeats’s At the Hawk’s Well. The main character of the play is the deity of a mountain from which an elixir of eternal youth flows. The deity reveals to be at the same time the guardian of the mountain (山神) and an avatar of Yōryū Kannon (楊柳観音), the Willow Kannon. The willow tree is associated with the element water, and this Kannon is depicted with a vase containing a medicine. This representation also overlaps with that of Suigetsu Kannon (水月観音), the Water and Moon Kannon. Famous Korean depictions of this deity were displayed at the Sen-oku Hakuko-kan in Kyoto last year. It was such a wonderful exhibition!