Selfish photography

I got myself a new camera and today I happened to go to a traditional performing art recital. I realized that I spent more time playing with my camera than actually watching the performances. I was in good company: many people around me were doing the same thing. Reflecting on what I was doing I realized that my pleasure was self contained in the action of taking picture. As soon as a performer stroke a pose, I would take a picture of him or her, only to direct my gaze at the LCD screen after that, therefore not watching the rest of the performance. It felt a little bit like ‘stealing’, or ‘taking advantage’ of them. I’m sure this is a ethical issue professional photographers often encounter…

However, as occasional photographer I could not help thinking that the value of my photographs is essentially personal. Most of my pictures will stay in my hard drive and no one will ever see them. I won’t either sell them or show them. The value of my action ends with the action itself. As a spectator, I wasn’t a very good spectator. I was more interested in pictures than in performances, and it is now clear that my photographing was selfish.

I don’t want to moralise here, but reflect: attending a performance is one thing, taking pictures of it is an entirely different thing! Or maybe the reason why I don’t feel happy about this is because maybe 50 other people around me were doing the same. And I know how this looks like when you are on stage.

Digital cameras are everywhere nowadays (as I write I could take pictures with at least 3 objects within 50cm from where I sit). They should be handled with care. Care is the right word. We should think twice before taking useless pictures, they pollute the digital and also the analog ecosystems.


Suzuki Tadashi on Noh theatre


On Saturday 13rd July I attended Suzuki Tadashi‘s presentation 「能」に期待する (Expectations on Noh) at Otsuki Nogakudo in Osaka. The event is part of the series 能の魅力を探る, ‘investigating the charm of Noh’, organised on the occasion of the 650th anniversary of Zeami Motokiyo’s birth, and presented by Noh scholar Amano Fumio.

I was excited to be able to attend one of his rare forays into the public – recently Suzuki does not seem to leave his house in the mountains very often. In the 1970s Suzuki has done quite a lot of work with Noh and Kyogen actors, especially Kanze Hisao, Kanze Hideo and Nomura Mansaku, who belong to a generation of Noh professionals excelling in their art and open to experimenting in other fields. Suzuki’s famous ‘method’, now widely spread across the globe, has been allegedly influenced by Noh training. Carruthers/Yasunari’s book is a standard if you want more reference on his work.

The talk was followed by the dokugin solo chant from the Noh Ashibikiyama (足引山), performed Otsuki Bunzo, and the shimai dance excerpt from Tamamizu (玉水), performed by Kanze Tetsunojo, Hisao’s son. Both plays are fukkatsu, ‘restored’ plays that were not staged for a long time until recently.

Now a few words on Suzuki’s talk. I must admit I was not impressed. Most of it sounded like the grumblings of an elderly man against the malaise of modern civilization. His main point was how we humans have lost the ability to use their ‘animal energy’ (動物性エネルギー) because we use electricity, gas, oil in order to operate machines that work in ourplace. Complaining about how today’s youth have lost the ability to communicate, as they are only able to look at their smartphones (are FB and Twitter not a way to communicate?), Suzuki continued by praising Noh because it only uses ‘human energy’.

Of course Suzuki is, generally speaking, right about saying that Noh is one of the few performance traditions that still is largely man-powered, with the exception of the halogen lights illuminating the stage. Having said that, listening to Suzuki speaking was not particularly interesting and I strongly doubt it helped to show the ‘charm’ of Noh. Which ‘charm’ anyway? I am fascinated by Tanizaki’s aesthetic of shadows but I also think that such reactionary or nostalgic attitude is not going to help Noh move forward. Rejecting all that belongs to today’s generations, including Internet, smartphones, computers, machines, etc. equals to rejecting those whose lives are deeply influenced by all this. I am not an advocate of digitalisation of Noh, but I am concerned with what is going to happen to Noh in some 20 years, when a good percentage of its contemporary supporters are likely to be dead. We need to find a third way.

After the performance Kanze Tetsunojo, Otsuki Bunzo, Amano Fumio, Suzuki Tadashi (with an average age of 67.25) were on stage for a panel on Noh. I know this mights sounds harsh and I hope you will not think that I have no respect for experience and age, but, as I put myself in the shoes of one who meets Noh for the first time at a conference with a famous contemporary theatre director, I cannot help feeling that Noh is something that more and more risks to be a property of the old age. Fandom is built through admiration but also through identification. To what extent can young people in the early twenties identify with elderly men and women who represent the old-smelling (furukusai) world of their grandpas?

We must act, and I wonder what I can do… I think it is important to promote the work of young actors more than it is currently done by the Noh society.

Emotional recorder: on photographing Noh performance

[This is] what you see when you close your eyes

… says this poster I noticed in the lobby of the Dentogeino Kaikan in Otsu (Shiga pref.) next to Miidera. A woman closes her eyes and remembers an instant from the Noh Izutsu (The Stone-Well). The poster very delicately warns the audience that it is prohibited to take pictures or film in the Noh theatre. I think this this a very well thought campaign, not only because of its gentleness but also because of the depth of its message.


“Emotion” lives on in the memories written on your heart

Leaving aside those who might have an economic or other interest in recording a performance (be it Noh or something else) I am always impressed by the number of people who feel the urge of taking out a camera and filming or taking pictures of whatever work of art they are watching. I was at the British Museum last year and I remember a group of Italian tourists who took pictures of every single piece in the Japanese section – I can assure you, they were not art researchers. Here in Japan, where taking pictures is a stereotypical feature of the Japanese prototype, photographing anything at hand is the norm. And now we have smartphones. Going to an open air-performance is difficult even for me (I’m 180cm tall) because you have to watch the stage through a thick forest of raised arms holding coloured mobiles with Kitty straps and such. The habit of taking pictures of the stage does not only apply to open-air performances, where it is often allowed, but also to indoor performances, where it is clearly prohibited. You hear digital shutters shut, see flashes flash. It is terribly disturbing for the audience, let alone for the performers on stage.

But there’s more beyond the merely physical nuisance. Whenever I see some ojisan (old geezer) with a checkered shirt, a fishing vest and a baseball hat taking a picture of the Noh stage I wonder what they will do with it. Will they watch it before sleeping? Will they print it out at the convenience store? Will they send it to their pals? I don’t know. Or maybe I know: they won’t do anything with it. They just take the picture for the sake of taking it. They satisfy an idiotic compulsiveness. Because no one can convince me that after watching a Noh, and filming it, you go home and watch it again.

There is simply no point in filming what you are actually experiencing live and I won’t spend words explaining the obvious (that performance is an act perceived through a number of senses, and that retains a quality of ‘liveness’ that cannot be reproduced). I think it is enough to think of what you actually do with what you have recorded. Think about it.

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.

Ageing Noh

Today I went to the Kanze Nogakudo to see the last Urata Teiki Noh. Today’s programme featured the rare Morihisa,  and Hagoromo. There is a lot to say about the two performances I saw, but in this post I will talk about another aspect of today’s experience. Something that I am afraid contributed to an at least partially negative reception of the performance.

I’m not going to write an essay here, I will just copy here some thoughts that I jotted down during the play.

Today's average age of the audience: 70 years. There's all kinds of good reasons for this. Will write about them next time.
Issues resulting from the increasing age of the Noh audience:
  • Bad smell in the theatre. Most of it comes from cheap/old fashioned hair spray.
  • Huge queue at the toilet during the break.
  • Amateurs who bring their utaibon and take the Nogakudo for a Noh sing-along karaoke kind of place.
  • Grannies sucking on candies, usually taking ages to unwrap them from a very noisy plastic wrapping.
  • Bad hearing makes people shout instead of whisper.
No wonder young people don't want to go to the Noh theatre. If I took a friend today I'm sure he/she would have never wanted to come back to what seems to be a retirement house... AGE IS AN ISSUE!

This post is ironic but the matter is serious. Will expand it in a more academic fashion some other time.