Bitter review on the Nogaku Times for the recent performance of Takahime, Yokomichi Mario’s retro-version of Yeats’s Noh-influenced play for dancers At the Hawk’s Well (1916), on stage at the National Noh Theatre in Tokyo on December 25h 2012. Takahime is a ‘shinsaku-Noh’ or ‘newly composed Noh’, the denomination of those plays that do not belong to the traditional repertoire. It is difficult to assess what constitutes the canon and what does not. The traditional repertoire (around 25o plays) has been updated throughout the years and many old plays that were not performed for generations have recently been ‘restored’ or ‘re-choreographed’. Ultimately there is no institution holding the right to decide what is in and what is out of the canon.
Tessen-kai (Kanze School) has included Takahime as part of its own repertoire, and has been performing it a number of times since it was written in the early 1950s. However, the Nogaku Times critic Murakami Tatau is disappointed by this latest staging, which he defines as ‘dull’, wondering whether the play is still talking to contemporary audience, or whether it can already be called an ‘old new Noh’. The review is very short and does not really go into details, but I can imagine how the conversion of a (once) experimental play into the Noh canon could lead to the petrification of what was instead meant to be an act of transformation. The politics of the re-appropriation of At the Hawk’s Well have often been analysed through the lens of anti-nihonjinron criticism, and the provoking ‘old new Noh’ label could be interpreted as a way to problematise the canonisation of non-traditional plays.
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).
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 – whatwould 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.
The October issue of the Nōgaku Times features an article on Shain 『沙院』 a shinsaku-noh(new Noh play, not part of the classical canon) by actor Nagajima Tadashi (Kanze).
Shain is based on the character of Shakushain, an Ainu chifetain who led an important rebellion (Shakushain no tatakai, 1669-1672) against the Matsumae clan, the Japanese lords who occupied the Hokkaidō region at that time.
The Noh follows a rather standard structure in which a monk (waki) visiting Hokkaidō meets a local man who tells him the story of Shakushain (shite) before disappearing. In the second half of the play the shite re-enters the stage in his real form, as the spirit of Shakushain. In the interview to the Nōgaku Times, Nagajima-sensei explains how the character for the nochi-ba (second act) was built around that of the Noh Kōu (on the Chinese general Hsiang Yu). One of the highlights of the play is the ezo-nishiki fabric costume for the character of Shakushain, of which you can find pictures on Nagajima-sensei’s website.
Unfortunately not much is said about the ‘post-colonial’ resonance of the play. Obviously the Japanese invasion and subjugation of Hokkaidō has an important meaning in Japanese history, especially if seen in the perspective of Tamura, the only classical Noh play dealing with a similar theme. In Tamura the general Sakanoue no Tamuramaro (758-811) is sent by Emperor Heizei to Mt. Suzaku to contrast an Ainu invasion, whom he defeats with the help of the bodhisattva Kannon, who mercifully sends a thousand arrows on the ‘demons of the North’, killing them all. You can find a synopsis on www.the-noh.com, and perhaps also notice how they artfully avoided to mention that Tamura’s enemies were actually Ainu people.
Those interested in attending Shain can find more info on Nagajima Tadashi’s website.
Inter-cultural theatre plays involving Noh and other performance forms are not mere artistic endeavours, but acts with strong political relevance.
This seems to be the case of The Piano Tuner (in Polish ‘Stroiciel fortepianu‘), a Noh play written byJadwiga Maria Rodowicz who is (at once) a Japanese Noh scholar, the ambassador of Poland in Japan, and was a long-time member of the famous experimental Polish theatre group Gardzienice. The combination of these three elements contains an east/centre/west triad that marks the sign of the times. Claudel was ambassador of France in Japan for six years, at a time when being ambassador did not require knowing Japanese culture.. or even Japanese language! The influence of Japanese theatre in its work has been long studied, yet Noh does not seem to have revolutionised his conception of theatre. Many Western theatre practitioners (including Grotowski, of whom Gardzienice’s leader Staniewski was a disciple) claim influence of Noh in their production… yet we can hardly find Noh specialists among them.
I have not seen The Piano Tuner yet but certainly its premises are much alluring. It is not clear what the non-Noh elements will be (besides piano and costumes), but the plot and the characters clearly reveal the attempt to make interculturalism the main theme of this play.
Below is an extract from the original article, to be found here:
Warsaw’s Witkiewicz Studio Theatre hosts the premiere of the first ever Polish Noh production – a major form ofJapanese classical dance theatre – performed by the legendary Tessenkai Theatre Company from Tokyo
Jadwiga Maria Rodowicz, a well-known Orientalist specialising in the history of Japanese drama and theatre aesthetics, is responsible for the drama’s text, entitled “The Piano Tuner”. Since 2008 Rodowicz has been Polish ambassador to Japan, and from 1979-89 she was a leading member of the acclaimed “Gardzienice” theatre group.
The drama plots a symbolic meeting between two renowned artist friends in the enchanted garden at Nohant, namely Fryderyk Chopin and Eugène Delacroix. Having grown weary of Paris, the ageing Delacroix pays a visit to Nohant. In a strange vision he encounters Chopin, with whom he is able to engage in masterful debates about art, music and Chopin’s own attempts to mediate between his Polish and French identities…
Chopin-Noh Project calendar of events:
Premiere of ‘The Piano Tuner’ – three performances on February 17, 18 & 19 at 19:00, at the Witkiewicz Studio Theatre in Warsaw
Promotion of Jadwiga Rodowicz’s new book ‘Boski Dwumian’ (jointly curated by the Jerzy Grotowski Institute) – 17:00 on February17 at the Witkiewicz Studio Theatre
Theatre workshop (open to the public) given by members of the Tessenkai Theatre Company – from 13:00 – 15:00 on February 19 and again from 11:00 – 13:00 on February 20 at the Zelwerowicz Theatre Academy, ul. Miodowa 22/24
Partial performance of “The Piano Tuner” in the nave of the Holy Cross Church (ul. Krakowskie Przedmieście 3) on February 20 at 13:50.
Back from Japan and heavily jet-lagged as usual, I was wandering the many Noh-related blog pages when I bumped into 天河伝説殺人事件 (Tenkawa Densetsu Satsujin Jiken) a 1991 thriller by Ichikawa Kon, the director of The Burmese Harp, Tokyo Olympiad and many other legendary films. 天河伝説殺人事件 looks like a standard 80s old-school detective story with the surprising twist of being centred upon homicides related to Noh theatre. I haven’t seen the movie myself but I am about to make an order to Amazon.jp where they seem to have DVD copies of it. It just looks very cool – the retro-sound score, the ossan hat of the protagonist, the terrible オーバー acting technique of the actors… and on top of it, it’s Ichikawa! The review of the All Movie Guide has been published on the New York Times here. Googling a bit I found the trailer uploaded on YouTube.
Yesterday (July 9th 2010) Udaka Michishige‘s Genshigumo (原子雲, a newly-written Noh play on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) was performed in Hiroshima for the first time. I had the chance to follow Udaka-Sensei, and take part in the introductory speeches of the performance, reading messages from members of the International Noh Institute around the world, and from the William J. Clinton Foundation.
The night before the performance, sitting in the lobby of a hotel near the Peace Memorial Park, Udaka was giving an interview for a documentary on Genshigumo. While confessing the state of excitement for finally being able to perform this play in Hiroshima, Udaka described his experience of meeting with the spirits of the casualties of the bombs who, victim of a sudden and unreasonable death, cannot be released from this existential plane and be reborn. In the play, a Mother is on a journey through memory, looking for her missing daughter who died in the bombing. After the hellish scenes of the bombings are recounted, the Mother finally finds her daughter reborn as a willow tree.
Yesterday night I observed the audience watching this play for the first time. I felt the atmosphere was very tense, and the gazes of the spectators revealed that while observing the performance on stage, their thoughts were wandering elsewhere, leaving the hall and reaching out above the sky over Hiroshima. As in the classic Noh style, when the narration of the events reaches its culmination, emotions also reach the limit of verbal explicability: it is the moment when words give way to music and dance. The haya-mai dance symbolises the complex feelings of grief and happiness of the Mother who is finally reunited with her daughter, now reborn as a willow tree. While until this point the spectators where plunged into a tense atmosphere, attentively listening to the narrative part, when the jo-no-mai dance started, only a few could restrain from letting go of their emotions. I think this passage was the peak of the performance and made me wonder if in order to express such a deep message, with all its individual and universal resonances, words were not superfluous, after all.
Genshigumo is not a historical play, aimed at re-enacting those tragic events in a narrative style. Following the tradition of the pieces of the classic repertory, Genshigumo is rather a requiem for the victims of the bombs, and an invitation to the audience to take part in this prayer for peace. Noh theatre has been transmitting the ethos of Japan (its literature, its philosophy and history) throughout six centuries: it is therefore natural that even recent events such as World War II and its tragic epilogue are incorporated in the tradition of Noh. I wish this new play will eventually become part of the official canon of Noh, and will be performed by other actors in the future. Some might wonder how it is possible to render the horrors of war through the subtle beauty of Noh. How can we ‘enjoy’ the horror? While watching Genshigumo I realised how its beauty (and the beauty of Noh as an artistic means of expression) transcends earthly pleasures (the mere aisthesia) and allows the spectator to reach out to a higher level of meaning. Genshigumo is, more than anything else, a prayer offered to those suffering spirits trapped between this and the other world. At the same time, it is a ritual, a vehicle to transmit the memory of the bombings, and a chance for us and for the generations to come to reflect on the absurdity of war.
July 9 (Friday), 2010 6:30 p.m. ~ 8:30 p.m. Venue: The Hiroshima Aster Plaza Noh Theater
4-17 Kakomachi, Naka-ku, Hiroshima 730-0812
Genshigumo(‘The Atomic Cloud’), Udaka Michishige’s third newly-written noh play (新作能), composed as requiem for the victims of the atomic bombs, will be performed in Hiroshima for the first time. I had the pleasure to attend performances of Genshigumo in Paris, Dresden and Berlin in 2007, when the Udaka-kai was touring Europe. The experience of watching a Noh play performed in the traditional style based on such recent historical facts is particularly strong, and inspired several reflections. While watching the different characters of the play recounting the tragic events of the bombing of Hiroshima in highly poetic language and beautifully stylised movements, I realised how much Noh theatre’s aesthetic conventions are suitable to portray a story of such historical but also emotional relevance. The austere style of Noh, which does not indulge in easy heart-tearing devices, plunges the audience in the solemn atmosphere of a requiem, while maintaining the detachment necessary in order to consciously reflect on what war and its casualties mean.
Of all the shinsaku-noh (modern noh) I have come across this is by far the most bizarre.. an adaptation of the popular anime Neongenesis Evangelion in Noh style by shite Yamai Tsunao (Konparu school). Apparently Yamai-san has a wide range of interests including singing in a rock-band etc.. This is not the first time a manga has been made into Noh: a few years ago Umewaka Rokuro transposed the manga Kurenai Tennyo into a shinsaku Noh. I do not know either mangas and have not seen the plays.. surely these are images that make you think…