Thoughts on Kurokawa Noh in Kyoto

Yesterday I attended a performance of the Kurokawa Noh at the Kongo Noh theatre in Kyoto. Kurokawa is a hamlet part of Tsuruoka City in Yamagata Prefecture, in the deep of the Japanese snowland. A tradition of performing Noh plays has been transmitted within the city by two groups, the kami-za and shimo-za. Noh is performed on a number of occasions during the year, corresponding to religious festivals related to the local shinto shrine. There are various videos available online, perhaps the most interesting is this, made on the occasion of an event in collaboration with the Asia-Pacific Database on Intangible Cultural Heritage (ACCU), which worked to preserve the Kurokawa tradition from the threat of disappearing. More about this project here. Basic readings on Kurokawa Noh at the bottom of the post.


Kurokawa Noh was last performed in Kyoto 40 years ago, and the presenter pointed out how all those who performed in that occasion have now passed away. The Kurokawa Noh kami-za troupe who performed today is touring Japan -they were in Ise just yesterday- promoting this unique performance style that was transmitted in a condition of semi-isolation from the urban styles. When, during the ‘noh renaissance’ period, Kanze Hisao pointed out the need to ‘go back to Zeami’ in order to find the ‘true’ essence of Noh, he immediately thought of Kurokawa Noh, of which he became a great fan.

Yesterday’s programme consisted of one Kyogen, Konkwai (spelled こんくわい or こんかい) which is the Kurokawa version of the famous Kyogen Tsurigitsune (Fox Trapping), and the Noh Dojoji (Dojo Temple), among the most difficult plays of the two respective repertoires. The extent to which the Kurokawa tradition of both Noh and Kyogen plays differs from the urban tradition of the five schools is evident in many aspects of performance. First of all, actors chant/recite using the local dialect, and have a peculiar way to enunciate that makes the text difficult to discern even for the experienced  spectator. Actually a Kongo actor friend of main told me it was difficult to understand what they say even backstage (!). I was impressed by the rather low voice of the actors , and I wonder whether this is not because Kurokawa Noh is performed on stages within homes of the villagers, not theatres or open spaces (just my speculation). The quality of acting and the overall effect is that of amateur performance – all performers have regular jobs – Heike Grossman explains this condition in her article. Tsurigitsune lacked the intensity that makes it one of the most difficult Kyogen plays. I could not help but notice how movements are far from the exactitude and concentration of ‘standard’ Kyogen performances. Among the many differences from the usual Kyogen was the attire of the shite in the second half of the play: the mask looks bigger, and the costume is a white overall with what seems to be a real fox skin-fur attached to its back. Unfortunately this part of the play, usually very dramatic because of the jumps and screams of the fox tempted to snatch the bait, was rather uninteresting in the Kurokawa version.

Kurokawa Noh – Tsurigitsune. Note the fox fur costume.

Various details show that this kind of performance belongs to the more ‘popular’, or ‘rougher’ sphere of performing arts: at some point the main actor in Tsurigitsune dropped his fan, and simply picked it up – you would never see this in a normal performance, one of the koken stage assistants wore glasses, members of chorus for Dojoji talked to each other during the performance, etc…

I found Dojoji much more interesting than Tsurigitsune. Here are some thoughts.

  • The jiutai chorus entered the stage from the hashigakari bridge instead of the usual kiri-do, and came sitting much closer to the front than a usual Noh performer. Usually the heavy bell (some 70kgs) is brought on stage attached to a pole carried on shoulders by a great number of Kyogen actors. Then the rope that will hold the bell has to get into a pulley fixed at the centre of the roof of the stage. This operation, performed by Kyogen actors by attaching the rope to a long pole, is rather difficult because the rope is thick and the pulley narrow, and takes as much time as needed to be completed, almost a performance within the performance in itself ‘will it go through?’… ‘will it not?’. In the Kurokawa version a smaller, much lighter, more realistically decorated bell is brought on stage by three Kyogen actors, while the rope has already been installed before the performance began. My speculation is that it is too difficult for them to do it as part of the performance, and they don’t know how much it will actually take them.
  • The flute player sits facing the maku curtain, as in the Kiyotsune variation ‘koi-no-netori’.
  • Actors (both waki and shite) lift themselves up on their toes as a recurring kata – today this movement is only performed by waki actors in First Category (God Noh) plays.
  • Everything unfolds at a much faster pace than a standard Noh, and not before long we hear clapping from the kagami no ma mirror room, signalling that the shite is ready to enter the stage.
  • In standard version of the play, where the mae-shite wears a karaori brocade kimono in tsubo-ori style over a silver foiled surihaku undergarment and another black karaori wrapped in koshimaki style around the waist. The Kongō school uses the magojirō mask, exclusive to Kongō. In the Kurokawa version we saw the shite entered with a simple karaori in kinagashi ‘straight’ style, and wore a mask that looked like shakumi or fukai, for middle-aged women roles.
  • As the presenter explained to us, Kurokawa Noh uses to put the katsura-obi headband on top of the mask, instead of wearing it behind it. I am not sure when the shift took place in Noh history, but I think that in the past this is the way katsura-obi was used. At some point, probably in order to show more of the beautiful mask, or not to change their looks by donning something over it, this headband started to be worn behind the mask, perhaps in an unrealistic, but more beautiful way. The result is something closer to a coloured hachimaki, the white headband used today for roles of warriors, and worn on top of the mask.
  • The dance section, consisting of ranbyoshi and jo-no-mai (a peculiar combination) was particularly interesting. With ranbyoshi performed only by flute and ko-tsuzumi, and jo-no-mai performed by o-tsuzumi and ko-tsuzumi, without flute. I liked this second dance very much: I found that dancing without flute produces a very interesting, even more hypnotic effect. Maybe at this point of the performance I was getting used to the peculiar music, and started noticing how the two drummers communicated and challenged each other through slowing down and speeding up, despite the unusually sparseness of kakegoe vocal interjections. Then the shite jumped into the rather narrow bell, and changed costume, mask and wig.
  • Once the exorcism by the waki reached its climax, and the bell started to lift in order to reveal the serpentine monster hidden inside it, something strange happened. Little spheres, probably from juzu prayer beads, fell on the stage rolling here and there. This generated some confusion among the koken and in the jiutai, or so it seemed to me. After the performance Rebecca Teele and I were wondering whether one of the monk broke his juzu while rubbing it during the exorcism, or rather the juzu sphere did not come from inside the bell, perhaps as a sign of rage of the shite against the exorcism (?! – the pamphlet we were given does not provide information about this)…

There are many more differences between the Kurokawa Noh performances we saw yesterday and the mainstream Noh performed by the five schools. I would not want to go through everything I noticed, as it would take more than just one post. Perhaps most evident difference was kamae or basic standing position: in standard Kyogen and Noh schools, arms are bent inwards, hands on waist for Kyogen, hands in a fist-like position in Noh. The image of the upper body is that of a circle, containing physical tension that is then liberated in movement. However, in Kurokawa Noh arms are open, with the left hand index finger sticking out and pointing down. This position is much weaker than the standard kamae and it makes much sense to me that this basic stance evolved in a much more compact, tense while relaxed position in urban traditions. The Kurokawa Noh kamae reminds of dengaku or ennen, more rustic performance styles I have seen on other occasions. The pointed index finger can still be seen in Okina, when the god stands in the middle of the stage with arms raised pointing East and West.

Kurokawa Noh performance. Note the pointing finger

Udaka Michishige in Okina at Utsukushima-jinja. Note the pointing fingers

What I can say as a conclusion is that I enjoyed the performance: it wasn’t simply an ‘amateur performance’. I was expecting something ‘kagura-esque’, which it was not. Sure, the performance lacked the intensity and perfection of professional performance, and I am sure that it is a kind of event that needs to be enjoyed in its original context.. still, it was moving to discover another Noh style that seemed to come from another time. 参考になりました!


– Martzel, Gérard. La fête d’Ogi et le nô de Kurokawa. Paris: Publications Orientalistes de France, 1975.

– Grossman, Eike. ‘Under the burden of Noh: Community life in Kurokawa and ritual Noh performances’ in Noh Theatre Transversal. Stanca Scholz-Cionca and Christopher Balme eds. Munich: Iudicium, 2008.

Call grandpa, there’s Noh on TV

This is the face of traditional theatre on the national ‘educational’ channel, NHK’s Eテレ (e-tele), broadcasting programs on traditional performing arts between 22:00 and midnight. In a roundtable on the decrease of Noh amateur population published on Nogaku Journal in 2010, critic Horigami Ken complained about how dull TV programs are today, claiming that the absence of classical arts on TV is one of the reasons why young people today are not interested in Noh.

Nippon no geino

Yes, I too would like to see more Noh on TV and, preferably, I would not like to see it introduced by this nice&tidy couple of presenters, interviewing old geezers and kind baachan dressed in sober kimono, gently bowing and speaking in softly. Noh is everything but gentle or soft. It’s not something to be nodded at from behind a glass case (be it a TV set or a museum stand). Noh is magnificent, powerful, heartbreaking, enlightening. Not for the faint of heart, I daresay. Have you seen this program? Certainly NHK, like much of the Noh establishment, don’t care much about trying to reach new audiences, and only feed the progressively aging spectatorship that started following it in the 1960s. Noh is not only for them. Give us the real thing, not this pre-digested glop, only good for retirement home entertainment.

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.

Old new Noh

20121225kokuritu1Bitter 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.

The Cambridge Companion to Theatre History


I am happy to announce that The Cambridge Companion to Theatre History, edited by David Wiles and Christine Dymkovski, has been published. I have contributed to the book with a chapter (9) on traditional theatre, looking at Noh theatre from a historiographical point of view. The premise the book is the awareness of the post-modern fragmentation of ‘History’ in an infinite number of distinct micro-narratives, resulting in the difficulty of understanding history as a flow of interconnected events. As the editors put it, one of the problems encountered when attempting to write a comprehensive history of theatre is that of balance: ‘how to weigh a synchronic (or contemporary) awareness of global diversity and the equal rights of all human beings against a diachronic (or historical) awareness that sets out how our multifarious world came to be as it is and thus how we might change it’.

I was asked by the editors to contribute with a chapter on traditional theatre in Japan, describing not only a cultural, political and economic context that differed from that of the dominant Anglo-American academia, but also a radically diverging way of conceptualising history itself. In order to tackle such a vast topic within the limited word count I was given, I decided to focus on Noh theatre, looking at how notions of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’, ‘native’ and ‘imported’ have shaped theatre history in Japan. One of the themes I have developed in my chapter is the separation between contemporary, ‘Western-influenced’ theatre and traditional performing arts such as Noh. This distinction, I have argued, is not only evident in theatre practice, but also in scholarship and educational curricula. Looking at the history of Japan since the opening of the country to the West in the late 19th century, I have outlined the cultural and political reasons for this divide, supporting my argument with notable examples and personal experiences.

The Cambridge Companion to Theatre History is available for purchase (or pre-order) on Cambridge’s website as well as Amazon, etc.

Below is the table of contents of the book:

Introduction: why?
1. Why theatre history? David Wiles
Part I. When?:
Indicative Timeline: 2. Modernist theatre Stefan Hulfeld
3. Baroque to romantic theatre Christopher Baugh
4. Medieval, renaissance and early modern theatre David Wiles
5. Classical theatre Erika Fischer-Lichte
Part II. Where?:
6. Liverpool Ros Merkin
7. Finland S. E. Wilmer
8. Egypt Hazem Azmy
9. Traditional theatre: the case of Japanese Noh Diego Pellecchia
10. Reflections on a global theatre history Marvin Carlson
Part III. What?:
11. The audience Willmar Sauter
12. The art of acting Josette Féral
13. Music theatre and musical theatre Zachary Dunbar
14. Circus Marius Kwint
Part IV. How?:
15. The nature of historical evidence: a case study Thomas Postlewait
16. The visual record: the case of Hamlet Barbara Hodgdon
17. Museums, archives and collecting Fiona Macintosh
18. Re:enactment Gilli Bush-Bailey
19. The internet: history 2.0? Jacky Bratton and Grant Tyler Peterson.

Hosei University Noh Research Institute – 60th Anniversary Symposium

On November 18th I attended the 60th Anniversary symposium, organised by Hosei University’s Nogami Memorial Noh Research Institute. As Prof. Yamanaka Reiko explained in her introduction, the symposium was the latest of six decennial events that mark the growing progress and outstanding research results of the Research Centre. This year’s symposium was entitled ‘Noh no shosa wo kangaeru‘ (‘reflections on the shosa of Noh). Shosa literally means behaviour or comportment, but it is generally used in the performing arts to indicate ‘movement’. As Yokomichi Mario has described in volume IV of the Iwanami Shoten lectures series on Nogaku, in Noh shosa refers both to the dance and to the mimetic aspects of Noh movement.

The symposium opened with a talk by Ondrej Hýbl, a student of Okura-ryu Kyogen actor Shigeyama Shime, who introduced the activities of the Kyogen company he founded in Prague. Hýbl has been involved in Kyogen training in Kyoto as he studied at Osaka University. The achievements of his Czech Kyogen group are truly amazing! (check out this video of the Kyogen Kuchimane). During his speech Hýbl emphasised the need to discuss ways of opening the teaching of Noh and Kyogen outside Japan. I will talk more about this towards the end of the post.

The second talk was given by Kōno Yoshinori, a famous swordsmaster, who talk about changes in the swordsmanship techniques in relation to body parts such as thighs and lower back, which are also fundamental in Noh movement. You can see more about Kōno-sensei on YouTube.

The third talk was given by Nakatsuka Yukiko, who demonstrated the work in progress of a team of researchers she is part on 3D digitalisation and reconstruction of Noh movement. The team has produced a software they call ‘composer’, basically a sequencer drawing on a database of Noh kata acquired with motion capture techniques, that can be mounted in sequences and adjusted in time and speed, in order to suit various kinds of chants. With the Noh composer it is possible to reproduce Noh dance just by knowing which kata are executed, without the need of an actor. One of the main purposes of such technology is to record movements of Noh actors today so that they can be studied in detail in the future, something that cannot be done by simply noting kata in words. Though this kind of technology is moving its first steps, sometimes with rough-looking results, I am sure they will reach a very high level soon. 20 years ago we played Tetris, now we have Call of Duty.

Then followed two conversations. The first was between Noh actor Kanze Tetsunojō and Prof. Yamanaka, touching various aspects of the transmission of Noh movement. Despite his wide experience, it seems to me that Tetsunojō-sensei still is very much grounded in the traditional environment in which he grew up. By his own admission he has little idea of how to help the spreading of Noh outside Japan, a topic I was hoping to hear more on from his perspective. The second conversation, between Kabuki actor Nakamura Kyōzō and Prof. Kodama Ryūichi, discussed Kabuki movements in various styles, also comparing Noh with Kabuki.

A general discussion closed the symposium. I am very happy to have participated to the event, which was brilliantly conducted by Prof. Yamanaka Reiko. While Noh is imprisoned in literature courses outside Japan, it was very refreshing to attend a conference entirely dedicated to movement. I am convinced that Noh should always be taught as performance everywhere it is introduced. It is the only way to save it from the commonplace image of old and boring theatre. However, the wealth of performance theory available in the English language is unavailable in Japan, where traditional performing arts still reside in an academic field isolated from theatre studies. Will post more about this topic as soon as an important publication I have contributed to comes out in print.

As for the dissemination of Noh abroad, Hýbl-san pointed out a crucial aspect of Nogaku: both Kyogen and Noh are arts where perfection is valued, not creativity. This made me think of how Noh actors are more like sportsmen than artists: they spend their lives training on fixed models, largely ignoring all that does not belong to this world. While non-traditional artists draw inspiration from various sources, often deepening the knowledge of other arts (cinema, literature, painting) or even travelling and living abroad, 99% of Noh actors live in isolation from the world.  Obviously when they are confronted with questions such as ‘how do you spread Noh abroad’ the answer is something like: “well, I don’t know… Noh is like this, take it or leave it”. From their perspective there does not seem to be a need of exploring outside its ‘traditional’ boundaries. Where this attitude will lead, I am not sure. What I am sure, though, is that 90% of the audience who attended the symposium on a Sunday afternoon was over 60 years old, which means that in some 30 years they are likely to be all dead. Will they have passed their interest for Noh down to their grandsons by that time? If not, I wonder who will still go to the Noh theatre, except for me and a few others I know (if we are still around). Edward Shils wrote that when tradition becomes useless, it dies. Will it survive in computer generated animations? I hope not.

What I am more and more realising while I am in Japan, is that if foreigners want to learn Noh, they should not expect Japanese institutions to offer ways of doing it. We non-Japanese who have an interest in Noh should get together and do our best to discuss ways of transmitting Noh abroad. As Hýbl pointed out, Nogaku is taught and learnt by imitation, not through books. It is then necessary to find a way for Noh and Kyogen masters to frequently travel or to live for longer periods outside Japan, or for foreigners to live for longer periods in Japan, where they could learn the art and then be able to transmit it to the ‘outside world’. Thanks to the efforts of the International Noh Institute, I feel I am on the right track. I look forward to discussing again about this very important topic with Ondrej Hýbl, Prof. Yamanaka, and the other scholars who took part of the symposium.

PS: speaking of anniversaries, this is my 100th post! : )

24/10 ‘MANABU’: giornata di studio per ricercatori italiani in Giappone

This post is about a research seminar that I have organised in Kyoto, coming up in a few days. This is probably my first post in Italian, so I just wanted to warn my readers. I will report about the event (in English) towards the end of the month so stay tuned ^^

La tradizione oggi: uno sguardo interdisciplinare sul teatro giapponese

Seminario della serie ‘MANABU’, Giornate di studio dei dottorandi, borsisti e ricercatori italiani in Giappone

La giornata riunisce quattro ricercatori con formazione e interessi diversi (antropologia, studi giapponesi, studi teatrali, regia), e si propone di investigare la relazione fra tradizione e modernità nel teatro giapponese da un ampio spettro di prospettive (letterarie, critiche e pratiche). Gli interventi spazieranno dall’adattamento Nō dei manga al rapporto fra corpo e tecnologia, dall’insegnamento in ambito interculturale alla storiografia del teatro. A una presentazione del ricco panorama della ricerca sul teatro giapponese oggi, seguirà una discussione nella quale i partecipanti confronteranno teorie ed esperienze, incoraggiando un produttivo scambio di approcci che possa gettare le basi per ulteriori iniziative in futuro.

Il seminario si terrà il giorno 24 Ottobre 2012 presso la sede della Scuola Italiana di Studi sull’Asia Orientale (ISEAS) a Kyoto 4, Yoshida Ushinomiya-chō, Sakyō-ku


11:00-11:10 Introduzione
11:10-11:30 Matteo Casari (Università di Bologna) Il Nō e il Manga, un primo sguardo
11:30-11:50 Katja Centonze (Universität Trier) L’Erma Bifronte: Eclettismo nelle arti performative del Giappone che guarda alla tradizione e alla contemporaneità
11:50-12:10 Monique Arnaud (Università IUAV di Venezia) La regia come dimensione nascosta
12:10-12:30 Diego Pellecchia (Scuola Italiana di Studi sull’Asia Orientale) I confini della tradizione: Educazione al teatro giapponese oggi

Per informazioni:
ISEAS Scuola Italiana di Studi sull’Asia Orientale (ISEAS)
Tel 075-751-8132
Fax 075-751-8221