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 “Its outdated words prevent people from enjoying Noh.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.

A Noh Journey

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Nō wo tabi suru is a collection of pictures and articles previously published in the magazine Fujin gahō. The pictures portray Noh actor Umewaka Rokurō Genshō wearing costumes and masks of various characters from various Noh plays against the background of the places where the stories of the plays actually take place, for example the Goddess Benzaiten on the shore of Chikubushima Island on the Biwa lake for the play Chikubushima, or Rokujō no Miyasudokoro walking the characteristic paths among bamboo thickets in Arashiyama, Kyoto, for the play Nonomiya.

This is an interesting book as it tries to visualise Noh character in real places, which is one of the beauties of Noh. I think it was Komparu Kunio who in his book Noh Theatre: Principles and Perspectives listed among the points of interest of Noh the possibility to learn about Japanese geography and to travel without moving, qualities that in Japan are characteristic of classic poetry. The pictures are truly beautiful and do an excellent service to the wonderful mask and costumes which I believe belong to the Umewaka Rokurō family.

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In my view the most striking shot is that of the character of the mother in the play Sumidagawa. I think the picture conveys the sense of estrangement the mother who travelled from Kyoto to Tokyo seeking for her lost child, must have felt. At the same time it reminds me that so many of the beautiful sceneries described in Noh are not that beautiful anymore..

The book closes with a chapter on the local food that Genshō and his companions had the chance to taste on their journey… a typically Japanese note that reminds me of the upper-class elderly woman which represent the target of this kind of publication. Sob.