Shimai pictures – Yashima

I rarely publish pictures of myself on stage. Today I will make an exception as I received some great shots from Massimo Fioravanti, a very talented Italian photographer who has been following Udaka-sensei the past few months, taking pictures of performances and training sessions. Massimo has been working on various projects in Japan. Most notably, he published a photography book on Zuigan-ji in Matsushima, which has been severely damaged by the tsunami, and photographed the costumes collection of the Kongo family on the occasion of the 1989 exhibition at the Sforza Castle in Milan, published in a luscious volume.

In November 2012 Massimo came to Matsuyama where Sensei performed Sesshoseki (nyotai ‘female’ version). Before the performance there was a recital to which various members of the International Noh Institute took part with su-utai chant and shimai dances I did Yashima, which I have already blogged about here and here. Here are a couple of pictures that Massimo has kindly sent me.

Yashima 1
… 海山一同に震動して…

For those new to Noh, a shimai is a short excerpt of a play, something like an aria in opera. Shimai dances are studied independently from the full Noh, and are often performed as complement of a programme featuring full plays. Masks and costumes are not used, but formal montsuki (a plain black or white silk kimono) and hakama – the equivalent of a formal Western suit. There is no hayashi orchestra playing, only a small chorus of four sitting in the back of the stage. A shimai is the adaptation of the dance that would be performed in the full Noh, so movements are slightly different, and props are rarely used. In the case of Yashima the shite holds a sword, here substituted by the fan – the open fan in my left hand is a shield (this is the way it is portrayed in the Noh, too).

Yashima 2
… 打ち合い刺し違ふる…

Publishing pictures of Noh performances is not easy because of copyright issues. I will try and post more pictures of me – if I have decent ones – in the future. Massimo Fioravanti has been taking some amazing pictures of Udaka-sensei’s performances during the past few months and he is planning to hold an exhibition (in Venice and in Rome) and hopefully to publish a catalogue afterwards, which I hope will be available internationally.

War dances in translation

Today I helped Udaka Norishige one of my teacher’s sons, with a Noh workshop at Iori Machiya in Kyoto. I don’t know much about the background of the workshop itself, as I only came upon request of Norishige-sensei, and my only duty was that of interpreting. The group of 18 people who participated to the workshop was mostly composed of Israeli and British citizens. Some of the Israeli participants were actually members of the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv, where director Ninagawa Yukio is currently working on an adaptation of the Trojan Women with a mixed Israeli-Palestinian-Japanese cast. 

At the end of the workshop, which was very well received by the enthusiastic participants (we were flooded with questions!) Udaka Michishige danced a shimai, while Norishige-sensei and I sang as a small chorus. The piece was Yashima, which I also recently performed in Matsuyama.

Yashima ô-kassen (八島大合戦, The Battle of Yashima) by Hayashi-ya Shôgorô

The Noh Yashima (second category, warrior plays) tells the story of the homonymous battle that took place in the late 12th century at Yashima Island, (present Takamatsu City, Kagawa Prefecture). Yashima is one of the most important battles of the Genpei War between the rival Minamoto and Heike clans. In Yashima the ghost of General Minamoto no Yoshitsune appears in front of a travelling monk and re-enacts various phases of the battle. Although the play Yashima is one of the three kachi-shura or ‘winning Noh’ (the other two being Tamura and Ebira), the tone of the play is far from being celebratory of the Minamoto victory. Death and killing is on both sides and as the chorus describes how, end of the battle, warriors scatter away like seagulls, while the ghost of Yoshitsune disappears in white foam, as the wind sweeps the desolate battlefield.

I wanted to write more in this post but I think I have actually said enough. Today I did my best.

Yashima island (image from the Samurai Archives)

Memorising utai: yowagin and tsuyogin

There are two main types of chant in Noh theatre: tsuyogin or ‘strong’, ‘dynamic’ chant and yowagin, or ‘weak’, ‘melodic’ style. As the name suggests, the first is powerful and energetic, while the second is melodic. Tsuyogin emphasises rhythm, while yowagin emphasises melody. In Yashima, the play I am memorising at the moment, tsuyogin is used to describe battle scenes, while yowagin is used to render more poetic descriptions. While yowagin consists of a melody, tsuyogin basically centres on a single tone, pitching up as the phrase progresses, which is then embellished by a number of glides. In my experience, tsuyogin is the hardest type of chant to master.

To the difficulty of chanting well, another problem adds up: that of memorisation. Yowagin melodic chant gives a lot of cues because it follows a recognisable melody. Since we are children we have been taught how to turn sentences or lists of names into little songs in order to memorise better. Same with yowagin. However tsugyogin relies almost entirely on rhythm, and its embellishments do not always follow a predictable pattern. Hence memorisation cannot be helped by melodic cues. In addition, tsuyogin is often chanted fast, as in the narration of a lively action scene.

I don’t know whether this applies to all Noh practitioners, but I find the difference in the effort I have to put in memorising astonishing.