Swanica explores Japan

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Noh theater played on the grounds in the open air of the Zojoji temple in Tokyo.

The early origins of Noh theater were mostly folk-type forms of rustic entertainment.
In 1375, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the powerful dynastic shogun and ruler of all Japan, experienced an early form of Noh performed by Kanami Kiyotsugu and his twelve year old son Zeami Motokiyo. It is due to Yoshimitsu's patronage and interest in early Noh that this dramatic form was able to develop into the highly refined, serene theater.
Zeami, a dramatist, is the prime figure in Noh, having written 100 of the 204 plays, many of which are still regularly performed to this day. He also wrote a very famous treatise in 1423 on the skills and methods necessary for a Noh actor, and that document is still valid study for young actors. What Zeami, inspired by his father, managed to create, was a theater of the Muromachi period (1336-1573), written in the upper-class language of the fourteenth century, but which looked back to the supposed Golden Age of the Heian Period (794-1185), by basing plays on people, events and even poetry of that era creating texts of astonishing richness and opacity. Noh exists today in a form almost unchanged since Zeami's day.

One of the blessings before and for the Noh plays.
The blessings were half an hour long.

Three priests accompanied the blessings on their instruments: very interesting sounds.

One of the most striking aspects of the Noh is that the shite, the main actor, may wear a mask, as may his companions, or tsure. This occurs when the main character is an old man, a youth, a woman, or a supernatural character. Tsure accompany the shite in certain plays, and if they represent one of these groups, they will also be masked, but the shite will not wear a mask if his character is an adult male.

Masks are carved from wood, often cedar, which is then painted, and include some of the most moving works of sculptural art in Japan, The masks are carved in a subtle way, so that with small changes of inclination they appear to show different emotions.

This is the mask from Yo-Kihi "Yang Kuei-fei".
The emperor is mourning her dead and a magician brings proof of her being on a magic island by a bejewelled hair ornament and then the magician/Yo-Kihi dances for the emperor.

The bejewelled hair ornament.

The magician/Yo-Kihi dances.

The other ubiquitous prop is the fan, which in a symbolic theater such as Noh, can represent all manner of other objects, such as bottles, swords, pipes, letters walking sticks and so on.

The costumes are adaptations of those of the 15th century. Some, particularly those of characters representing the nobility, are sumptuous, with gold and silver thread

The play will be performed on a stage open on three sides, and a pine tree behind. A sort of walkway, called the hashigakari leads onto the stage right position from an entrance doorway at right angles to the backboard. Along the hashigakari are three small pine trees, and these define areas where the actor may pause to deliver lines, before arriving on the main roofed stage, which is about six metres square.

One of the small pine trees.

Ranged along in front of the back is a group of musicians whose instruments include a flute, a shoulder drum, a hip drum and sometimes a stick drum. The musicians are responsible for the otherworldly, strange music which accompanies dance and recitation alike. At the right angles to the back, there is the chorus of eight to twelve chanters arranged in two rows and it is their job to take over the narration of the story, or the lines of the main character if he is engaged in a dance. These elements all contribute to a cohesive whole which creates a richly textured background against which the play is enacted, and since no scenery, few props and only a small cast appears, the imagination of the audience is left to roam freely.

In general, Japanese Noh plays are not very dramatic, although they are beautiful, since the text is full of poetical allusions and the dances, though slow, are extremely elegant. It is this very beauty which makes Noh a living art form still, over six hundred years after it developed.

This represents a magical lion in the last play, who dances among peony flowers before a stone bridge, which leads to a paradise.

Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take pictures during the performance. Those are photos from a brochure.


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