Noh Experience Necessary: Japanese Theater Brought To Life

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I had such an action-packed summer in Kyoto on the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) program that I still have a ton of pictures and stories to post. One of the best things about CLS was the way it emphasized cultural understanding as well as language training, which manifested in the fact that all of us lived with host families and were often treated to great sightseeing and arts experiences totally free of charge. Actually, somewhat perversely, we sometimes complained about the latter, since we had so much homework to do that the fun activities sometimes seemed… well, just plain tiring.

In any case, thanks to CLS and the Kyoto Consortium for Japanese Studies, I finally got to experience noh, something that had been on my Japan to-do list for quite some time. Noh is a form of classical musical drama that has been performed in Japan since the 14th century; in contrast to kabuki, which was often enjoyed by the lower classes, noh was definitely part of high culture. At one point, commoners were actually forbidden to learn the music and dance of noh, to keep the art form exclusive to the aristocracy. As such, it is highly codified and complex—so much so that I’m afraid I can’t do it full justice here. The most widely recognized symbols of noh are its masks; since all of the roles were traditionally played by male actors, the masks and costumes helped to differentiate between different characters. Here’s a picture of a classic onna-men (female mask) that I saw at the Tokyo National Museum.

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We piled into taxis for the short jaunt from Doshisha University to Ooe Nougakudou (大江能楽堂), where we were treated to a special performance of “Hagoromo,” which translates to  something like “The Feather Mantle.” Before the performance, we were given a piece of literary analysis about the play, which made it sound very complex and profound—probably much more so than I can really appreciate. But basically, the story is about a man who stumbles upon the hagoromo, the magical feather-mantle of a tennin (spirit). The tennin sees him taking it and demands that it be returned, since she can’t return to heaven without it. The fisherman argues with her, striking a bargain: he will return the hagoromo is she will show him her dance. The tennin accepts, and the chorus explains the significance of the dance before she disappears at the conclusion of the play. We only saw a 20-minute chunk of it, during which I took a short video:

After the play, we were taken through the different elements of noh—the movements, the masks, and the costumes. Our hosts explained the various components (in Japanese, of course), and we made fools of ourselves by trying to imitate an art that it takes years to master. But it was all in good fun. Here’s a shot of some of my classmates trying to walk in the traditional noh style (a sort of gliding motion) and imitate the movements performed with folding fans.

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They also explained some of the basic types of masks to us. Apparently, there are over 200 different varieties of masks in use in noh today, but they can be divided in smaller number of basic categories. The-noh.com has a fantastic database of noh masks, complete with pictures and descriptions—I encourage you to check it out. A few students in the program volunteered to model the masks for us. From left to right, you see a hannya (female demon) mask, another onna-men (female mask), and an otoko-men (male mask):

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Noh also uses elaborate costumes to portray the various characters, and we had a chance to try on some of the costumes. The costume below is an example of an intricate outer kimono used to portray women characters; it is said to be modeled after the Chinese brocade of the Ming period.

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It was a nice treat, but I have to confess that I’m not sure that I’ll go to Noh a second time, unless someone else really wants to go and/or pays for me to see it. The text/songs of the plays are such that even native Japanese people have a hard time understanding them; they rely on the fact that most of the tales are familiar ones (an advantage I don’t enjoy). I think I prefer kabuki, where it’s all a bit slapstick, and it’s much easier to understand what’s going on, even if you don’t know any/much Japanese. Maybe I should try kyogen one day—I hear that it’s supposed to be a more humorous version of noh. In any case, it was definitely worth seeing once, and I’m glad that I got to do it in such a personal and interactive fashion!

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