Friday, February 13, 2009

Noh: Pathos Behind the Mask

On Thursday, February 12th, I was privileged to attend a rare lecture and performance of Noh by members of the Kanze School of Noh in Kyoto, Japan. The performance took place at the Seattle Asian Art Museum and was co-presented by the Japan Foundation and the JACCC.

Before the performance, principal actor Shizuka Mikata provided an insightful and entertaining lecture on the history and most important elements of Noh.

A Short History of Noh
Noh has been the theater of the ruling class for hundreds of years. It originated as sarugaku, (the kanji characters meaning monkey dance) in the 11th century. Until the late 14th century, sarugaku actors, like most other performers of the time, were viewed as one of the lowest class. Then, in 1375, the young shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu attended a performance by the actor Kan’ami and his skilled 11-year old son, Zeami. Yoshimitsu immediately fell in love with the theater and with Zeami’s performance. Yoshimitsu adopted Zeami and brought him back to court where he became the court playwright. Zeami is credited with writing approximately 25 plays, many of which are still performed today, and in 1385 he gave this theater form the name, Noh. Zeami also created many of the strict standards of performance, still held by Noh actors today.

Stage Elements of Noh
The principal actor in a Noh drama wears an elaborate costume, including the iconic mask. In this case, a Jyuroku mask is used, meaning it is the mask of a 16-year old man. The emotion of the character can be conveyed by stance, where sadness is presented when the mask turns downward. The waka, or side character wears simple, formal Noh kimono with no makeup or mask. Movements are often slow and formal with sliding feet, turns, and stomps depicting both movement and emotion. Sleeves and sensu (fan) are also used to tell the story with movement as well as decoration. The fan used by Atsumori featured a setting sun which might depict the decline of the Heike. By sweeping the fan horizontally, Atsumori is able to describe his clansmen escaping to the boats offshore. Dialogue is presented in chant that has a musical quality of its own. The actors are joined on stage by musicians playing fue (flute), kotsuzumi (small hand drum), and otsuzumi (large hand drum). For this performance, Mikata and Wakebayashi are supported by Manabu Takeichi (fue), Ichiro Kichisaka (kotsuzumi), and Masaru Kawamura (otsuzumi). It was interesting to learn that Takeichi’s fue had been smoke-aged for 100 years which I believe gives it the distinctive black color. The fue has a scale unique to Noh. The kotsuzumi has 3 unique tones than can be reached by gripping on the side of the drum to tighten them. Due to the nature of the material used on the drum heads, it will be used in approximately 30 performances before it must be discarded. The otsuzumi is made of a thicker material and is heated for 2 hours before the performance to achieve a hardness similar to a steel plate. The performer wears caps over his fingers to strike the right tone. The otsuzumi can be quite painful to play because it really is similar to striking your finger repeatedly against a steel plate.

The Story of Atsumori
The Noh drama, Atsumori, is taken from the Heike Monogatari (The Tale of the Heike). In the 12th century, two clans, Genji and Heike, fought for control of Japan. The Noh drama, Atsumori, tells the story of the Heike General, Kumagai, who came across the young noble, Atsumori, on the Ichi no tani beach. The Genji warriors had been sorely beaten and the surviving warriors were fleeing on boats. Atsumori had not been able reach the departing boats and was forced to turn and fight. Kumagai easily overpowered Atsumori, but when he realized he was fighting a 17-year old who reminded him very much of his own son of the same age, he was reluctant to strike the final blow. Unfortunately, Kumagai knew his men were closing in and would kill the boy themselves with less pity, so he beheaded Atsumori, himself. Shortly later, Kumagai was informed of Atsumori’s identity and realized the young noble was most likely the source of the flute music he had heard coming from the Heike camp the evening before the battle. Eventually, his guilt drove Kumagai to give up his warrior life and take on the mantle of a priest and the name Rensei, who spends his remaining years praying for Atsumori’s soul.

During a pilgrimage, Rensei returns to the shores of Ichi no tani where he comes across the spirit of Atsumori. Atsumori’s vengeance is great and he intends to strike down Rensei but, when he realizes that over all this time Rensei has been praying for his soul, he forgives him and is finally able to move on.

As the principal actor, or shite, Shizuka Mikata performs the role of Atsumori’s vengeful spirit. Michiharu Wakebayashi performs as Rensei, the side character, or waki. The performance at the Seattle Asian Art Museum was the 30 minute climax of the drama which typically runs 1 ½ hours in length. In this segment, Rensei is praying for Atsumori on the shores of Ichi no tani when Atsumori’s spirit appears. Atsumori describes his encounter with and death at the hands of Kumagai and moves to attack Rensei, but Rensei never falters in his prayers and Atsumori is so moved by this that he drops his sword and begs Rensei to continue to pray for his soul.

Last Thoughts
I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend this performance. You could really feel the audience reacting to the emotions of the characters as well as the music, though everyone remained silent throughout. Mikata has an excellent speaking voice and presents himself in a manner that really made the audience, myself included, pay close attention even when a large percentage of us needed the assistance of a translation. I’m a fan of Kabuki which is a more “active” form of theater, so I was unsure of how well this performance would hold my interest. The movements and music were so striking, I had no need to worry. I couldn’t take my eyes off the stage! Also, I had the opportunity to see the Kabuki play, Kumagai Jinya from 'Ichinotani Futaba Gunki' a year ago. This play was first produced for the puppet theater and is based of the Tale of Heike, featuring the same characters as the Noh drama, Atsumori, though the Kabuki play takes an interesting twist on the original story. It was a special surprise to see this story presented in another theater style. Thank you to those involved for making bringing this event together!

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