Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Soju Projekt at Sakura Con 2017

On April 16th, Soju Projekt presented Traditional Asian Theater and Music in Anime at Sakura Con 2017. Soju Projekt provides collaborative interactive lectures and performances focusing on storytelling forms from East, Southeast, and South Asia.

Kenneth Lawrence explained the history and aesthetics of Noh and how its influence carries over into modern life and media.

Noh founder and playwright Kan'ami (1333-1384) combined kusemai (dance), daidengaku (field music), and sarugaku (circus-like performance) to create an art form for the samurai class. His son Zeami (1363-1443) continued to refine Noh, eventually becoming known as the Shakespeare of the genre. Today, there are approximately 1,400 Noh plays.

Historically, a Noh performance consisted of five plays with Kyogen (comic interludes) throughout:
  1. God Play 
  2. Warrior Play 
  3. Women or "Wig" Play 
  4. Miscellaneous Plays 
  5. Superhuman Plays 
Though modern Noh performances rarely consist of all five types of plays, they will be presented in order. You might see a God Play (1) and Miscellaneous Play (4) with Kyogen, but you would never see the reverse, like a Miscellaneous Play (4) and then a God Play (1).

The Noh costume is complex cumbersome, requiring at least two dressers to assist the actor. Before going on stage, the actor will sit before three mirrors, gazing at the Noh mask and taking in the essence of the character within before donning it and becoming that character.

Pictured Above: Kumiko Lawrence's father being assisted in dressing before a performance

The ji-utai (chorus/inner-monologue of the main character) sit to right side of the stage while hayashi-kata (musicians) sit to the rear of the stage. Noh instruments include:
  • Shime-daiko (stick drum) This only appears on the Noh stage occasionally. 
  • Kotsuzumi ("wet" drum) The drum heads are made from rice paper that the musician will moisten during the performance to maintain the correct sound. The strings on the sides are tightened as the kotsuzumi is struck. 
  • Otsuzumi (hip drum) The drum heads are dried by a fire before the performance to harden. The otstuzumi musician wears finger coverings to prevent injury. 
  • Shakuhachi (bamboo flute) This instrument has been cut from bamboo, turned inside out, and re-wrapped. Each shakuhachi is purposefully tuned differently.
Noh Aesthetics and Anime

Yūgen - In Noh, profound beauty (yūgen) can be found even in sadness.

Asymmetry - Beauty in imperfection is seen not only in Noh, but in modern Japanese life, as well. Just as the Noh stage is asymmetrical, you'll notice that most buildings in Japan purposefully lack symmetry. Mushi-shi is a heavily Noh-inspired anime with its unpredictability and asymmetry.

Opposites - A Noh actor may can create stillness in motion and tell a story through silence. If the actor is good, the audience will feel that something is about to happen. If an actor is not good, the audience will feel nothing is happening.

Jo-ha-kyu - This is characterized in Noh movement and in storytelling with a slow build, momentum increasing and building up energy, then suddenly releasing that energy. You can see jo-ha-kyu in the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion which starts off slowly and almost light-heartedly, then the momentum picks up and the energy of the story builds and builds before suddenly releasing to the stillness of the final episodes.

5 Centimeters per Second by Makoto Shikai of Your Name fame is another example of the Noh elements of silence, space, and twisting of time.

Kumiko Lawrence demonstrated jo-ha-kyu in the movement of the Noh actor across the stage. Her sliding steps started off slowly before picking up speed and then coming to a sudden halt followed by a turn, slow steps, increased speed, and another halt.

Noh Masks

The play of light and shadows on the carved features of the Noh mask can reveal the character's mood, as demonstrated by Edward Lawrence. The mask can appear happy or hopeful when tilted up and sorrowful or introspective when tilted down.

A female Noh mask depicting shaved eyebrows indicates the woman is married. Interestingly, with the rare exception of movies like Akira Kurosawa's Ran, female characters in movies set during the time when shaved eyebrows or blackened teeth were fashionable won't appear with those physical traits because it is believed that modern women can't relate.
Noh Fans

Depending on the Noh school, there are 16-17 plays about warrior spirits and in 15 of those plays the spirit is on the losing side. If the image on the warrior spirit's fan depicts a rising sun it indicates that they were on the winning side while a setting sun indicates that they were on the losing side.


Kenneth Lawrence provided a dynamic reading from his translation of the famous Noh play, Atsumori. On screen was a sumi-e painting of the central character by Kumiko Lawrence with animation by Edward Kai Lawrence. Music was performed by John and Aaron Chmaj.

Atsumori is based on a true story set during a civil war from 1180-1185. The Heike clan (Taira) who had been in power were being driven from the capital. They had set up a defensive position in Ichi-no-Tani which was protected on either side by mountains and sea. Attacks were held back until Minamoto Yoshitsune of the Genji clan (Minamoto) took inspiration from seeing deer running down the Ichi-no-Tani cliff and lead his men down the same cliff on horseback.  The Heike were taken by surprise and eventually decimated with those who were unable to escape on ships either struck down or committing mass suicide. One such warrior, sixteen-year-old Taira no Atsumori, might have successfully escaped, but he turned back to retrieve his flute and by the time he returned to the shore the ships were too far out at sea. He then engaged in battle with and was killed by Kumagai Naozane. Feeling remorseful over having to kill someone so young, Kumagai finds Atsumori's flute and promises to pray for him, shaving his head and becoming a priest. Some time later he returns to the beach where the battle took place, hearing the sound of a flute and grass cutters passing by. One grass cutter remains behind, asking the priest to pray before suddenly vanishing.  As Kumagai prays, Atsumori appears before him. In Buddhism, all warriors who kill will go to hell, but hell is not necessarily eternal. It is believed that if you pray for or tell the story of a dead warrior sympathetically, their time in hell will decrease and their ghost may be at rest. If you tell their story without sympathy the ghost will wreak havoc. The play concludes with Atsumori deciding between striking Kumagai down in revenge or sympathy and eternal rest.

The presentation concluded with an invitation to the audience to view and hold Noh masks. If you have this opportunity, pick up the mask by the holes on the sides to prevent damage caused by oils from your hands.

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