My father asked me this morning about Noh. What kind of theatre is it? Is it like opera at the Metropolitan?
I have never seen opera, and know little about it, but from what little I do know, I would compare it to kabuki. But not Noh. What is Noh like? It took me just a moment, and then I told my father that Noh is less like most other entertainment forms we see in the Western world today – unlike musicals, artsy experimental dramas, unlike ballet or opera, or Shakespeare – and more like traditions of ritual dance and ceremonial theatre from around the world. The shaman puts on a mask, and dances, and the gods or the spirits speak through him. There’s a profound, significant, and serious if not downright sacred element to Noh that goes far beyond entertainment; in fact, it might be argued that Noh isn’t really about entertainment at all.
Whether one chooses to truly believe that the actors are possessed by spirits or gods, that the spirits speak through them, that they channel the gods, or whether one wants to take the more secular attitude, the fact remains that Noh evokes an atmosphere of the spiritual setting, of the metaphysical and supernatural, of a removal from the everyday world, to do more than to entertain, to do more than to tell a story, but to truly create an experience. I am, admittedly, quite fond of the idea of the kabuki theatre – or any theatre – as a playspace, a carnivalspace, a liminal space wherein, for a time, one is removed from the everyday world and placed into a different mindset, a different state of being.
Nevertheless, Noh takes this one step further. Even when we are indoors, in a fully modern and indeed quite new-looking building (like the Kongô Nôgakudô I visited today), we are outdoors. The Noh stage is an independent structure, with a full roof in the traditional style, with roof shingles and all; it is surrounded by pine trees and by an area of stones, evoking the idea of a clearing in a forest where you, the viewer, have happened by chance or by fate upon a manifestation of spirits re-enacting a scene, relating a tale, or simply dancing a dance. It is one thing to simply say this symbolizes this, that symbolizes that, but in Noh, I truly can see it, can feel it. The stage stands in for a forest clearing, the unadorned wooden beams and pillars, and the pine tree painted on the backdrop, standing in for the trees. The musicians are fully visible, onstage, in Noh, unlike in many theatrical forms, and yet even so, it is not so hard to imagine the sounds coming simply from the spirits, from the forest, from the darkness, out of sight. It is a highly ritualized form, far moreso than kabuki and certainly far moreso than modern Western drama, which essentially lacks ritualization entirely; but perhaps it is because it is so ritualized, and so straightforward about being ritual performance (rather than pretending to be real life, with realistic sets, hidden musicians, etc), that one can see the symbols for what they stand in for, rather than for what they are, so easily.
Noh does not necessarily teach us moral lessons; it certainly doesn’t if one doesn’t understand all the words, and few do. But it provides us with a unique spiritual and cultural experience that connects us to that something missing in our modern secular lives; a connection to traditional, culture, and spirituality that makes our lives, our world, have meaning, and have life. You do not need God to have meaning, to have a connection to tradition and culture, and to something deeper and more profound than the corporate, electronic, and largely secular, scientific rational modern-day lives we all lead; you do not need Buddha or Hachiman either. Just spirituality, spiritual feeling. A connection to the idea that there is something more beyond the physical plane, something more beyond the present, something more beyond the people and things we see in front of us.
You do not have to believe that a tree genuinely has feelings and a personality, that it genuinely truly manifests as an old man seeking a boat ride to Takasago to meet with an old woman (the spirit of another tree). But in order for our world to not be sterile, cold, meaningless and devoid of feeling, we must imagine a tree to be more than just chlorophyll and cellulose, more than cell walls and a mindless, emotionless, meaningless drive to convert sunlight into energy and nutrients into wood and leaves and flowers, to grow. We must believe that a tree is more than that, and that it might mean something to compose a poem for a tree; that the tree might respond in some fashion.
I enjoyed a lengthy and diverse series of performances today by members of the International Noh Institute, held at the Kongô Noh Theatre on Karasuma-doori, just across the street from the Imperial Palace, here in Kyoto. I don’t think I have ever seen so many plays or dances performed in one program before – it was a wonderful opportunity to get a taste of what Noh has to offer – and I know I did not ever appreciate Noh as much before as I did today. Much thanks to Diego Pellecchia (whose excellent blog on Noh can be found here as well as on the blogroll to the right) for letting me know about this event, and to him, Udaka Michishige-sensei and everyone else at the Institute for, not only their superb performances, but for inviting and welcoming outsiders such as myself to your special dinner tonight.
Udaka Michishige comes from a long line of Noh actors stretching back into the Edo period, if not earlier. This weekend he celebrates the 50th anniversary of his stage debut. More performances will be taking place tomorrow (Sun Jun 13) in honor of this event. Udaka-sensei continues to not only perform professionally himself, but to take on both Japanese and foreign students, promoting and spreading Noh around the globe, and providing opportunities for foreigners, and for women, to perform onstage where (please correct me if I am wrong) many other sensei, or other Schools of Noh, would not.
I look forward to seeing more Noh this summer. Next time, I think I will bring a copy of the text.