Archive for the ‘お能’ Category

I’ve added a new link to the Theatre section over there on the right. Much thanks to Prof. K. Saltzman-Li for introducing us to this list of available translations of Noh plays, and to Michael Watson of Meiji Gakuin for compiling and maintaining it. The list includes all 253 plays in the active repertoire, plus a handful more. A powerful resource for anyone who has ever struggled to figure out which plays are available in translation, and where to find them.

And, though the interface is quite plain – it really is little more than a pageful of text, with some links – it’s actually a wonderfully useful resource. Not only does it have the list of translations of a play, but gives some of the basic information about each play – presumed author, schools actively performing it, and the category of the play – as well as, in some cases, a bit more commentary or links to secondary sources discussing the work. If even for nothing else at all, just having such a complete list, easily skimmable in romaji, is a great thing to have.

Watson also provides links to:

(1) an extensive bibliography of Premodern Japanese Texts and Translations, including many writings about Noh by Zeami, Zenchiku, and the like, along with numerous other works, from Muromachi monogatari to poetry collections, diaries, and histories.

(2) The UTAHI Hangyō bunko (半魚文庫) website (all in Japanese), which has pure text transcriptions of over 300 Noh plays.

Below: the stage at the National Noh Theatre in Sendagaya, Tokyo. I think. Please correct me if I’m mistaken. Photo my own.

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After hearing about Theatre of Yugen for so long, I have finally had the pleasure of attending one of their performances. The group, based in San Francisco’s Mission District, is one of the premier groups in the US producing and performing contemporary/fusion pieces grounded in, based on, built around, the aesthetics, techniques, etc. of the Japanese traditional drama forms of Noh and Kyogen.

After watching and enjoying their “A Minor Cycle: Five Little Plays in One Starry Night” (written by the Philadelphia-based Greg Giovanni), I find I have a great deal to say, as usual, but I feel at the same time hesitant. It is one thing to write for a general audience, for whomever should stumble upon this humble blog, and who should be interested in musings of a random individual such as myself; it is quite another to write commenting on, reviewing, something in which a close friend was closely involved, and knowing that members of the troupe may come across this and read it. It is one thing to speak of Theatre of Yugen, letting others know about them, and encouraging them to go see Yugen productions, and to be interested in Japanese(-inspired) theater. It is quite another to write to, for, the troupe themselves, praising or criticizing (even if almost exclusively the former) and otherwise analyzing or simply commenting upon their production.

There is so much to say, and yet I am hesitant to say anything at all. Well, but I suppose I must say something. I must, at least, record my thoughts and impressions, if for no one else, then for myself. And if others, if members of the troupe, should happen to see this, then so be it, I suppose. Shô ga nai.

The Minor Cycle is a series of five short plays, retelling traditional stories such as that of Sir George & the Dragon, or of an episode from CS Lewis’ Prince Caspian, set within the framing device of a series of songs sung by the characters Mr. and Mrs. Darling – the parents of Wendy, John, and Michael Darling, who have flown off with that Pan boy. This sets the tone of a theme of Edwardian England, of traditional children’s stories. Small, brightly colored kids’ chairs, hint at the idea of a nursery, that is, of all five of these stories taking place as just that, stories, within a children’s book.

I could go on to detail numerous aspects of the production, commenting on everything from the choice of this prop to the style of that interpretation, but I think that will just end up getting long, listy, and tedious. To sort of summarize, then, let me just say this – all too often, we see performances which come as a result of a mere dabbling in drawing upon these forms without a true understanding of Noh, or kyogen, of their philosophies, aesthetics, and traditions, and without true skill and experience in the techniques and forms. These pieces end up feeling too experimental, and more to the point, the sense of a lack, of a failing, is palpable. Such is not at all the case with Theatre of Yugen. The expertise, the authenticity of the knowledge, technique, talent, of all involved is clear throughout the production, in everything from voice and movement, to costume, props, and set pieces, to the structure and themes of each piece. From the makeup and costumes, to voice and movement, nothing feels like they “got it wrong.” Nothing here is Chinese or Korean or just plain mistaken – everything comes across as a well-informed, expert choice, whether it’s in Edwardian-esque costuming that perfectly recalls the silhouette or form otherwise of traditional Noh/kyogen/kabuki kimono; in the reference to the subjectivity of time – a moth lives but one season, but for the moth, that one season is an entire lifetime; in the careful, expert position of the performer’s hands, and motion of their feet, as they cross the stage in precisely authentic Noh fashion, regardless of the Western storybook character they are playing; or in the lilting tones of the performers’ chants, recited in English, and telling an English tale, but reproducing quite well the distinctive sounds of Noh, kyogen, or kabuki, conveying to the audience the specific aesthetic of each of these forms, not as a blending or a mish-mash, but authentically. The first piece, in particular, relating an encounter between Queen Lucy of Narnia and a magician on an isle of invisible creatures, feels less like a modern/contemporary piece concocted by American performers experimenting with Japanese forms, and more like a genuine, authentic Kyogen that might have existed if the traditional repertoire included classic stories of British children’s literature. For the uninitiated spectator, it most likely feels quite experimental, bizarre, and “modern” or “artsy”, but it is initiating them not into wacky, bizarre, experimental theatre so much as it is providing an initiation into elements of traditional Japanese theatre. It may seem wacky, bizarre, and experimental to some, but to those more familiar with Japanese theatre, there is an element of authenticity, of genuineness in not only technique or style, but in theme and philosophy as well, that comes through quite clearly, and personally, though it may perhaps be an odd priority to have, for me, this makes all the difference, and is the crucial foundation for an enjoyable, meaningful, piece.

Also, though I feel I am having some trouble articulating it, there is something important in this in that the main thrust is in the story, and in the style/technique/form/mode itself, and not the act, the experiment, of the fusion, the creation, the invention. For modern(ist) artists, it is not the end result that is the key to their art, but the concept behind it, the act of defiance, of experiment. For Magritte or Duchamp, it is not the final result, the painting of the pipe labeled “This is Not a Pipe,” or the porcelain urinal labeled “Fountain,” in its color or texture, in its aesthetics – least of all in the fine craftsmanship and technique of its production – that matters, but instead, the focus is in this question of ‘what is art’? This may seem quite deep, deeper conceptually than a Rembrandt, but in its effort to be conceptual, experimental, a-traditional, or anti-traditional, it is actually quite frivolous and superficial, even nonsensical. It lacks the depth of tradition, of skill, of refined technique, of deep, strong connection to a traditional historical cultural context, possessed by someone like Rembrandt, or better yet, someone like Wen Zhengming or Zhao Mengfu, emulating the ancients. For traditional Noh and kyogen performers, for professional kabuki actors, the myriad of elements of style, technique, and form of traditional theatre is not an experiment; it is not something cherry-picked or dabbled in, played around with, gamed, but rather something one devotes oneself to, practicing and refining one’s connection to a deep and strong tradition. The same, it seems, goes for Theatre of Yugen as well. The Noh or kyogen elements in Theatre of Yugen do not seem tacked on, or mixed-in, but are fundamental. While many other contemporary theatre companies are like Robert Rauschenberg, picking up all sorts of things and throwing them together to create a thoroughly modernist, experimental, assemblage, Yugen is more like Xu Bing, someone deeply and thoroughly trained in, expert in, and philosophically devoted to, an artistic tradition, drawing upon that tradition to create something decidedly new and untraditional, but which nevertheless does not stand opposed to, nor is in any way disrespectful to or dismissive of, that tradition.

All that said, I find it interesting that the Theatre of Yugen (best as I gather) produces/performs not traditional pieces, but chiefly new compositions, and quite often, Western/fusion pieces. How does one practice Noh or kyogen truly, authentically, without practicing and performing traditional pieces in the traditional manner? How does one maintain the authentic technique of someone skilled, experienced, well-practiced in the traditional form, without it transforming into something very different, some Theatre of Yugen style that rings untrue? A formal certificate hanging in the lobby and signed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs supports the idea that they are doing something right, that what they are doing is authentic and traditional to some significant degree, and some, if not all, members of the company do have experience practicing, training, with genuine traditional masters in Japan. But, still, I wonder.

If the following goes against the intentions, philosophy, or desires of the founders/leaders of Yugen, my sincere apologies, but what a thing it would be, to see them perform not in a black box theatre, reminiscent of the experimental and modernist, but on a proper Noh stage, possibly welcoming masters from Japan, doing training workshops, practices, and performances of traditional pieces, in addition to the occasional contemporary American creation. How I would love to see something like that, and, even, to become involved and to take part.

I have gotten off-topic here, towards the end, but I suppose, by way of a conclusion, “A Minor Cycle” was powerful, beautiful, fun but also intellectually stimulating, and managed to incorporate Edwardian English stories into something that nevertheless rings true as, on some level, genuine and authentic to the traditions, aesthetics, techniques, philosophies, of Noh, kyôgen, and kabuki. I regret that I do not currently live in a city where I can be surrounded by, let alone more directly involved in / connected with, such cultural activity, more regularly, and I eagerly look forward to seeing the Theatre of Yugen again.

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Thanks much as always to Mr. Mark Frey of the JETAANC Kabuki Club for the updates on Kabuki news, which I can then pass on to all of you, faithful readers.

Firstly, the big news this month is that popular film/TV actor Kagawa Teruyuki has joined the ranks of the Ichikawa family of kabuki actors, taking on the name Ichikawa Chûsha IX.

Ichikawa Chûsha (Kagawa Teruyuki, left), with his father, Ichikawa En’ô (formerly Ennosuke, right). Image from Asahi Shimbun.

After his parents divorced when he was young, he had very little contact with his father, the famous kabuki actor Ichikawa Ennosuke III, who has now taken the name Ichikawa En’ô II. En’ô is famous as a master of keren (stage special effects), including chûnori (wirework, flying out over the audience), and as the pioneer of Super Kabuki, which employs such special effects, as well as lighting, makeup, and other elements in a truly over-the-top manner. The 72-year-old En’ô has not been seen onstage in eight years, due to medical problems, and Kagawa has stated that while he had considered simply sending his son to become a kabuki actor in order to continue the lineage, with En’ô ill, he felt it better that he go as well, to do his duty to the family. Duty to the family, and the obligation to perform if born into a kabuki family, seem major elements of the life of a kabuki actor; but the impression I get from news articles is that Kagawa does not feel forced into doing this, so much as that he is choosing to do this, and that it feels right. In one article from the Asahi Shimbun, he speaks of a “sense of mission,” and of feeling right in the makeup, saying that “When my father applied stage makeup on my face for the first time, I thought, ‘Hey, you are 40 years too late,’” and that “it feels as if this were all a grand scheme for fathers and sons to be reunited.” In an article in the Mainichi Shimbun, he says “I think it’s destiny. I’m keeping the promise made when I was born into this family.”

Left: Kagawa Teruyuki, out of kabuki makeup. Photo from wiki.d-addicts.com DramaWiki.
Kagawa has played roles in numerous TV dramas, including Mr. Brain, Kômyô ga Tsuji, and Ryômaden, and many films, from Tales of Earthsea and Sukiyaki Western Django to the 20th Century Boys trilogy and Tokyo Sonata. His son, 8-year-old Kagawa Masaaki, has taken the stage name Ichikawa Danko V, while a cousin has followed in his uncle’s footsteps, becoming the fourth Ennosuke.

A news post on Kabuki-bito.jp (the official website of professional kabuki) has some great pictures from the name-taking ceremony & performances.

Some other news articles covering the topic, though the information overlaps a lot:
*Actor Kagawa debuts in Kabuki, succeeds Ichikawa Chusha (Kyodo News)
*At 46, actor continues in father’s kabuki footsteps (Japan Times)
*Actor Kagawa debuts in Kabuki, succeeds Ichikawa Chusha (Mainichi)
*Kabuki actors get new names while movie star makes debut (Asahi)

I have myself never yet had the fortune of attending a shûmei (襲名, “name succession”) performance, with its accompanying kôjô (口上, “stage announcement”), but it seems a rather special occasion. It goes beyond simply going to see a play, but is an important moment in kabuki history – in the careers of these actors, and of their families and lineages. As the actors appear on stage making the formal announcement of their new names, and congratulating one another, one gets a glimpse into their relationships, and their world. I would love, one day, to attend such an event, and to be able to say afterwards that I was there when so-and-so the fourth became so-and-so the third, or whatever it may be.

Meanwhile, a friend who I know from the University of Hawaii has posted a brief review of his experience in the Kyoto-based Traditional Theatre Training program (TTT).

It is a three-week program offered every summer in which participants are given the opportunity to train intensively in either Noh, Kyôgen, or Nihon Buyô. (I had thought that it was one week per form, but actually it’s a full three weeks in one form of your choice – much nicer.) And, apparently, many of the teachers speak excellent English, so a high level of Japanese language ability is not required. Personally, I’d rather train more explicitly in kabuki, including voice, stage fighting, mie poses, acting, and not just in the dance form kabuki employs / draws upon. But, nevertheless, this seems like an amazing experience. You get to train with Kyoto-based masters, in genuine traditional performing spaces in Kyoto, including the Ôe Nôgakudô (Ôe Noh Theatre) which I got to visit briefly when I was in Kyoto two summers ago, and, you get to be in Kyoto. I’m sure the program is quite intense, but, whatever time you might find in the evenings, weekends, or before or after the program, you’ll be in Kyoto already! Lots to see and do and enjoy, in what is quite possibly my favorite city in the world.

The classes are very small, which means it’s intimate and you get more attention, I’m sure, and, I get the impression that demand (surprisingly) is low enough that it might not be too competitive getting in. (If anyone knows different, let me know.) The program is also surprisingly cheap, this current summer costing only 50,000 yen for students in tuition & fees (or 70,000 if you’re not a student or practicing artist). Airfare, housing, and living expenses are extra, I’m sure, but even so, I don’t think I have ever heard of another program that is so inexpensive in its tuition and fees. The 10-week language program I attended in Kyoto two years ago cost around $4000 for the summer.

So, if you’re interested in Japanese traditional theatre, and especially if you happen to already be in Kyoto (or elsewhere in Japan) and can therefore save on airfare & housing, check out the TTT program. I hope to take part myself sometime in the next few years.

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A few posts ago I mentioned that there was “a Noh performance I saw years ago in London, something very much modern and Western and experimental and whatever, but drawing upon Noh,” and that I would re-post what I had written about it at the time. Here it is (my new comments from today in italics):

June 15, 2007

I met up with a friend for a play – I’m at a loss for the proper words to describe it, but independent post-modern highly artistic English-language rewrite of a classic Noh play ought to cover it. It was actually really cool.

The play is about a samurai retainer, named Nakamitsu, who is ordered by his lord (Mitsunaka) to kill his lord’s son, Bujio. Bujio had been sent to a monastery to learn and to become a wise, educated, and deserving heir, but instead he lazed around and did not study. Out of anger, therefore, his father orders him killed. However, Bujio’s retainer feels it his duty to sacrifice himself in his lord’s place; this retainer is Nakamitsu’s son Kuchio. So now Nakamitsu must choose between Kuchio and Bujio, whether to kill his lord’s son, or his own.

I’ve never heard of Nakamitsu as a traditional play, though searching for “Nakamitsu Noh”, that is, 『仲光 能』, in Google in Japanese does seem to yield quite a number of references to it. Even if it is a traditional play – and the core of the plot certainly makes it seem it could be – I have to wonder how much has been changed. Bujio and Kuchio do not sound to me like normal Japanese names, and the idea of having Nakamitsu’s father be Mitsunaka also seems a Western contrivance.

Having heard that it was an English version of a classic play, I was expecting something much more traditional. It was far from that, but it was nevertheless wonderful. There was something of a preshow while people found their seats – quite disturbing really, essentially two of the actors doing a strip-show right down to their thong underwear. I suppose it was meant to set the scene as being a strip club or something, because a number of gangsters then burst in, shouting in Japanese. One pulls a gun on a second man, and the third begs that he be shot instead, his friend spared. The two argue for some time over who should be the one to die, to sacrifice themselves in order to save their friend/colleague.

Everyone changes into traditional robes, and the play begins in earnest… relating this tale of Nakamitsu. It was very artistic, using colored swaths of fabric to represent different things, and even at one point to move the very ground under a character, as the cloth is pulled out from under him. The stage was like a fashion runway (a long strip of stage, with audience on either side, not a traditional/standard theatrical space at all), which was strange, but actually worked out really well, as there were only two rows of audience on either side of this strip – it made you get really enraptured into the atmsophere of the play. A painted pine tree stood at one end of the stage – a traditional essential element of Noh, to represent the Shinto aspects of spirit and power in nature, as well as the unreal, spiritual nature of the events being depicted and the eternal and the universal as well. A small but fantastically versatile set of exotic (traditional non-Japanese, and non-Western) musical instruments sat at the other end, played by whichever actors were not on stage at a given time. – The actors were quite versatile too.

One of the instruments was kind of like a kettle drum, like two giant gongs or woks stuck together, and with large dimples in it like a kettle drum. I am really curious what this was, and what culture it might come from. It was played masterfully with gentle taps of the hand or fingers, and resonated long enough that the sound of each tap blended with previous taps to form a sound which resembled or emulated a full set of instruments – like playing one violin or guitar or drum or whatever and having it sound like five.

The instrument, as I learned shortly afterwards, is called a hang. It seems like it would be a traditional instrument from somewhere in Southeast Asia perhaps, based on its sound, but was apparently developed quite recently by a group based in Switzerland. They only produce a very limited number of them, and the process of ordering is extremely difficult, as I understand it. Which is a terrible shame, because if it were a traditional instrument, well, even gamelan instruments or shamisen are not that hard to come by. Also, interestingly, I’ve seen/heard people playing them several times in London, e.g. just hanging out in the park or at a flea market, playing, and yet have never seen the instrument in New York or Japan. You’d think if it was some new age newly hip thing, and if some random middle class white kids in London could get their hands on one, then Americans or Japanese would have too…. Maybe it’s just about the prohibitive costs of flying to Switzerland to visit the studio in person, which is apparently a necessary part of the purchasing process.

Wow, there was just so much to it to talk about. The adoption of the Noh techniques of self-narration: characters saying “He pulls his sword, and prepares to kill his only son.” rather than simply speaking lines or having a separate narrator. The Noh technique of walking a few steps, and through narration and symbolic movements, representing the journey of many miles. The intensity of their performance – all the men were completely covered in sweat by the end. The very warrior-like and manly dance number at the end – a lot of very strong movements and “hoo hah” sort of vocalizations, more like a karate kata than a dance, I suppose, but bordering indeed on the kind of artistic symbolic meaning of interpretive dance.

Overall, certainly one of those artsy productions that not everyone will “get” and not everyone will like. But Julia and I definitely enjoyed.

I would love to see it again. Wish it were going to be performed again, here, or in New York, or somewhere (and somewhen) I might be able to catch it.

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A number of my friends in the Theatre department put together and performed “Asian fusion one-acts” this week, as a final project for their graduate-level course in Asian Directing. I was somewhat hesitant to write anything about it, because I’m afraid of them reading this, and my being critical. But, really, there’s hardly anything to be critical of. Some of these scenes – original pieces, written and directed by the Directing students as I understand it, and starring many of my friends – were really incredible. With a little tweaking, they could (and should!), I think, be seen elsewhere.

First, let me talk about “IF”, directed by Jillian Blakkan-Strauss. It is an adaptation of the Pandora legend, drawing heavily upon Butoh. Michelle Boudreau as Pandora, blindfolded, is attacked and subdued by three “evils” – Erin Chung, Danny Randerson, and Yining Lin dressed & made-up head to toe in white, crawling, creeping, gyrating, and otherwise moving along in a rather disturbing and very Butoh fashion. They tear black garbage bags, and ultimately cover Pandora in them, while Hope, played by Jasmine Yep, super cute, innocent, playful and happy in pigtails, smiles and blows bubbles.

Zeus (Lavour Addison) emerges, in all black but with a glinting metal crown of leaves and a (Indonesian-style?) mask, his dance, in the traditional Indonesian topeng style, a sort of ritual or spell pulling the evils back into the box. By now they’ve infiltrated the audience, climbing under legs and over chairs, terrorizing the audience members. I was glad to see that my friends from the Art dept class in Performance Art had joined us in the audience for this one.

Zeus frees Pandora, but if I recall correctly, it ends in the end with the evils escaping once more, and locking Pandora in the box, with Hope.

In terms of analysis or “review,” I’m not quite sure what to say, except that it was expertly performed and very well conceived and put together. I do not know how the assignment was articulated, but if it was along the lines of simply adapting Asian performance traditions to a new and different performance, this was brilliant, and worked very well.
I sadly do not remember what kind of music was used, but it fit quite well. The butoh movements and costume for the evils was a brilliant touch, and while I had never heard of, let alone seen, topeng before, its ritualized movements worked quite well for the character of Zeus, and for his divine magical act of pulling the evils back into their box. Though these Indonesian movements are of course totally foreign to the ancient Greek setting, they worked very well for Pandora (Michelle) as well, helping both characters to embody or exude a feeling of ritual, of magic, of myth really – even if not truly a “Greek” sort of flavor, nevertheless, an element that really ensured the feeling that this was a mythic setting, an allegory, featuring gods or legends.

The piece was, of course, very experimental and modernist in flavor, and would likely fit better in a Fringe Festival or the like than an “Asian theatre” event, but no matter… it was absorbing and powerful. I wish I had photos or, better yet, video, to share with you, because otherwise I’m not sure there’s much to be gleaned no matter how many words I write out. (At this point, I guess in a way it’s more just for me, then, isn’t it, this whole exercise…)

Next, Dalang Govang, the Spirit Dalang, directed by Annie Reynolds. I don’t know that I’ve ever really seen Indonesian theatre before, so this was quite a treat. I have been to gamelan concerts, and have seen dances, but this went a step further, with narration, wayang kulit shadow puppets, and live action performance.

Unlike the other pieces, this didn’t seem so much an Asian fusion of different styles and modes, or an adaptation of a mode to a story foreign to it. Perhaps there was something I missed – that it’s a Northern Bali story normally not set to puppets, being performed with Southern Bali movement techniques or something like that. In any case, it was quite enjoyable.

There’s something about gamelan music that I find quite relaxing and meditative. It draws you in to its world, a world of distinctively Indonesian flavor, something only enhanced by the distinctively Indonesian puppets, dance movements, and masks. I Made Widana did an excellent job not only as drummer and chanter, but as the village elder of the neighboring village, his bent back and movements combining with the carved wooden “old man” mask to make him really seem the character, while Desiree Seguritan as the young priestess & dalang (puppeteer/storyteller) likewise, through her dance and mask, really embodied the character wonderfully. The masks remind me of Noh somewhat, in how they are (in the case of the dalang’s, at least; not so much the old man’s) smaller than the actor’s face, and of course in how they don’t change expression or move, but still somehow manage to express everything that needs to be expressed. The movements, also, not an actual dance performance, but rather, a sort of “living in dance,” in which the actors, in everything they do, even in standing still, are constantly dancing, slowly, gently, quietly. Much like the movements in Jillian’s piece (drawn from the same topeng tradition), these really helped place the story into a sort of mythic, or at least “magical realism” sort of context.

Even just the gamelan alone was a real pleasure; to experience an entire theatre form so different from what I’m used to, and which so pulls you in to its world of music, shadow puppets, and movements, its world of a very particular distinct flavor, was really wonderful.


Evelyn Leung’s piece “Act I, Scene IV” was an adaption of the story of Snow White, drawing considerably from Noh and Kabuki, and with a major twist. I appreciated the title, a reference to the practice current in kabuki of performing only select scenes from a play – though they do sometimes perform a play in its entirety, more often than not, only certain popular scenes are performed, while other scenes from that play are performed only rarely, or have dropped out of the repertoire entirely.

The play opens with the Queen (Dani Belvin), in a black kimono, providing exposition, about how her daughter, so beautiful with her raven hair, pale white skin, and red red lips, is a demon who has killed her husband. The kabuki & Noh movements throughout this piece were wonderfully done, the Queen gesturing with her fan and using it as stand-in for any number of objects. A large mirror stands to the side; she asks it to reveal the true nature of her daughter, and a koken (stagehand) pulls a black curtain to reveal Snow White (Michelle Boudreau) behind it – a marvelous stage effect. She dances and gestures behind the empty mirror frame, seeming from the point of view of the audience to be appearing within the magical mirror.

The rock music theme for the Queen gives way to a light, fun sort of musical theme as Snow White smiles cutely and dances slowly in a sparkling white furisode, gesturing with her fan, which she uses to good effect to represent a light snowfall in the way it would be done in Nihon Buyô. … The music turns angry, as she lets down her hair into a snakelike braid and puts on a hannya mask, becoming the yuki-onna. She points her fan straight ahead as she steps forward out of the mirror, as demons or perhaps madwomen do in Noh, not entirely unlike Sadako in The Ring, a gesture which, especially in the Noh tradition, comes across as quite frightening, powerful and direct. She attacks the Queen and then exits having done no harm – perhaps she was only a spirit, and not truly present?

The Queen sends the Hunter after the girl, the twist in the plot culminating as the scene plays out not all that differently from how it normally does, despite the reversed good/evil dynamic in this adaptation. The Hunter goes after the girl, who stops him, spinning a purple Japanese umbrella which, pointed towards the audience, conceals the two as she comes in for the kill, kissing him and breathing frost into his lungs as the Yuki-onna is wont to do.

The modern music blends perfectly with the experimental/modernist feel of the exercise, not jarring at all against the traditional costumes and movements; Evelyn pulls movements from Noh, kabuki, and buyô – especially in terms of the use of the fan – very, very well, and her actors perform them well, in everything from the indication of the snow fall, to the queen’s gestures as she talks about and points to the girl’s raven black hair and red red lips, to the rather disturbing way the demon very purposefully walks forward out of the mirror.

The final performance I’ll talk about – listed in no particular order, by the way, as some of these were performed tonight, and some a few days ago – was arranged (written) and directed by Nick Ish, based on the story of Kaguya-hime.

Nick’s show was full of tons of inside jokes, including excerpted lines from our recent kabuki show, “The Vengeful Sword,” and all kinds of other things. I suppose, since this is really only a production for within the department, for a class, that sort of slightly silly attitude about it is no big deal. And even less of a big deal considering how excellent every other aspect was.

Kaguya-hime, if you are unfamiliar, is the oldest (proto-)science fiction story in the Japanese literary canon. First written down in the 10th century or so, it is a story about a bamboo-cutter (think woodcutter, but with bamboo instead) who finds a baby girl inside a glowing stalk of bamboo (along with a pile of gold) and raises her as his own. I had read about that much in the original Japanese as part of the classical Japanese course I took last summer in Kyoto, but wasn’t really familiar with the rest of the story. Three suitors come seeking her hand in marriage, and she sends them all away on impossible tasks – one to gain the fire-cloak of the fire-rat, one to seize a pearl from the Dragon King, and one to bring back a golden branch from the Mountain of Immortality. They all fail, as they must, for she is not human and cannot take a husband – rather, she is a princess from the Moon! Those three suitors sent away, it is revealed that she has fallen in love with the imperial prince, but warriors from the Moon Kingdom come down and fight to take her back, and in the end, she must leave with them.

Moon people. In a tenth century classical Japanese tale. Awesome.

Joy Higashino was sweet, cute, and beautiful in a sparkling white furisode as Princess Kaguya. Murray Husted, striking in a tweed jacket, played her father, the bamboo cutter, and also the narrator, in a sort of rakugo / bunraku sort of fashion. The breaking of walls, so to speak, when the narrator became the father again, and was attacked by the Moon Warriors, was excellent.

In addition to the great skill with which various Asian performance techniques were deployed, and the costumes, what I loved about this production the most was the gender switching that went on, and the integrated combinations of performance styles. Three women (Jillian Blakkan-Strauss, Meg Thiel, and Evelyn Leung) played powerfully masculine samurai suitors, among other roles, while Jae Iha, as the Imperial Prince, also powerfully embodied the samurai stance and way of moving, and cut some powerful mie. The samurai, Prince, and Kaguya employed kabuki voice, and kabuki & Noh movements, but when the first suitor traveled “far to the West, across the sea and beyond the Middle Kingdom,” i.e. to India, the fire-rat (Dani Belvin) danced a very Indian dance, and when the second suitor found his way “far across the sea,” rowing his boat in the manner of a Noh, he found a Dragon King (Kristina Tannenbaum) skilled in Javanese Sumatran randai martial arts.

The Moon Warriors were, essentially, Chinese, fighting in a jingju style with long spears, and here was where it really got interesting. The music always fit the country or culture being most represented on stage at that point, and I don’t remember what was done at this point, but the Chinese jingju spear fighting was combined seamlessly with kabuki tachimawari swordfighting in a way that just really put a smile on my face. What skill, that these three women changed costumes and not only changed characters, but changed performance styles, shifting out of the Noh/kabuki mode of their samurai suitor characters, and into the jingju movements and voice of the Moon Warriors, even as the Prince and his samurai (played by Dani Belvin & Kristina Tannenbaum) maintained their Kabuki manner.

Kaguya-hime shed her kimono, “transforming” into her celestial Moon Warrior form herself, fighting with a pair of Chinese swords in a jingju manner, breaking up the fight between the others, and eventually surrendering herself to return to the Moon, leaving her love, the Prince, forever.

The incorporation of all these different styles and modes was really something to see, and between that, and the music, and the costumes, and the expert way the story was adapted to a performance (how did any of you people find time for playwrighting while doing everything else too!? And how talented are you people!?), made this something I was really glad not to miss.

All of this really reminds me of a Noh performance I saw years ago in London, something very much modern and Western and experimental and whatever, but drawing upon Noh, and employing an unusual but really quite entrancing and wonderful Swiss musical instrument called the hang. (I wrote up my reactions and thoughts at the time on my personal private journal; I’ll have to re-post those here at some point, along with links to reviews and such. I’d love to see it again, especially with my Theatre friends from here, see what they have to say about it.)

I’m not so engaged in the theatre world that I ever really know about, or have been to with any frequency, shows like this which incorporate traditional East Asian performance modes, movements, techniques, into something new and black-box. But these shows this week have really been quite stunning, thought-provoking, and enjoyable, and I would love to see more of this sort of thing…

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Much thanks to Diego Pellecchia, Noh practitioner/student and Noh theatre blogger, for bringing this interview/article to our attention.

I had the pleasure of seeing the Yuki performance mentioned in the article last June, at a special recital/performance event in honor of the 50th anniversary of Udaka Michishige-sensei’s hatsubutai (stage debut).

Here, in full, is an article from the Yomiuri Shinbun today, on Rebecca Ogamo, Noh teacher and performer, mask carver, scholar and translator.

For more about Ogamo-sensei and the International Noh Institute, as well as links to photos of her performances, I invite you to visit Diego’s blog, 外国人と能 My journey into Noh theatre.

Wedded to her art, noh two ways about it.
Yoshihiro Kitaura / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

KYOTO–Face-to-face at a rehearsal hall at the foot of Mt. Hiei in Kyoto, the elder U.S. teacher and her Australian pupil bowed and engaged in a traditional “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu” (thank you for your support).

The teacher, noh actress Ribekka Ogamo, then began demonstrating a model performance, moving and lowering her center of gravity as if skating across some ice. She then coaxed her student into dancing more slowly and expressively.

Ogamo, 61, whose real name is Rebecca Teele, has described noh as having ongoing inspiration on her life. She has been learning noh for 39 years under the tutelage of Master-Actor Michishige Udaka, 63, a professional noh actor of the Kongo school. Udaka has much praise for Teele, saying, “She is good at noh chants and her performance is also solid.”

Born in Michigan, Teele first encountered noh as a child in Japan, at a performance she went to with her father who was then teaching at a university in Kansai.

Teele was mesmerized by the scene facing her when she woke from a nap. Orotund noh chants, emotive noh masks and the subtle rustling of long skirts all contributed to a profound atmosphere on stage that left an indelible impression on the young girl.

Teele, who later returned to the United States and graduated from high school there, majored in theater at a U.S. university. She thought while Western theater called on actors to possess certain physical charms, including a modicum of attractiveness, the noh she knew from Japan instead emphasized people’s spirituality. She thought she would be able to explore this theatrical expression, which she felt lacking in Western theater, by performing noh.

As her obsession grew, she again visited Japan and observed many noh performances. Fascinated with the beauty of the works staged by the Kongo school, Teele decided in 1972 to become Udaka’s pupil, as he had previously accepted foreign students.


Becoming Udaka’s pupil

Despite being accepted into the Udaka school, Teele faced much difficulty. First, she had to practice sitting seiza-style on her heels. She had no difficulty speaking conversational Japanese but it was a challenge to understand the noh chants written in classical Japanese.

Yet Teele was determined to succeed. Consulting her dictionary, she slowly made her way through many noh works. She also practiced the requisite chants in a loud voice at a riverside in the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, swimming helped Teele developed a physique better suited to the art form and she eventually conquered movements such as how to shuffle properly. She was making her living working at an English conversation school and translating, but Teele was completely devoted to noh.

Teele’s journey to become a noh master took nine years. Upon being admitted to join the Nohgaku Kyokai association–itself an unusual move–she identified herself as noh actor Ribekka Ogamo.

“[Teele’s membership] has inspired Japanese disciples,” Udaka said.

Teele, who also serves as secretariat chief of the International Noh Institute, a body comprising of overseas noh students among others, now herself teaches foreign students, her efforts a testament of her devotion to the art form.

The work is not without its challenges. The quality of a noh performance depends not only on the actors’ expertise in traditional dances and chants but also how the noh masks are displayed to the audience.

The significance of these principles is not always understood among beginner pupils hailing from overseas. According to Teele, she was once asked by a non-Japanese student whether it was acceptable to make small changes to the basic style of noh dancing.

Teele also recalled a pupil from South America unable to imagine snow. On such occasions, Teele would advise the students to visit temples and shrines in Kyoto and look at pictures on display depicting the four seasons.

In spite of the fact that many foreigners visit Japan to learn noh just like she did many years ago, Teele is disappointed their Japanese peers seem uninterested in learning the traditional art.

In June last year, Teele took part in a performance to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Udaka’s stage career. She played the main role in the program “Yuki” (snow), a snow spirit that dances in the moonlight for about one hour.

The performance was even more remarkable as Teele danced while enduring severe pain in her left knee. She had fallen down some station stairs six months earlier and injured the knee, which had already been broken once before. The accident prevented Teele from rehearsing enough before the performance.

“You should improve your dancing so that the noh mask becomes more expressive,” Udaka commented following her performance. His uncompromising attitude toward the art made Teele even more determined.

Teele has one unrealized dream: To perform noh in the United States. She hopes to fulfill this by almost any means possible, her will unchanged from when she first decided years ago to devote herself to noh.

(Feb. 6, 2011)

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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.

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