Posts Tagged ‘Noh’

The University of Hawaii Press had a crazy massive clearance sale a month or so ago. I bought a bunch of books for super cheap that I would normally never be able to justify paying full price for (upwards of $50 each). I also bought some other books for my collection; who knows if I’ll ever find the time to read them, but somehow it just feels good to have them.

*Okinawa Prismed (沖縄・プリズム) is a catalog from a Museum of Modern Art Tokyo exhibit, covering Okinawan art from 1872-2008. (Not a U Hawaii Press book)

Somehow, I had never come across this catalog before in my research. I’m really glad I found it. The book divides Okinawa’s modern history into three periods: 1872-1945, when Okinawa was incorporated into the Japanese Empire; 1945-1975, when Okinawa was under US Military Occupation (which actually ended in ’72); and 1975-2008, when there was a resurgence in Okinawan culture and identity. The majority of the book is taken up by 1-4 page sections on each of a great many artists, both Okinawan and (mainland) Japanese, including both text and images. There are also a number of brief essays on each period of history, and on various themes within those periods. Being a Japanese publication, the vast majority of the book is in Japanese; however, the list of images, and Introduction essay are provided in English in the back. There are a lot of excellent pictures in here, both photos of Okinawa at various times in its history, and images, of course, of artworks; I look forward to reading about certain artists about whom I have heard of before, including mainland Japanese artists Yamamoto Hôsui and Tômatsu Shômei, but am also excited for the possibility of discovering native Okinawan artists about whom I might want to investigate further.

*The Man Who Saved Kabuki is a book about Faubion Bowers, translated and adapted by Samuel Leiter from a book by Okamoto Shiro. Bowers (1917-1999) was apparently Japanese-language interpreter and “aide-de-camp,” as Wikipedia puts it, to Gen. MacArthur during the Occupation of Japan. Having spent time in Japan in 1940-41 and been exposed to kabuki previously, Bowers fought to rescue kabuki, and to see it continue, when Occupation authorities pushed for it to be banned for its display of feudal values.

The history of kabuki in the modern period is something I know extremely little about, but as a fan of kabuki, I suppose I owe a great debt to Bowers; I look forward to someday finding the time to read this book, and learn a bit more about kabuki history beyond the “core” periods of its high points, i.e. in the Edo period.

*Which brings us to the four volume set Kabuki Plays on Stage, which I absolutely cannot believe I was able to get for so cheap. Each of these hardcover volumes normally goes for around $50 cover price, so to get them for literally 95% off was an absolute windfall victory. Books I never thought I’d own now sit prettily on my shelf.

The four volumes, edited by James Brandon and Samuel Leiter, consist primarily of translations of kabuki plays by Brandon, Leiter, and others, 51 plays in total. In this alone, they are an unbelievable resource, since the majority of other translations out there are scattered between books with titles like “Five Classic Plays” and “[Overview of] Traditional Japanese Theatre.” These are, of course, excellent books as well, but when one is looking for the translation of a particular play, or is just skimming through to find a variety of different plays, a selection of 51 cannot be beat. Of course, some of the longer jidaimono plays, long enough to take up over 250 pages in their own separate publication, are not included. Each play translation includes pictures of performances, ukiyo-e prints, and the like, providing a visual element to help bring the play to life in the mind of the reader; introductions before each play explain literary references, historical origins of the play, and other interesting and important aspects. Lengthy introductions in each volume provide detailed overviews of the history of kabuki, and I expect will serve as an extremely useful basis for if/when I ever write out a summary of kabuki history for the Samurai-Archives Wiki – these could also serve as excellent readings to assign to students, I expect.

The only thing I have noticed in these volumes that I think stares out at me as a strong potential negative is that the translations are not annotated. I appreciate that these are meant to be clean and easy to read, and I am sure there are some very valid arguments for keeping them clean this way. However, kabuki plays make countless references to historical figures, historical events, and famous poems, as well as featuring, contemporaneous for their original writers/actors and audiences but not for us, countless elements of traditional/historical Japanese architecture, objects, garments, and the like. I’m not saying that we need to have a full paragraph on the history of the kiseru taking up a good 1/5th of the page, but a sentence or two the first time it appears, explaining that when the translation refers to a “smoking pipe,” they are talking about a long, thin, piece of bamboo with metal ends, used to smoke tobacco, and introduced around the late 16th or early 17th century by the Dutch. That said, on the positive side, the explanations and translations include a lot of specialty theatre terminology, such as keren and tachimawari, and a glossary in the back, not obscuring meaning through over-translation or through omitting terms such as hanamichi that very directly and clearly refer to what they refer to. I am glancing through the book, flipping pages, trying to see if the translations tend to use words like geta, kiseru, and noren instead of clogs, pipe, and curtain, conveying directly the Japanese flavor (and more specific referents to specific objects), but I can’t seem to find it…

I cannot wait to delve into these books.

*Southern Exposure, edited by Michael Molasky and Steve Rabson, is a collection of Modern Japanese Literature from Okinawa. It includes a number of poems, and 12 short stories, in translation into English, ranging from 1922 to 1998. Having not yet read any of them, I cannot say for sure, but I would think it a safe bet that none of these pieces (with the exception of a single verse from a set of translations of Old Poems) describe or refer back to the time of the Ryukyu Kingdom, and that all of them address more modern issues.

There is certainly a certain appeal to be found in the complexities of Okinawa’s modern history, political issues, and identity politics. From the overthrow of the kingdom, assimilation policies, and suffering under the control of the Japanese in the 1870s to 1940s, to the devastation of the Battle of Okinawa, 27 years of American Occupation, the continued American military presence today, and issues of identity, diaspora, and cultural decline or revival, there are certainly a lot of touching, powerful, complex, issues to be addressed. I, personally, am still sort of coming around to any interest in these sorts of things. I think being in Hawaii was good for me, surrounding and immersing me in those kinds of politics; now that I’ve been removed from it once again, perhaps I’ll go back to feeling distanced from it. Or perhaps I will continue to sort of grow into being interested in such issues.

For one reason or another, literature has never really interested me, even as my interests in art, music, theatre, and various other fields have grown. But, as an Okinawan Studies scholar, it certainly never hurts to have more Okinawa-related books on my shelf. There are so few in English that to avoid buying something like this feels like it would have to be a very conscious, intentional, and obvious choice; an obvious gap in my collection to anyone who skimmed my shelves and knew what they were looking at/for.

*Prisoners from Nambu is a book I have seen countless times before, on shelves, and have always passed up. It explores a very particular incident in Japanese history, involving the capture of a number of Dutch seamen by people of Nambu (in the far north of Honshû). Being that it is such a specific incident, and not one that I am myself researching, I never gave this book much thought. But, then, after glimpsing over the ideas behind Luke Roberts’ new book “Performing the Great Peace,” and struggling with the issues of secrecy and deception in the Satsuma-Ryûkyû-shogunate relationship, I realized that, given the subtitle of this book, “Prisoners from Nambu: Reality and Make-Believe in 17th century Japanese Diplomacy,” it could be of some interest and some use. We’ll see if I ever get around to actually reading it at all.

*Flowering in the Shadows is a collection of essays on “women in the history of Chinese and Japanese painting.” Not exactly a topic particularly related to my research, but certainly of interest, at least to the extent that it might cover female ukiyo-e artists such as Katsushika Oi. In the end, it doesn’t. One brief chapter addresses “women in traditional Japan” in general, speaking mainly of the Edo period; another, by Stephen Addiss, focuses specifically on Ike Gyokuran, her mother, and her grandmother. To those who are interested in Gyokuran, you’ll have to pardon me for feeling like I’ve heard/read about this before, as if she seems the only woman artist everyone immediately leaps to mention & discuss. Personally, and this is just personal preference I suppose, I’m much more interested in female ukiyo-e artists, and women Nihonga painters. After so many centuries of art production being dominated almost exclusively by men, Kyoto Nihonga (and in Tokyo, too?) suddenly saw numerous very prominent women artists. I wonder how that happened, what challenges they faced, or how easily they were welcomed into artists’ social circles. How were their perspectives or messages about women in society perceived and received? I’m sure there are good essays on this out there somewhere – but not in this book. Still, of course, I’m sure it’s still a very interesting and useful book for those with a slightly different focus…

*Shelley Fenno Quinn’s Developing Zeami seems to be a somewhat more practical guide to the use of Zeami’s writings as guidance for one’s performance of Noh – as compared to some of her other work I have read which seems to focus more on Zeami’s writings as writings, as literature, as historical documents useful for us scholars in understanding and interpreting Noh.

This is still a very dense, serious book, not light-reading by any means. But, judging from chapter titles like “Developing Zeami’s Representational Style,” “Zeami’s Theory in Practice,” “Actor and Audience,” and “Mind and Technique: the Two Modes in Training,” it would seem that the book could be useful for the serious, philosophical, aspiring practitioner of Noh. One day I hope to teach a course on Traditional Japanese Theatre – maybe some selections from this book will prove useful. Or maybe I’ll skip this dense conceptual stuff and stick to things we find in slightly more survey-oriented books like Brazell’s “Traditional Japanese Theater.”

*Critical Perspectives on Classicism in Japanese Painting is an edited volume which came to my attention because of my use of essays by Elizabeth Lillehoj in attempting to understand how paintings might have served as visual records of official ritual events. Her essay in this volume focuses on a series of fusuma-e (paintings on sliding doors) in the palace of Tôfukumon’in, depicting the Gion Matsuri. Much of Lillehoj’s work focuses on Tôfukumon’in, on issues of patronage, and on fusuma-e and the like in the empress’ palaces.

Other essays in the book discuss different aspects of the phenomenon of the use of classic themes – e.g. references to the Tale of Genji, or Heian period poetry – in early Tokugawa era painting. There are, as to be expected, several essays on Sôtatsu and Kôrin – interesting artists who produced beautiful works.

*Tokugawa Japan: The Social and Economic Antecedents of Modern Japan is another book that’s not from UH Press, but which I recently obtained. The idea of approaching Tokugawa Japan as an antecedent, and not as a subject worthy of attention in its own right, is troublesome, I think; but, at the same time, the idea of Tokugawa Japan as a vibrant, active, complex society with its own “traditional” equivalents to banks, mass media, postal service, highways & tourism, etc. is a valuable one, highlighting what makes Tokugawa Japan so exciting.

This is an edited volume of essays by Japanese scholars, translated by a number of scholars overseen (“edited”) by Conrad Totman. In my MA thesis, I made use of an essay from this book on “Urban Networks and Information Networks” by Katsuhisa Moriya. The article focuses chiefly on the hikyaku (飛脚) couriers who transported messages and packages along the major highways between the major cities of Tokugawa Japan; but what was most important for my purposes was simply to have something to cite to support the idea that Tokugawa Japan was well-interconnected, and that provincial towns would not have been totally disconnected from a sort of collective cultural consciousness. In any case, the book also contains essays on the bakuhan (shogunate + domains) system, on rural industry, the spatial structure of Edo, and the structures of Edo period society. Combined with certain other essays, I can see this being a good core for readings for a course on Edo period Japan as “early modern.”

*Finally, we have Challenging Past and Present, a volume edited by Ellen Conant, which, like Lillehoj’s “Classicism” volume, focuses on a specific period and set of themes within Japanese art history, in this case, the “metamorphosis of 19th century Japanese art” as Western influences poured in, and as societal pressures pushed artists to explore ways of being more “modern” in their art-making.

Though I should like to see more essays more explicitly addressing the origins and development of Nihonga, the volume focuses more on topics such as Yokohama-e prints, Meiji tourism & photography, the Rokumeikan, and “Imperial” architecture. Fortunately, all of these are plenty interesting topics as well. Prior to going to Hawaii, I had little interest in the Meiji period, thinking of the Tokugawa period as the real “height” of “traditional” Japan – by Meiji, everything from kabuki to ukiyo-e, to the worlds of the geisha, the samurai, etc. were in decline. And why should I want to study something in decline? But. Having now studied the issues of modernity more extensively, with a professor who specializes in this period, and these topics, I have come to see Meiji not as a period of decline, but one of interesting and exciting cultural clashes and cultural meldings. People negotiated with their past, with their identity, struggling to advance face-forward into modernity, without losing their distinctive Japanese identity. Besides, the further we get from that period ourselves, the more this world of 100+ years ago resembles its own “tradition,” its own distinctive romantic(ized) aesthetic. So, whether it’s the Rokumeikan, or Japan at the World’s Fairs, it’s not a Japan that’s in decline, but rather simply another Japan, a different Japan, with its own separate appeal.

A few of the early essays in the book address the historical background and historical development of Japanese art at this time in a broader sense, and could hopefully be interesting and useful for understanding these shifts in a broad, overall sort of way. One of the later articles I am particularly interested to read is by Martin Collcutt, and discusses “the image of Kannon as compassionate mother,” the subject of a pair of oft-cited and very interesting paintings by Kanô Hôgai (as well as one later copy by Okakura Shusui). I’ve been fortunate to see the Smithsonian’s copy of the painting in person, as well as the Okakura copy at the MFA, and the one in Tokyo virtually/digitally, and would be interested to see what Collcutt has to say about the differences between the copies, and the prominence of this particular composition; other scholars, including Chelsea Foxwell, have written about the same set of paintings, so it would be interesting to see how their approaches or conclusions compare.

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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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Udaka Michishige, a very prominent Noh actor and teacher, will be leading a workshop at Royal Holloway (Univ. of London) on April 20-22. This seems a wonderful, and very rare, opportunity to not only learn about Noh from a true master, but to try out the movements, chanting, and masks yourself.

More information can be found at the event’s page on Royal Holloway’s website.

WHEN: 20-21-22 April 2010.
WHERE: Royal Holloway Handa Noh Studio.
TIME: 11am – 4pm (lunch break at 1pm)
SUBSCRIPTION FEE: 100£ full; 50£ student concessions; 20£ observation.

Note that places are limited and you are encouraged to book by April 13th.

For further information and reservations please contact Diego Pellecchia: diego.pellecchia@gmail.com

Sadly, I have been informed that this event has been canceled.

Udaka-sensei seems to do these workshops fairly frequently, though, so there will be a next time for anyone who was interested.

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The art history course here at IUC is going wonderfully. I love talking about art, hanging out with art people, being a part of an art community, even though I am finding it increasingly difficult to continue to sit on the fence between art (or art history) and history as I progress forward in my academic/professional career.

Each class, one student provides a brief introduction of a work or artist, and another student leads the remainder of the two hours, on a separate topic of their choosing. It’s great fun, and I’ve gotten introduced to a wonderfully wide variety of topics; people here are not just straight-arrow art historians working on paintings or prints or sculpture. We have people who focus on Noh, a fashion/kimono design, Buddhist art, classical music in Japan, and a handful of other topics.


Hanna, of While the Mountain Sleeps, led the class last Thursday, talking about Noh, and certain aspects of the difficulties presented by trying to maintain the tradition today. From the reading she selected, one passage in particular caught my eye:


In all of Noh’s history, there has probably not been a single Noh actor who performed “Takasago” and believed that “life is a journey.” That is the modernity of Umewaka Minoru, the consciousness of Umewaka who lived in the modern era. It is precisely because of that consciousness that Noh has come to be seen as theatre/drama. That one can sense a feeling of all of human life in “Takasago” is only because the drama of human life is performed. In that, Noh has become the same as Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, or Racine.1

I’d be curious to know Hanna’s views on this, as she is far more of a Noh expert than myself; I tend to lean towards kabuki myself. But from what I know of Noh, having taken an excellent course with Drew Gerstle last year, and having read “Takasago” among a number of other plays, this comment confuses me considerably.

The author of this statement, Shirasu Masako, an art collector and essayist, seems to be simultaneously saying that Noh both lacks the deeper meaning that those of a modern consciousness might read into it, and that it is deeper, better, greater, than mere theatre or drama.

Let us put aside all the truly deep and serious questions this paradox evokes, and focus on the first sentence – the assertion that the “life is a journey” theme is an invention of the modern era and was not truly present in traditional Noh. I find this very hard to believe, since so many Noh plays, indeed just about all that I have ever read or seen, feature a waki2 who is a monk on a pilgrimage, or otherwise someone in the middle of a journey. Certainly, the theme of journeys is stronger in some plays than in others – the plot of “Takasago” involves more travel than most plays, though I can see how it might be argued that this is not the primary theme – but even so, the notion of life as a journey is, as far as I am concerned, one of the essential themes of all of Noh.

Journey is also a major theme in jôruri (puppet theatre) and kabuki, where it often serves, as it does in Western literary tradition, to represent not only a physical, geographical, journey, but a spiritual or personal journey as well. It is not uncommon for the fourth act of a five act jôruri or kabuki play to be a michiyuki (道行) scene – a journey – during which the characters are transformed from weak or lost to noble and determined. Consider the example of Chikamatsu’s “Love Suicides at Amijima” (心中天の網島, Shinjû Ten no Amijama), in which Jihei and Koharu, fleeing their homes, despondent and lost over their situation of being deeply in love but being forbidden to ever truly be together, journey across many bridges until they finally commit double suicide, transforming, one might argue, from a poor shopkeeper and prostitute with nothing going for them in this world, into ennobled lovers who make the ultimate sacrifice, dying so that they can be together forever. The michiyuki of “Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura” (義経千本櫻) works in a similar way, as Genkurô, a kitsune (fox-spirit) who has been torn up inside, longing for 400 hundred years to get a particular drum, made from the skins of his parents, and kept in the Imperial Palace all that time, journeys with Shizuka Gôzen, who carries the drum. Angry, lost, desperate for this drum, in which the spirits of his parents continue to reside, Genkurô transforms over the course of the journey, and finally reveals his true identity and his story, in the end saving Yoshitsune’s life and, one might say, changing roles from the suspicious shapeshifting mischievous spirit to a loyal magical ally, and most importantly coming to terms with the death of his parents and the fate of the drum.

Noh is strongly founded in Buddhist beliefs and themes, and the karmic cycle appears in many plays. Whether this, or the examples in kabuki and jôruri can truly be said to represent precisely the same “life is a journey” theme seen in the West is not entirely clear, but the notions of an eternal journey through the karmic cycle, of physical, geographical journey as a metaphor for spiritual or religious journey, seem perfectly obvious, even if the Noh does not quite feature the same kind of journey one sees in Joseph Campbell‘s discussions of the Quest, the Hero’s Journey.

To put it plainly, Journey as a theme features too heavily in Noh for me to believe that it does not have a deeper meaning. Everything in Noh is symbolic of something; everything has a deeper meaning.

The question of whether Noh should be characterized as “theatre” or “drama” according to Western (or “modern”) conceptions of the meanings of those words is something I shall leave for another time.

1 Watanabe Tamotsu. Butai wo Miru Me (The Eye that Watches the Stage). Tokyo: Kadokawa Gakugei Publishing, 2008. p14.
2 Waki (脇 or ワキ, lit. “side”) is one of a handful of standard role types in Noh. Serving something of the role of a protagonist, the waki is generally the character the audience might identify with as he, in the midst of a journey, comes across the main character (the shite role) and witnesses the main plot of the play. In “Takasago”, the waki is a journeying priest who comes across an old man (the shite role) who later is revealed to be the ancient god of a sacred pine tree. Though the action and plot is generally focused on the shite, the waki serving as little more than a witness, a spectator, I nevertheless think of the waki as the protagonist, as he represents the audience member, also a spectator, a witness, to the events of the play’s plot.

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