Behind the Mask of Noh
Compared with the kinetic action and tales of heroism that characterize Kabuki theater, mask-based Noh has a reputation for being a bit opaque—a world of mystery and rigid rules. While there is something to be said for just witnessing the spectacle, you really aren’t appreciating the majesty of this enduring art form until you understand what is going on.
That said, even native Japanese speakers are said to struggle with the eclectic and poetic language of Noh. The road to understanding every nuance requires a not insignificant degree of study.
Such barriers, however, were a thing of the past at a very special performance of Sumidagawa: Sound of Prayer Cradled in Sorrow, which was performed at the Roppeita XIV Commemorative Noh Theatre (Kita Noh Theatre) in Tokyo’s Shinagawa City in February. The event was organized by Arts Council Tokyo.
At this performance the staging was accompanied by unobtrusive subtitles in easy-to-understand English that lost none of the original dialogue’s poetry.
Audio guides are frequently deployed to narrate other traditional Japanese performing arts. But with Noh, it is very important to hear every sound of the minimal orchestral accompaniment, called hayashi. It isn’t the meaning of the words that is most important, but rather the sensory experience that—at times—borders on the spiritual. Think of how the accompanying utai (chants) are interwoven with Buddhist mantra.
To further enhance the experience, the audience was treated to a brief commentary in English and Japanese prior to the performance, delivered by noted academic and TV personality Professor Robert Campbell, who is the Director-General of the National Institute of Japanese Literature.
Campbell explained the plot of the centuries-old story, as well as important points that even an experienced non-Japanese theatergoer would need to be made aware of.
The core of Sumidagawa speaks across cultural barriers. It inspired the late modern British composer Benjamin Britten (1913–76) to create his own dramatization of the classic story—the musical drama Curlew River—which he completed in 1964 with the help of British novelist and poet William Plomer (1903–73), who wrote the libretto.
After the cultural explanation, it was on to two Noh masters: Yoko Yamamura of the Kanze School and Keiichiro Kaneko of the Kita School. They guided audience members through the basics of the vocal performance that form such a distinctive part of the Noh oeuvre.
The bilingual briefing soon became a workshop as attendees were invited to practice the vocalization as one. As the sound of their unified voices filled the historic theater, they learned the chants and gestures that bring important dramatic meaning to the play.
With the basics at our disposal, it was on to the main act. Soon the stage was cleared, and into the silence the small group of hayashi musicians, and jiutai chorus, who together form the Noh orchestra took to the stage.
From the first strike of the drum and stark sound of the Japanese flute, the space is transformed, and an altogether immersive experience beckons you deep into the action. The minimal cast of four—one of whom is all but unseen—makes for a simple staging, though one that belies seemingly impossible depths.
Those who think of Noh as mask-based theater might well be surprised to discover that, in the entire production, there is only a single mask—that of the “madwoman.” In this performance, that role was played by esteemed Noh actor Takehito Tomoeda. But out of this single, unjointed mask came a huge range of emotions. The subtlest tilt of the head took the audience on a rollercoaster of emotion.
True to Form
In the case of this play, the plot and staging remain largely true to its first performance many centuries ago. The madwoman, fraught with worry, desperately searches for her lost son and seeks passage over the Sumida River that still cuts through modern Tokyo. And in overheard conversation between the ferryman and a fellow traveler, it becomes more and more clear that her son may, in fact, lie dead along the river’s banks.
The audience sees this dramatic conclusion coming and looks to the masked madwoman, wondering when she herself will understand this tragic truth. This descent into madness is as timeless and compelling now as it was centuries ago.
More to Learn
For all the play’s simplicity, there was much left to be explored, and a lively bilingual discussion about the themes and staging followed. Leading the discussion was Reiko Yamanaka, director of the Noh Research Institute at Hosei University, and Patrick Schwemmer, a professor at Musashi University.
Even this dialogue, which invited you further into the world of Noh, could only scratch the surface of the classic play. But, coupled with all the language support, it allowed attendees to leave their first encounter with this traditional Japanese art form with a sound knowledge of the basics and a hunger for more.
For those wanting their bilingual induction into the world of Noh, further performances are planned as part of the Arts Council Tokyo’s Traditional Culture Programs. You can find out more by following the links below: