Sunday, July 9, 2017

Noh Theater

I recently got to do something I've been wanting to do for a while. I went to a performance of Noh theater. 

Noh is the oldest surviving theatrical art in Japan today, dating back 600 years. It evolved some over time, but in has remained unchanged since Japan's Edo Period (1603-1867). 

Pretty much all I knew about Noh before I saw the show was that I loved the costuming and masks. I was struck by the beauty of the silken costumes and intrigued by the pure white mask that performers tie to their faces. 

Noh has some distinct characteristics that I learned by watching the performance and reading the material I got in English. 
  • In Noh, to move around the stage actors never fully lift their feet from the floor. Instead they slide their feet around, in a slow motion, and shuffle about when performing dances. 
  • Noh is performed only by men. Any women's roles are also played by men who are masked. 
  • The speaking in Noh is very distinctive, almost a sing-song manner with the actors sounding a bit like they are out of breath and stretching their voices in many directions. 
  • Noh is performed with very little sets or props. In fact there is no set at all. In the performance I saw there were also only one or two props. Most everything else is mimed or imagined. 
The play I watched was titled Atsumori. The packet I got in English gave a scene-by-scene summary of the play. I was told that most Japanese don't even understand the words the actors are saying, because it's an older version of the language. This turned out to be true as I observed many other people around me checking their packets, in Japanese, to see what was going on. 

This 80-minute play was about a warrior turned priest who is still dealing with the guilt of killing a young man in battle. The priest returns, years later to the site of the battle and hears flute music in the distance. He comes across some grass-cutters in the area and learns that the young man he killed in the past actually escaped battle and was about to depart on a ship, only to return to retrieve his treasured flute at the last minute. Upon his return, he was killed by the warrior. The priest realized that he is in fact talking with the ghost of the young man's spirit and the two, once enemies, make amends and depart as friends. 

Noh can be a little bit boring, yes, but I was really enjoying this moment of rich history and culture. In the final few scenes the ghost of Atsumori's spirit comes onto the stage. Pictured below is that figure. I was so memorized by this character's costume that I rarely took my eyes off him. This was truly the moment I had been waiting for and was so happy to have this experience. 

Image result for japanese noh atsumori ghost

No photography or videography was allowed so the photos here are not mine. If you are more interested in seeing more about Noh and watching a bit of the stage performance, check out this YouTube video here