Friday, February 1, 2008

Far Out

Noh Theater Performance
Kongoh Nohgakudou

Noh, Japan's classic musical drama, has been performed since the 14th century. A friend recently invited me to a performance at Kyoto’s Kongoh Nohgakudou, directly opposite the Imperial Palace.

Although I was curious to witness this uniquely Japanese experience, I was a little hesitant about attending. I’d heard Noh described as an interminably tedious endurance trial with little in the way of drama or action, performed in a mostly unintelligible form of ancient Japanese.

How wrong those descriptions were. This was one of the most unique, mind-blowing things I’ve seen in Japan.

The 250 plays in the Noh repertoire depict mythic stories concerning vengeance, madness, spirits and supernatural worlds. Performances last four hours or more - they can be a tad exhausting - and consist of two plays separated by a humorous interlude known as kyogen.

The first play we saw - Soshiarai Komachi - concerns a poetess wrongly accused of plagiarism by a jealous rival.

It doesn’t sound like much of a story, but seen in the flesh it was quite compelling. Our heroine cleverly proves her innocence and recovers her honor.

The second play was no less fascinating, though I had no clue what it was about. My culturally savvy companion informed me that all was not well in the land of the rising sun. He knew this because there were priests, a poem on a stick, and a menacing looking demon who took forever to exit the stage. When he finally did leave, everybody stopped whooping, lay down their fans and suddenly it was all over.

I was fascinated to discover that, by tradition, Noh actors and musicians never rehearse together. Each actor, musician, and choral chanter practices his or her contribution independently or under the tutelage of a senior member.

Neither are performances entirely scripted. There's a good deal of improvisation and negotiation. Thus the tempo of the performance is set by the interactions of all the performers together. It’s all got something to do with the traditional Japanese aesthetic of transience, or "ichi-go ichi-e" ("one time, one meeting").

For all its inherently traditional, stylized drama, Noh is spectacularly weird. During the final act the leading actor, or shite, dressed in a costume resembling a giant chicken, his chest decorated with four turquoise pom-poms, repeatedly (and I mean repeatedly, it went on for all of twenty minutes!) addressed the hayashi (musicians) with the following bizarre intonation:


The hayashi then replied with random drum beats and a rolling “HOoooooooooooaaa!” sound. Far out.

To this western viewer, despite Noh’s traditional roots, its minimalist aesthetic and unwitting surrealism gve it an "alternative" even Pythonesque feel. This is hardly surprising since the Noh-play creates its own “reality” which is simultaneously opposed to realism. Its virtual dream space simultaneously evokes solemnity, transcendence, mystification and amusement.

If that’s not alternative, I don’t know what is. There's nothing quite like Noh, and should you ever visit Japan, I heartily recommend you experience its bizarre wonders for yourself.

VIDEO: An Invitation to Noh


ヒミツ said...

gosh darn, u shure got a good way with words, mr. dale.

he done the plays right with his synapsis, cuz i waz there, too.

them waz mystical, magical moments. rest that poor girl's soul for having her poem lifted like marilyn monroe's skirt. serves em right they had the demon man in the second part.

well, i think the bard done said it best, "all's well that's end. noh?"

Shiffi Le Soy said...

Noh doubt about it, sir! Thank you.