Japan Notebook: Noh

Yesterday I went to the shrine to see Noh. It was raining heavily and the seats were all outside, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the audience, mostly women, came in their rain gear, to sit for a few hours and watch. There were very few empty seats, which must have been heartening for both the organizers and the performers.

It was Kikujido (also known as Makurajido), and the backing story is actually a Buddhist theme… a young court attendant in the Zhou dynasty was the favourite of the king, but due to a slight transgression (and the jealousy of others) is sent into exile to die. Before leaving, the king gives the young boy two of the eight essential verses of the Lotus Sutra, and tells him to recite them daily. After being abandoned in a distant place, the boy does this, and to avoid forgetting, writes the verses on the leaves of chrysanthemum flowers. Morning dew carries the writing into the stream that the boy drinks from, and eventually he becomes immortal. Villagers downstream also enjoy the benefits.

Skip forward to the Wei dynasty and the stories of this stream that confers health and longevity on those who drink from it reach the court. Someone is sent to investigate, finds the stream, then finds the boy, and on asking who he is, is shocked when the boy says he’s the attendant of the King Mu of Zhou. This is not believed… that was 800 years ago! But the boy has proof. He gives the official the verses, and this sets off a tradition in which each emperor, on his accession, receives these verses for the benefit of the country and the world. It’s also the genesis of a feast that is held every year on the ninth day of the ninth month (which was yesterday, in the solar calendar).

It’s a rich story, and according to some, actually never existed in China but was invented by Japanese Tendai Buddhists as justification for certain Tendai practices that appear in the accession ceremony for the Japanese emperor. But that aside, what you see in the Noh is far more austere, and since few people (including me) can understand the songs being sung, all you can do is watch this one masked performer in elaborate kimono, who holds a fan. The performers were Kanze-ryu, and in contrast to what I see online, there were almost no props: just a few chrysanthemum stems and a carved lacquer box. That’s it. Otherwise (except for the performers) the stage is completely empty.

And yet… the whole thing was mysteriously riveting. There were a number of much more lively performances before the main event but, to be honest, I started feeling sleepy during those (we had to get up at 4). But once the Noh started all that vanished. I don’t understand why. If you look at it on YouTube or the like, it’s not all that impressive, but up close and live… very different. I suppose the same is true of kyudo. The tension of the full draw, when it catches the viewers as well…

Their movements were interesting, too. The way the musicians and the shite (main performer) who danced the first performance moved reminded me a lot of kyudo, in that they maintained the vertical line, and also when the props guy came out, the way he held his hands (little fingers lined up with the fold of the hakama). But the way they walk, suriashi, is completely different. In kyudo, of course, you don’t lift your heels much, if at all. In Noh they would lift their heels, slide forward on the front of the foot, then lower the heel. When the shite for the main Noh came out he would also raise his toes and lowered them again after each step. Maybe that’s just something done for this one character? Obviously I have to go see more.

But the main thing in the Kikujido was some kind of tension that held the audience in a spell. Since the shite was wearing a mask, there were no real changes of facial expression, no dialogue, no other characters on the stage. Everything was communicated by bodily movement and, perhaps, the angle of the mask. Really interesting, and mysterious.

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