Sunday, May 22, 2011

Noh Theatre

One of my goals while in Japan is to see Noh (dance-drama and masks), Bunraku (puppets), Taiko (drums), and Kabuki (dance-drama and make-up).  I went to see a production of Noh last night.

About a week ago, a friend of mine told me that she was going to see Noh on the next Sunday with her tea ceremony peeps.  My response was, "Whaaaaaaa???  I wanna go!"  She was down for me to join, so I went to Tokiwa (a place where you can buy anything) to get a ticket.

I was conflicted about going to the show because Knox has been really attached to me lately and showing signs of separation anxiety.  I almost sent someone in my stead, but I ended up going with the understanding that Knox would get to stay up late to see Mommy afterwards.

I parked and walked to the castle grounds, stopping for an iced soy chai latte with light ice and extra milk.  The show was to be performed outside in the natural setting of the ruins of the castle.  Good idea; it was cool.  The backdrop for the event was a hundreds-of-years-old rock wall from a collapsed parapet and the sculpted trees so indicative of a Japanese garden.  The guards at the castle seemed intent on engaging me in conversation and practically escorting me straight to my seat.  We foreigners get a wee bit of extra attention.

I sat with my friend and the show began with several dances done by school kids in traditional dress.  I didn't know what to expect at all from the experience, but once the music and dancing began, I thought the show had begun.  It had, sort of, but not in the same way as a western show, such as a play.  I was prepared to relinquish myself to the power of the play, but I kept getting disturbed by announcements and the lighting of fires.  The dancing kids were a warm up, I guess, and then I think it's traditional to light a barrel-sized fire on each side of the performance area, which they did (and, hey, who doesn't appreciate the beauty of fire?).  I've also had a lot on my mind, so my focus has been constantly redirected by wandering thoughts, and I kept getting distracted by the sky and the sounds of nature around me.  Despite my lack of focus, the crows cawing actually really enhanced the inherent creepiness of Noh's sights and sounds.

Finally, the show began in earnest.  How can I describe it?  Noh has an ensemble of drummers and chanters, and a narrator.  Simply put, the narrator tells a story and characters from that story step forward for you to contemplate.  The audience listens to the story and music while taking in the emotions emanating from the masks, and while imbuing the masks with what wells up in them by the scene.  It's quite interactive in a silent, still way.  The actors move a little, and very slowly.  The costumes are luxuriant and pleasing to the eye.  Everything about it is rich:  The textures, fabrics, masks, drumming, chanting, and singing...

Japanese art-focused thought is heavy.  Even Knox's children's books include death and loss.  There's a cute little illustrated book on my shelf that I inherited from some long gone JET that depicts a couple that goes through a rough time, loving and losing each other, contrasting the adorable drawings.  The sounds of last night's performance were dripping with despair, and let me tell you, there is no comic relief for what seems like ages.  I was waiting for it; in my head I was wondering when it was coming.  It came in the form of a short, separate play at the end of the night.  Some dance comes at the end of the play, but it's more like movement with intention.  The dance includes the flipping of kimono sleeves and fluid manipulation of fans.

I'm very glad I went, but I didn't get the powerful escape that I was looking for.  Maybe it was the outdoor setting, or the crows, or the rain:  Twice during the performance it started raining and 200 umbrellas emerged suddenly.  In my distracted mindset, I had to stifle many giggles in response to the "Waaahhhhhs" that sounded straight out of an SNL parody.  I wanted to get lost in the verisimilitude and suspension of disbelief, and that just didn't happen.  But that's ok.  I experienced Noh, and that was my main goal.

From Japan,

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