Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Nohtes on Instruments

In honour of the fact that I can now get a nice sound out of my new noh flute

I decided to introduce my drawing hand to the noh 'orchestra'.

First, of course, the flute - the 'noh-kan'. The flute player's music opens every noh play, and signals most of the character entrances and special dances. The musician always sits (Japanese style, for the whole duration of the play - OW) at the back of stage left.

At the back of centre stage sit the Drummers. Biases aside, they are at least as important - if not more so - than the flautist. Left in the picture is the otsuzumi - a big drum that makes a clicking noise. Right is kotsuzumi - a smaller but strangely (for me) deeper-sounding instrument.

In noh, the voice is just as much of an instrument as the drum. A variety of strange-sounding calls ('yo', 'ho', 'hya') are actually written into the drummer's score, and followed by the dancer and the chorus. In practice - and sometimes, onstage, in emergencies, these instruments are 'played' with human voicemaking the relevant sounds.

Here's the noh band (minus singers) in neon --

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

My Noh Notebook: April 2012

At the Kita school 'normal noh' monthly performance on Sunday, I was, again, like last month, low on pencils. But I didn't think it would matter much because this time, I had homework - to listen carefully to the music and make notes on my own copy of the actual score. This is just one of several pages I have to know off by heart by the beginning of July, for a production of Atsumori in the US... I had plenty to keep me busy. But even so, my fingers started to itch. I couldn't resist.  I got my pen out and...

Here are the grass-cutters, one of whom is actually the disguised ghost of the famously beautiful teenage warrior-musician Atsumori, who was killed by Genji warrior Kumagai on his way to fetch his flute during the battle of Ichi no Tani. The grass-cutters are talking to Kumagai himself, who has become a priest and renamed himself 'Rensho' in remorse after killing Atsumori:

 Everyone is amazed when, in the second half of the play, Atsumori's ghost actually appears, admits who he is, and in a series of dances, describes his death...

Then, Rensho wakes up. His conscience is lightened by his prayers for Atsumori's soul, and Atsumori's forgiveness.

This story, from Vol. 9 of The Tale of the Heike, is told in different ways all over the Japanese traditional arts. The Kabuki Ichi no Tani Futaba Gunki concentrates on Kumagai/Rensho's remorse and moral punishment - but the noh concentrates on the moment of clarity that enlightenment brings to both Kumagai/Rensho, and, from the afterlife, Atsumori. It is (rightly, in my opinion) one of the most famous plays in the noh repertory.

Hyakuman, the next play on the program, is a 'mad woman' noh play. Instead of featuring a separate ghost, the woman herself is haunted: this play is a lingering portrayal of a woman's grief at the loss of her son. The shape on the right was the enduring image of the play for me: a kimono sleeve raised up to the face in the stylised noh expression for inconsolable sadness

followed by a whirling dance and a tachimawari (walk around the stage) so poised and intense that it's easy to get swept away into the woman's desolation

Thankfully, these plays usually have happy endings: in Hyakuman, the woman is reunited with her son (who had been onstage all along sitting behind the priest). Phew!

Grief was the subject of the final play of the day, too. Tenko, the story of a miraculous drummer boy who was drowned in a river for disobeying the Chinese emperor's orders. Tenko's father is the main character in the first half: aged by grief, he is asked to play his son's drum and eventually does so. The sound of the drum plunges everyone into a dream world where Tenko's ghost appears and, delighted that people are praying for his soul, plays the drum once more.

Tenko is a strange play (for a start it's very unusual and oddly disorienting for the main character to change from an old man to a child's ghost half way through) and also on a grander scale than usual - international setting, large-ish cast. For this, I needed to (try to) get the whole stage in

But the play was long, and my hand got rather clumsy.

Perhaps this time I'll remember to bring not just pencils, but a much-needed eraser, too.

Kamishibai: The Real Thing

I'd had a go at my own version of the Japanese storytelling art of Kamishibai a few times since I've been in Tokyo, but I'd never actually seen a traditional live performance - off the back of a bicycle cart: a mini wooden theatre with a drawer built into it especially for sweets to give out to kids at the end of the show. Until now - thanks to Earth Day Tokyo, Yoyogi Park. Delighted, I took some pictures of a very entertaining rendition of The Enormous Turnip tailored for a world where people very often aren't sure what a turnip even is:

Verdict: 1) Carrots are not only tastier than turnips, but are clearly the way forward and 2) I have a lot to learn about kamishibai - but what a lot of fun to have, too!

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Noh Notes: Backstage at Ginza Nohgakudo

There are a lot worse things to do on a rainy Saturday in Tokyo, in my opinion, than work backstage at a noh theatre. In fact, I'd been looking forward to it all week!

When I arrived in Ginza, soaked but bubbling with excitement, I instantly recognised the little 'musician's door' which opens onto stage left. I'd walked through something like it on my way to perform at the Kita Nohgakudo in October

bottom right bit slides open to the stage...

But what I'd never done was get the chance to look through the actor's door, down the bridgeway to the main stage...

To my delight, this main door was the official location for my afternoon's work: 'curtain lady'. Which meant that, at every entrance and exit I would open the curtain, and close it again. It sounded easy enough - I have plenty of experience opening curtains, I thought.

But, this curtain was different.

 The doorway is about 4 metres high, and the heavy silk curtain (Joseph's Technicolour Dream Coat to the power of I don't know how many) is of the 'lift the whole thing up by twisting it on a massive bamboo rod until its above the height of everyone's heads and then close it so it almost touches the last person in or out' variety - nothing like those more familiar 'pull open on tracks' sort of affairs.

I heaved it up

...and within 10 seconds my arms felt like they'd been dipped in lava.

I was in for an unexpected workout.

One of the main characteristics of noh movement is how slow and deliberate it is. After about a minute and a half, this was how far the cast had got onto the stage

Another minute and a half (my arms now at 'dipped in lava then run over by a tank' stage), and this was how far they'd got...

...but, another what-felt-like-forever, and an excrucatingly controlled curtain let-down later, the pain in my arms was offset by the fact that, as the curtain monitor:

 I got to peek

and peek

and peek again.

I think I might change careers...

Monday, 16 April 2012

Noh Notes: Manhattan Okina in Rehearsal

A rehearsal noh stage, Nerima-ku, North West Tokyo.

Delighted to be in the presence of a noh stage and actually allowed to take photos, I annoyed everyone by snapping away at everything, from boxes full of masks and props

to the stringing of the kotsuzumi drum

To (finally) the play itself!

Like the traditional Okina, which celebrates the wonders of the earth within a very simple story, Manhattan Okina is a noh/buddhist ritual 'mashup' - chanting, noh recitative, masks, two different types of singing - the works. The story was simple - three different men, at the moment of their deaths, are visited by a beautiful spirit who is the essence of a flower. They dance, and the moments before and after death blur together - both are happy and triumphant. The main character's white ceremonial robes were the perfect foil for the three different beautifully crafted masks

I  was so surprised that the professional noh actor playing the flower spirit who visits the three old men was a woman (one of the only female professionals in Japan) that I almost forgot to notice how perfectly her faintly iridescent silk kimono coat fitted the role

The spirit danced with the 'man' (also played by a woman)

 and retreated, leaving him alone to join the ranks of worshipped ancestors

Rehearsal over, I still wasn't absolutely sure what the play was supposed to say about old men in Manhattan.

But there was no time to worry about that - there was a performance the next day to get excited about!

Wednesday, 11 April 2012


Just as I was beginning to feel the terrible onset of Easter weekend creme egg cravings (easter doesn't really exist here, and trashy English chocolate certainly doesn't), the famous Sakura no Hana (Cherry Blossoms) saved the day!

Phew! Too excited to be grumpy from lack of sugar-flavoured wallpaper paste anymore, I decided to go on a "cherry blossoms tour" of Tokyo.

First: Inokashira Park. Everywhere was packed with picknickers

even though the afternoon was so freakishly cold that it seemed more like the dark first days of February than mid-April:

So, even though the pedaloes and swan-shaped rowing boats did their best to distract

it was too cold for me. I admitted defeat and went home...

...only to wake up the next morning ready for more! That afternoon I found myself in an astoundingly pretty 'blossom tunnel' under the ancient cherry trees of Ueno Park

Wow! The park was heaving

and all the more magical for it, too.

Nearby, Yanaka Cemetery was smaller, just as pretty, and slightly less packed with young people on the pull (though no less full of staggering drunk dads playing guitars, or simply rolling on the floor)

I caught the bug - and despite not having had even one drink, I started making silly faces and running about like a lunatic.

Some of the cherry trees on Kamakura's main street are supposed to be almost 1000 years old. It's famous for them, people told me. Last time I was there I'd had to imagine the avenue down to the main shrine covered in a blanket of petals. But I didn't have to imagine it any more when I arrived this time

Gorgeous as Main Street was with its lanterns and gently falling confetti, Hasedera Shrine a mile or so down the road, won the beauty contest. Again. Last October I loved it because of the stacked library made of fragrant Japanese cedar. This time, I fell in love with a giant tree so full of blossoms it might have been a oversized stick of candy floss

 Tree=candy floss. There is no higher compliment as far as I'm concerned.

The cherry blossoms (and even more interestingly perhaps the hordes of happy people viewing them) are not finished yet. No. Roll on this weekend...I want to see more!

A Guide to Noh Volume 1 - Published!

Not just the proof cover this time - I finally received my finished copy of A Guide to Noh!

It's not the first book I've been involved in making...but for range of stories and sheer Japanese brilliant-ness, it's definitely the best. Not least because in it is the summary for Atsumori - a play about a young warrior-musician who dies rescuing his flute. I'm seeing it at the end of the month, and I'm actually going to be in it this summer. In America!

Now work starts on Book 2. Another stint working for the Japan Arts Council and lots of fiddly editing. Some people might sigh...but I can't wait!

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Beautiful Buildings!

Going to museums and galleries in Tokyo is a huge pleasure. Even when the exhibitions are nothing to write home about, the buildings are almost always completely gorgeous, especially when stumbled upon suddenly, rising out of a not-that-inspriring skyline. Caught in a very rainy Ueno Park on Saturday, the International Children's Library's atrium beckoned like some kind of holy grail

And it wasn't only because it had three floors choc-full of delicious looking picture books from Japan and everywhere else: looking into rooms through the renaissance-style building's glass additions made me feel as if I was looking into the past, or into a huge scale doll's house!

The Ueno Music Festival Hall was so much like the Royal Festival Hall on London's Southbank that I had to do a couple of double takes

 An extremely welcome rain-shelter at least. And even more so when a Kappa came up to say hi

And from there, things only got more impressive. The Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art was like another world - part aircraft hangar

part enormous scale Addams Family House complete with giant nooks and crannies

And to top it all off, the exhibition of impossibly tiny Hina doll accessories (think Sylvanian families done by master craftsmen) at the Nezu Museum were fun, but the building itself, designed by Kengo Kuma, was the highlight for me. Even before you get inside, the bamboo walkway reminded me of real bamboo groves

and the gorgeous garden

became my personal playground

...shared with an elephant deity

...and a very cosy looking  fish

...or two

There are some days when a tourist is exactly what you what to be!