Monday, 4 June 2012

Noh Notebook: May 2012

Trying to cram as much Japanese performance into my life before I go back to the UK is no easy task. Sometimes I approach it with dread

sometimes with out-and-out terror

 But deal with it, I must. So, in May I saw about 15 hours of noh. Here's what happened:

At Umewaka nohgakudo, I saw my first noh completely performed by women. This almost NEVER happens in professional noh even though most of the main characters are women, or ghosts of them. In Semimaru, where a blind prince and his sister are reunited after years apart (in real life rather than in death or dream, for once), it was rather strange that the brother was actually smaller than the sister. But it didn't make any difference to the intensely moving moment when he recognises her voice, and she his face. They kneel before each other, and touch their fans together. It is so rare for characters to touch each other in noh plays (in most of the famous ones, every character is in his own world, within the waki character's mannered and symbolic dream) that when it does happen, it's like being struck by lightning or something. The power of the story didn't make the characters any easier- or indeed any less fun - to draw. 

Then, a special performance at the National Noh Theatre, of Ama (The Diver) one of the oldest plays in the repertory and one of my favourites. I don't know enough about noh to tell the differences between the different noh performance guilds' practices, but I did like the special costumes enough to attempt to recreate them in pastel rather than biro for a change...

...and the sea dragon headdress wasn't bad either

Perhaps the best thing of all about the National Noh Theatre, though, is the seat-back surtitles (which you can set to English and/or modern Japanese). Despite the slightly odd Japanglish word order, being able to follow the spoken story reminded me, with a rush of delight how much the poetic language adds to noh's already utterly mesmerising feast of storytelling for eyes, ears and heart.

I was glad there were two plays I already knew in the marathon program at the Hosho school on 19th May because there was no English explanations for anything, at all! Compared to the performance of Rodaiko I saw at Kita nohgakudo a few months ago, Hosho's version felt generally quieter, sadder, less angry. y mind and my pencil wandered, to the Kyogen costumes

 and, since I'm about to start learning noh drumming, the musicians:

I'd only seen the 'jumping lion dance' (shishimai) section from the end of  Shakkyo before (it finished off the Takigi Noh performance at Meiji Jingu shrine last October. But at Hosho, I finally saw the whole play. Honestly, though, the red lion hair (which I rather anti-intuitively drew in black on the day, oops) is still the highlight for me

Finally, back 'home' to Kita's monthly performance. It wasn't only because I'd forgotten to bring anything but a yellow highlighter that I hardly drew at all. The warrior ghost play Michimori which began the programme, was so surprisingly moving that I couldn't take my eyes off it (which is why there is a proper print and not a scribble below)

The storyline wasn't unusual - a husband and a wife, both dead, lament the life and love they lost. But they do it standing beside each other in a boat, mirroring each others' slow, measured movements but never once being able to look at each other, while the music sounds a frenzy of grief, running wild in a way I imagined they might do themselves, if they could.

Asukagawa was another 'mother and child'/madwoman play like Hyakuman which I saw in April, with a beautiful scene where three rice planters sing about the perils of the Asuka River... but the demon play Nue (about a griffin-like creature who gives the Emperor terrible nightmares and is punished for it later) was the flashiest. Just like Shakkyo, the monster's dance at the end is dynamic and fast and exhilarating.

Phew! One month to go, lots more noh to see. Here goes!

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