Friday, 25 January 2013

Masks at an Exhibition

At exhibitions, my staying power is short. Half an hour, and then however big the exhibition is, I want to be in the gift shop. But, at a huge noh exhibition held in a Ginza department store to celebrate Zeami's 650th anniversary, I broke my own rule and stayed for over an hour!

My sudden surge of energy was mainly because of the masks they had on display. Normally, you're lucky if you get to see one priceless relic mask close up. At this exhibition there were about 50 of them, all almost close enough to touch. Noh masks are unsettling - expressionless, but full of a vitality that is completed once the actor is wearing it. My favourite was the old woman who remembers being beautiful, higaki onna.

In full lighting viewed straight on, she looks shocked - perhaps a bit annoyed. Angled slightly this way or that - totally different. Lights don't usually go down in a noh performance so the actors' very subtle gestures have to do all the work. But the effects are even more dramatic with stage lighting. This week, on the stage of a fusion performance I went to at Tokyo's Spiral Hall, the lone noh actor was wearing this very mask. During the show, he had filled the stage with a fizzing energy even though he was sitting still most of the time. But when the lights started to fade, the mask, and the character, seemed to turn to stone and disappear. All in absolute stillness.

I've been reading quite a bit about noh masks lately, and the more I read, the more fascinating they become. Best of all was an article I came across in No/Kyogen Masks and Performanceabout the actor's relationship with the mask, an interview with Udaka Michishige, an important shite main actor in the Kongo school of noh. Where there is a choice of masks for a particular play, he, like lots of other noh actors, implies that to a surprisingly large extent the mask chooses its actor - for him to be comfortable wearing it, there was to be a degree of 'right' ness about the mask, which fits its bearer. This was particularly interesting coming from Michishige, who is both mask-maker and noh actor.

In another article in the same book, the late Kanze Hisao explains a bit more about the unusually intimate relationship a noh actor has with his chosen mask before and during a given play. Masks don't turn a character into a type as they do in Greek theatre or other masked drama - rather, they become one with the wearer, his 'companion' in the piece. The mask strives for some sort of universality - so it's the mask and not the bare face that is supposed to represent the more 'human' of the characters when its representing a dead person.

All this, from one exhibition?! Perhaps I'll stay a whole hour at the next one, too. But, it'll have to be pretty good.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Noh Notebook: Noh, Snow, Tokyo

Even though I'd already seen one performance of Okina at the Kita Noh Theatre, I decided it would be a good idea to go and see another one organised by a different guild. Well, it seemed like a good idea until I looked out of the window on the morning of the show, to a full-blown snowstorm. Later - wet, cold, late, and out of chocolate - I  arrived at the Kanze Noh Theatre after an hour's battle through Tokyo's first all-day snowstorm in 20 years. This play was going to have to be good.

In this theatre, latecomers (which this time included about a quarter of the audience who, like me, had to dig themselves out of snowdrifts to get there) always end up sitting not facing the front of the stage...

...but sitting beside the bridgeway, looking into stage right:

The view was so completely different that it felt like a different play entirely even though the performances varied only subtly. It was gratifying this time to be able to see the arms of Okina's three kotsuzumi players working, from the side:

The next play was Genjo, a story about two famous lute players (one alive, one dead): huge cast (for noh - maybe 20 people) but the actual lute only appeared at the very end. The pillar downstage right separated two of the central characters and made for interesting viewing:

I even had time to look up at the stage roof, decorated for new year and with its corners and layers all much easier to see under the theatre space's real roof, from where I was sitting.

Add to that a brilliant interlude where the Ai Kyogen comes on dressed up - and, unusually for this [in some people's opinion, lower] class of actor, masked - as 'a not-very-important god from a lesser shrine' to tell the story...

...and an utterly mesmerising solo shimai (solo dance in plain kimono done out of the context of the play it comes from to show off technique) of the thrilling final dance in one of my favourite plays, Ama (The Diver). All in all - 'good' and 'worth it' didn't quite cover it.

I skipped home - or tried to - only slipping over a couple of times on three-inch thick sludgy ice in a pair of trainers made for a summertime outing to the park.

Another fine noh day!

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Noh Notebook: Manhattan / Okina, New Year 2013

Last year, in Tokyo, I was the lowly Curtain Lifter for the play Manhattan Okina. This year, I was promoted to Actor! In Kimono!  

My first play in Tokyo! Well, ok, it wasn't QUITE in Tokyo. It was in a big old house/museum/theatre in the gorgeous gardens of Sankei-en in Yokohama. There was no-one there when we arrived an hour before the start of our first of three performances, but within half an hour, the place was packed, and stayed packed for the rest of the day.

It's a small play, and the story if you can call it that, is simple: three old men (actually one woman dressed as a Buddhist priest, donning three different masks in turn) see flowers at the moment of their deaths, and are welcomed to heaven by a Flower Spirit as Okina gods so they can protect and guide people who might otherwise be ignored.

You could say the same thing about the original Okina, one of the oldest plays still performed in Japan. It's more a blessing than a noh play. What you remember about it is the joyous drumming and the songs - not the dancing or the story, which you can read before you even start...

...and then completely forget about, and enjoy it just as much.

Coming out of the Kita Noh Theatre on Sunday 6th January, for the first time in six months, after seeing Okina and the sumptuous Arashiyama (another play about flower spirits) I couldn't help but feel festive. I'm still not allowed to take photos, but my pen had clearly decided it didn't care:

It is a Happy New Year.