Thursday, 7 February 2013

Noh Notebook: A Theatrical Glutton in Tokyo

The closer my return to the UK looms, the more obsessed I get with seeing as much noh as possible. On my penultimate weekend, once Saturday morning's Noh Training Project utai-shimai class was over, the only real reason I left one noh theatre was to go to another.

First, having finally cracked the basic movements of the Ami-no-Dan dance from the play Sakuragawa, I dashed straight to a special programme at Kita Nohgakudo which, extremely unusually, featured an eight-strong chorus made up entirely of female professional noh actors.Even though the world noh-as-hobby students is full of women, you very rarely see female noh actors on stage as professionals, playing to paying audiences and organising their own kai (sponsored performances).

The main play of the day was Motomezuka, a 'tormented woman' play considered to be one of the most depressing in the whole repertory. In a long, slow concert of torment about the spirit of a woman who, in life, caused the death of two suitors and then killed herself in remorse. But although priests pray for the release of her soul (as often happens in noh plays) in this play there is no redemption. In the last scene, she climbs back into her grave/prison still singing of her suffering. But the music is haunting and beautiful, and the women's voices enlivened the text so differently to the way I'd heard men's choruses do it before, that this time, I felt oddly uplifted by it. From the shomenseki (front view) seats, I got a good look at said chorus:

Another full programme followed on Sunday, at the Kanze Nohgakudo in Shibuya. The first play was Tamura, one of my favourite warrior plays. At first it's all about a cute boy looking at flowers and waterfalls...

...until a 'noh-speciality' time shift reveals that the boy is actually an incarnation of the shogun Sakanoue no Tamuramaru. Suddenly the boy returns dressed as a warrior in a huge hat and kimono, and the play becomes a dynamically danced run-through of battle-victories:

Next, Sumidagawa - which I last saw in a huge church in London of all places with one or two of the same actors playing. None of the 'mother and lost child' plays are my absolute favourites, but the sadness of the mother in this play moves me every time. Here, she is about to get on a boat to go and find her son's grave (not yet knowing that he's dead, but fearing he is). The boatman is already behind her: 

I'd never seen the final play, Choryo, before. A Chinese story about a general who goes through a series of tests so he can receive a scroll containing the secrets of warfare from a deity who isn't too keen to let him off easily. I've read it as a story before, and Pound and Fennelosa translated the play into English in 1916. It's a pretty standard heroic story, really, but for a noh play it is very unusual: it's one of the very few plays where the waki secondary actor is actually the main character. Here he is fighting the deity who doesn't want to give him the scroll, and then (after he wins) reading it: 

And so ended another weekend of noh. Any guilt I might have felt about the number of hours I'd spent sitting in the theatre on two of the sunniest winter days I'd ever seen, disappeared much sooner than it ought to have. 


  1. I love your drawings!
    Yes there are not many chances for women to perform with women-only ji-utai. I am not sure about other schools, but many Kongo-ryu women are registered at the Nagoya section of the Nogakukyokai where they have regular 'all-women' plays.

    1. you are very kind! I like doing them.
      It was particularly odd seeing an all-female ji-utai at the Kita theatre because in the whole of the Kita-ryu there is still only one woman in the Nogakukyokai! When she organised an all-women kai in Tokyo last year it had to be a kita/kanze partnership event.
      I'd love to go to Nagoya and see a Kongo all-women performance (or indeed any Kongo performance - I have seen far less of them in Tokyo than Kanze/Kita/Hosho) - fingers crossed I come back to Japan soon!