Saturday, June 14, 2008

Today, I went to the National Noh theatre in Sendagaya. Noh is a traditional form of Japanese theatre that involves a combination of dance, drama, music and poetry.

Noh is believed to have developed into i's present form in the 14th century, when the playwrights and actors Kan'ami (1333-1384) and his son Zeami (1363-1443) took elements of traditional Japanese entertainment to create Noh.

Plays are performed on a square stage approximately 19 feet square, that is made of cypress wood. The is no scenery except for a painting of a pine tree at the back, which dates from when Noh plays were performed in open shrines that usually had a pine tree nearby. Most interesting of all is that above the stage is a roof, which is the same as on a Shinto Shrine. At the back of the stage sit the musicians who are composed of three people on drums and one person on a flute.

The costumes are very beautiful to look at and are adapted from ones from the 15th century. The principal performers also wear wooden masks, which help to portray the emotion of the character, many of which are hundreds of years old.

The cast are divided into three groups which are Shi-te, Waki, or Ai-Kyogen. The main performer is the Shi-ite and these people often wear masks, especially if they are playing a female role. The Waki are the secondary characters in the plays and the Ai-Kyogen present monologues while the Shi-ite is off stage, in order to give more information about the Shi-ite's situation and to allow the Shi-ite time to change.

Intrinsic to Noh is dancing, which is very stylized. The dances are very slow and elegant and completely different to the forms of dancing often seen in western culture. Everyone also moves about the stage very slowly, not raising their feet from the ground, almost gliding across.

Kyogen is also performed alongside Noh plays. Kyogen is comic in its nature and uses the stories of everyday people or folklore. There is no dancing or music performed in Kyogen and it relies entirely on dialogue.

The first performance I saw was a Kyogen play called 'Kaki Yamabushi'. This play was about a warrior returning from his ascetic training on Mount Omine to Haguro. On his way he stops to climb a persimmon tree to get its fruit.

The farmer who owns the tree then turns up. The humour in this play comes from the warrior pretending to be different animals in order to try and convince the farmer that he is not stealing the fruit from the tree.

The next performance was a Noh play called Raiden. This is about Sugawara no Michizane(845-903) who was an early Heian court figure. He was a brilliant scholar and had great influence in the court until he was exiled to Kyushu by the jealous Fujiwara no Tokihira. A few years after his exile Michizane died and a number of natural disasters occurred. As many people believed that that these disasters were the result of Michizane's angry spirit he was given a number of posthumous titles in order to placate him. He is most famous for being the god of learning, in fact you may remember that I visited the Kameido Tenjin Shrine in February and April, which was built to honour him.

At the beginning of the play Michizane's former teacher, Hosshobo, the head priest of Enryakuji Temple, is holding a service to pray for peace. Michizane's spirit then appears and they discuss the strong bond that they had as teacher and pupil.

However Michizane then becomes angry as he recounts how he was treated by Fujiwara no Tokihira. He takes a pomegranate from the alter dish, bites it and then spits it out, turning it into flames. The priest then chants some incantations to put the fire out. The spirit of Michizane then disappears.

In the final part of the play Hosshobo prays to appease the spirit of Michizane, but he does not listen to the priest. Appearing as the god of thunder he throws lightning bolts and thunder before him and he and the priest then embark in a struggle. It is only when the Emperor gives Michizane a new honourable name that he leaves.