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On July 30th, 2006, during my visit to Kyoto, Japan, for the first time in my life I had the chance to see one complete session of Nō and Kyogen at the Kanzai Kaikan (Kanzai Theatre). My experience seeing this kind of theatre includes two occasions at some Theatre festivals in Mexico City, where troupes from Japan performed short sessions of Nō. This time the Kanze Seinen Kenyu Nō performed for 6 hours, three Nō plays and one Kyogen piece. Among the pieces presented there was Hagoromo, or The Robe of Feathers (one of the most famous Nō plays in Japan), and a short play, Shimizu, which belongs to Kyogen, the comic part of this dramatic art.
Nō Theatre in Japan is one of the national performing arts treasures, with a long tradition and commanding high respect, and around the world this kind of Theatre is seen as one of the finest artistic manifestations of humankind. As a simple spectator of Nō, I preferred to look into scholars’ papers to explain some parts of it, to give a simple description about my experience and to share one video, some photographs and my impressions of the performance.
The session of that Sunday 30th of July at Kanzai Kaikan started at 11:00 am and finished at 5:00 pm; it was performed in this order:
1- Tamura 田村 (Nō) Author: Zeami (1).
2- Shimizu 志水 (Kyogen) I don’t know who the author is.
3- 10 minute break.
4- Hagoromo 羽衣 (Nō) Author: Zeami.
5- 10 minute break.
6- Performance of some ritual chants.
7- Ukai 鵜飼 (Nō) Author: Enami no Saemon (2).
Tickets cost ¥2500 (US$25,00) The theater was about 50% full, mostly with old people, and almost no foreigners.
1- Tamura 田村 (Nō) A priest visiting the Kiyomizu-dera hears from a boy working there how the temple was founded by Genshin under the patronage of Sakanoue no Tamura-maru, after the priest had met a manifestation of Kannon. The child points out the famous spots around the temple and then vanishes into the Tamura Hall. The priest recites the Lotus Sutra throughout the night, until the ghost of Tamura-maru appears and tells of the divine assistance he received from Kannon in his task of bringing peace to the land and driving away devils. (3)
Tamura, dance of the ghost:
2- Shimizu 志水 (Kyogen): The story of the lazy servant Tarokaja and his master. Tarokaja is told to fetch water for his Master's tea ceremony. Tarokaja shirks his duty by telling his master that he was attacked by a demon before he could fetch the water. The master goes to fetch the precious water container that Tarokaja left behind, and Tarokaja attacks him while wearing a demon mask. The master is frightened at first, but sees through the disguise when he recognizes Tarokaja's voice.
Shimizu is a comedy but it doesn’t seem anything close to it; it provoked some smiles in a few spectators, but nothing more. The history of Kyogen is absolutely interesting: its evolution from a sort of popular pantomime with simple dialogues to this cold technique and monotonic speech make me curious about how it evolved this way.
In ancient times, Kyogen was a comic, very useful play that would lighten up the heavy ritual of Nō, using words and dialogue closer to that of the common people, with simple plots and less technical movements.
Today, the Japanese spectator doesn’t understand anymore this kind of dialogues, so he needs to follow the text with a transcription and even a translation of it.
Of course, there are differences between Nō and Kyogen. If we compare the two styles of theatre I saw that day, we’ll find many differences in rhythm, tempo and technique: some moments in Shimizu could be called “surprising” and quick (when Tarokaja wears the mask and scares his master, for example). But simply put, nowadays, if we want to enjoy Kyogen as it is performed, we must have a deep understanding of this Japanese performing art.
3- Hagoromo 羽衣 “The Robe of Feathers” (Nō): Some fishermen are walking at Matsubara on Mio Bay when one of them finds a beautiful robe hanging from the branch of a pine tree. He is about to take this home when an angel comes to claim it, explaining that is a feather robe from Heaven. This makes the fisherman determined to keep it as a national treasure, but when the angel tells him that without it she can never again ascend to Heaven he is so moved by her distress that he agrees to return it if she will dance for him. He at first refuses to give it back before she dances for fear again, but when the angel tells him that such behavior is only to be found in the ways of men, the angel puts it on and dances. Then, calling down blessings without number on the land, she disappears up to Heaven among the mists and clouds. (4)
I expected too much from this play. I had read about it and had even found the English translation of the text on internet. I wanted to see the dancing moment, in my way of picturing this spiritual style of theatre I thought an angel dancing with her feathered robe would be impressive. Hagoromo has been a success since ancient times (Zeami talks about how people liked the play), but for my uneducated eye it resulted a very slow dance and without spiritual feeling, and I couldn’t see anything special about the physical technique of playing it.
This disappointment of mine is not only the result of an uneducated eye, I’ve seen performances for more than 25 years with depth of understanding and I’ve always thought about the ways of putting anything on stage. It’s clear that Japanese Traditional Theatre has lost something during its own evolution; reading Zeami and his contemporaries, the descriptions about how Nō was performed and the new studies analysing its history I found many interesting topics as causes of this amazing but cold theatre we see today. Oriental theatre, mainly in China and Japan, is media that plays an important political role as a recipient of its country’s culture, which means that changes in it are essentially related to mental health, patriotism and nationalism. We know that many put their hands in the conformation of its actual style and its internal political power structure, and that many were suppressed and silenced on the way; here, tradition means power.(5) The text of Zeami shows movement, scenography, even a possibility for improvisation, but that is past, and now Hagoromo is part of the Nō and Kyogen of the 21st century, part of Japan’s national treasures, and it’s performed like a jewel, technically perfect.
4- Ukai 鵜飼 (Nō): When two travelling priests meet an old cormorant fisher one of them recognises him as the man who gave him shelter two or three years ago. The old man then tells them that as he broke the strict prohibition against taking life in the nearby river by fishing there nightly with his cormorants, he has been drowned in the river as punishment. In return for the priests’ promises to pray for his soul he shows them how the fishing is done and then disappears. Nichiren (one of the priests) takes up some stones and after writing part of the Lotus Sutra on them, throws them into the river. Emma, the King of Hell, appears and tells them that although the fisherman deserves to suffer for his sins, he will send him to Paradise because of the kindness he showed the priest. (6)
This last play was a real surprise. I’d never before in my life experienced the feeling this performance gave to me: that fantastic moment when Emma, The King of Hell, dances; there was that perfect technique of voice and movements, but also very dramatic changes of rhythm. I felt a demon, its mask became a real image of Hell and its movements beat on me with energetic explosions. It’s a pity that I don’t have a visual recording of it.(6)
(1) Zeami Motokiyo or Kanze Motokiyo, c.1363–c.1443 is the father of Nō theatre, a very respected figure of Japanese culture. Actor, playwright, director and the first theorist of Japanese theatre; his texts have been studied and recognised by the most important Western and Occidental theatre theorists
(2) Enami no Saemon, actor and playwright. No further information available about him.
(3) P. 185 Tamura (Translation by Peri). “A Guide To Nō” by P.G. O’Neill. Hinoki Shoten (Publisher). Tokyo, Japan.
(4) P. 47 Hagoromo (Translation by Waley) . “A Guide To Nō” by P.G. O’Neill. Hinoki Shoten (Publisher). Tokyo, Japan.
(5) P. 203 Ukai (Translation by Waley and Renondeau). “A Guide To Nō” by P.G. O’Neill. Hinoki Shoten (Publisher). Tokyo, Japan.
(6) For Chinese theatre see: Jo Riley: “Chinese theatre and the actor in performance”. Cambridge Studies in Modern theatre. New York 2000. For Nō theatre see: Eric C. Rath: “The Ethos of Noh. Actors and their Art.” Harvard University Asia Center. Harvard, EEUU 2004; and, Kunio Komparu: “The Noh Theater. Principles and perspectives.” Floating World Editions.Tokio, Japan 2005.
(7) I could take photos and video of Tamura and one photo of Shimizu, but then someone politely told me it was forbidden.