Noh: A Theatre of Bridges
Updated: Sep 22, 2019
As an actor and a former student of Anthropology, my work has often orbited around the fascinating and well-studied world of traditional Japanese theatre. Noh, Kyogen, Kabuki: these are all names that almost every theatre maker with a bachelors degree has heard at least once. As a student, I found myself studying Noh and Kabuki in several classes before they became part of my thesis. As an actor, I have deeply studied the Suzuki Method of Actor training, a method which grew out of and in response to these traditional forms. In the summer of 2018 I finally traveled to Japan for the first time. I had planned to spend a few days in Tokyo and, after years of distant engagement, I knew I had to finally experience these traditional theatre forms firsthand. In the few days I was in Tokyo, I saw one Noh and two Kabuki productions, and was awed.
What follows is the second in a three-part series about my experience and observations watching these traditional Japanese theatre forms. Getting to experience Noh and Kabuki firsthand has significantly deepened my appreciation for them, and I hope, through these essays, to communicate some of my newfound awe for these enduring forms, and what we can learn from them today.
One of the most iconic elements of the traditional Japanese Noh is the hashigakari, a bridge which provides the only entrance to the Noh stage. I was so eager to finally see a hashigakari and the rest of the highly codified Noh stage when I walked into the Kanze Noh Theater in Tokyo in August of 2018. The stage, built in the same design as all other Noh stages since its formalization by Zeami in the 1400s, is located in the subbasement of Ginza 6, a massive mall in the heart of Tokyo’s shopping district. It is a great irony that a construction of such tradition and culture is nestled underneath the epitome of modern engineering and consumption, and the dissonance between these two spaces felt preeminently Japanese. I took the escalator to the subbasement and shuffled timidly into the theater alongside aging Japanese men and women who were quietly finding their seats, preparing the little tomes they would reference during the performance to come.
Perhaps more than any other traditional Japanese theatre form, Noh has a reputation of being exceedingly dull and plodding. Every movement is highly formalized and the overall pace is very slow. Choral text is chanted throughout almost in monotone, drummers make strange, otherworldly noises in “musical” interludes, and the language itself is so archaic that even native speakers must reference a printed text to understand the dialogue. I had been warned by a former professor who had lived in Japan that even native Japanese people always fall asleep during performances of Noh. So, when I took my seat, I was expecting to watch a performance that was certainly fascinating, but mostly dull (especially since I was jet-lagged…).
Instead, to my surprise, I was riveted for the duration of the two Noh and one Kyogen plays I witnessed that day. I was carried from one moment to the next by a combination of intellectual fascination and impulsive wonder at the proceedings. See, I had studied Noh and its comedic counterpart, Kyogen, in undergrad. I had learned that every Noh play is a roughly hour-long story about an unfulfilled spirit who appears to a mortal and unburdens his or her woes in order to pass on into the afterlife. I had learned that this spirit, called the shite, was the center of every Noh play, and its revelation is always preceded by that of the waki, a human character (usually a priest) who has either been summoned to or stumbled upon the site of this spirit. The waki is in turn preceded by a more pedestrian performer called the kyogen, who is himself preceded by a chorus of chanters. This order of introduction – chorus, then kyogen, the waki, then shite – is repeated in most Noh plays. I had learned that Noh also features highly stylized dance, choral chanting, body-obscuring costuming and mask, and a variety of other conventions that mostly confound foreign audiences. Beyond just Noh, I had learned that Kyogen plays, in contrast, were short, partly improvised scenes performed between Noh plays, and that they were always stories of pedestrian comedy, usually about a particularly dense or mischievous servant. However, I had never experienced how these elements are connected in a live performance.
In the first of the two Noh plays, titled Tsunemasa, I watched as first the choral musicians entered the space – notably not from the hashigakari but from the stage left sliding-door entrance only used by non-narrative performers. Dressed in simple, back kimonos with no mask but no facial expression, they took their position sitting stage left, and the proper narrative of the play began. One begins to play a flute, a high-pitched, eerie sound, as the waki enters, extremely slowly, dragging his feet in the very particular way in which Noh performers are trained their entire lives, via the bridge. He is the priest Goykei, and he comes forward to explain to the audience that he has been summoned to give prayers of repose to the dead soldier, Taira no Tsunemasa. The waki is garbed in more elaborate costume than the chorus members, with larger swaths of fabric and a large hat that somewhat obscures his silhouette, but remains unmasked. He is completely still, until he finishes his monologue and lifts the two implements he is holding, a fan in one hand and some tassels in the other. Unlike the chorus, he performs no pedestrian movement. Every movement of his is stylized, and only his face and his barely-discernible body remind us of his humanity.
Then, after the waki has performed his monologue and sits at the downstage left column, the entire chorus comes to life. They drum, play the flute, and make strange, otherworldly vocalizations. It has the feeling of an elaborate summoning. Amidst this organized (and sparse) cacophony, the curtain at the end of the bridge is lifted again, and from the darkness emerges the shite. He is magnificent and bizarre: an even larger kimono completely conceals his body, a huge wig adorns his head, and the iconic mask of the Noh theater covers his face (he looks more like an origami paper doll than a human). He is, clearly, the centerpiece of this event. There is the feeling that everything has been leading up to this point, to the shite’s arrival. And he does not disappoint. He first speaks a monologue about the torments that a warrior suffers in the afterlife. I do not understand the words, but I feel the centuries-preserved meaning within them. Then, he performs an elaborate and meticulous dance holding a glorious golden fan (which, if you ask me, should be the icon of Noh just as much as the masks are), accompanied by the music of the chorus. There is resistance, development, surprise. The precision is captivating. Then, once the dance is danced and the speech spoken, he leaves, his task complete, and play crumples around his exit. There is no denouement; the performers simply leave the stage in the order they entered: shite, waki, then chorus.
And we are back in the real world. I desperately wondered what had just happened (I had to piece together the plot from a short English synopsis), but felt that I had just been in the presence of a spirit descending to give us its wisdom. Watching the shite’s dance was truly magnificent. I didn’t know exactly what it meant to me, but it was handled with such captivating care that it left me wondering just what the spirit said, what he might be able to tell me about life and death. The whole play seemed to be structured to give us a momentary insight into the divine, into the afterlife, into the unknowable things of human existence. And that’s when it occurred to me: Noh is a theatre of bridges.
How do we create a space where an audience can receive a message from the divine? Through a series of gradual transformations, a series of bridges that guide us from the pedestrian world and into the divine. Much as the hashigakari transports the shite from the spirit world into the theatrical, so do the conventions of Noh transport the audience. Each play begins with normal people – the chorus in uniform dress, unmasked, unconcealed. From there, the ritual gradually moves us away from human. Movement is increasingly abstracted and stylized. The human form is increasingly obscured. The unfamiliar and strange musical accompaniment pulls us out of the natural world. The introduction of the waki’s costume and stylized movement prepares the audience for the even further developed elements of the shite. If the shite entered without the preparation created by the chorus and the waki, its magic would be lost. Its supernatural presence would be too dissonant with the contemporary world and we would not see it as a spirit – we might instead see it as an actor in a costume. In addition, the shite must continually be mediated by the in-betweens: the waki himself must be somewhat distanced from the pedestrian world in order to directly interact with the shite spirit. Thus, the audience is guided over a series of bridges, a hypnotic journey which culminates in contact with an otherworldly perspective, a glimpse into the fundamental truth of the universe.
And how does Kyogen, an apparently opposite style of performance, fit into this theatre of bridges? It seems to me that Kyogen provides a formal middle ground – yet another bridge between our world and the world of Noh.
The Kyogen that was performed followed a mischievous peasant trying to steal food from a sleeping farmer. The peasant tries repeatedly to get his prize, sneaking up on the farmer, trying to wrest the bit of food from the farmer’s hands without waking him (kind of like the Grinch pulling candy canes out of the hands of Whoovians). And, of course, every time the farmer stirs, the peasant quickly slides the food back, trying not to get caught. Frankly, it was quite funny – people laughed throughout. It was a refreshing change of pace from the weighty Noh.
For the most part, this Kyogen featured the same formal movement and speaking quality as does Noh, and yet there were also several elements that were free to be naturalistic: the victimized farmer sprawled on the ground when asleep, characters looked at each other as they spoke, and they actually used facial expressions. Even the formal elements seemed to be used in a way that mocked themselves by placing these stylized movements into a naturalistic context. One of the first gags of the show begins with the peasant entering in the formal Noh walk: shuffling his feet, no movement in the upper body, and looking straight ahead, expressionless. Because he’s walking in this absurd way, he doesn’t see the farmer sleeping directly ahead, and almost trips over him! This bit wonderfully points out how ridiculous these formal elements would be in an ordinary context, and thereby reminds us that the formal elements are designed to do something assuredly extra-ordinary. Thus, I witnessed Kyogen making irreverent commentary on itself and its companion (just like Greek comedy, Shakespearean fools, Javanese ludruk, and every other comic performance tradition does). More than just being a change of pace, I think that Kyogen, with its mix of naturalistic and irreverent formal elements, functions both to strengthen Noh’s sincere formal elements by contrast, and to support the spiritual world that they create. Thus, Kyogen provides another bridge between the common world and the elevated world of Noh – by laughing at their distance.
All of these mystifying conventions – the prominence of the hashigakari; the elaborate, origami-doll-like costuming; the rigid formality in movement and speaking; the structural dissonance between Noh and Kyogen – suddenly made sense as I felt myself taken along this series of bridges. As I left the theater and transitioned – suddenly – back into the commercial streets of Ginza, I remained buzzing about the journey I had just experienced. These bridges lead Noh’s audiences to a moment of insight, of rapture, of intense awareness of the frailty of our own world. And isn’t that the goal of every kind of theatre? To be, briefly, in the presence of something magnificent?