Master Gives Tips for Amateurs to Enjoy Noh
TOKYO – Japan’s important intangible cultural asset, Noh, has a 650-year history. If you are Japanese, the word “Noh” would probably bring to mind the theater filled with a mysterious atmosphere, a dignified stage against a backdrop of large pine trees on which a performer moves elegantly. However, the fact is that today there is only a handful of Japanese who go to a Noh theater, understand Noh spirit and enjoy the performance. The general image of Noh these days is probably “abstract, noble and difficult.” For foreigners, this performing arts might be further out of reach.
What if, however, this “difficult” art could become more familiar and enjoyable? There are reasons that Noh survived for such a long time. Otoshige Sakai, a grand master Noh performer who is designated as an Important Intangible Cultural Property (or a Living National Treasure), said, “Noh is based on the deep Japanese belief that the human being is not an absolute existence, which represents the essential Japanese spirit. The spirit has been nurtured by history.” Since Noh is a representation of Japanese spirit, it never perished despite the catastrophic impacts of the Meiji Restoration and the Second World War.
Noh is a stage-based performing art that slices off all excessive elements including stage decoration, props and motions. All elements are condensed to the absolute minimum. The dialogue is in classical Japanese, and there is no detailed explanation to the story. Due to this abstraction, it is recognized as a theater art that is sometimes difficult to interpret and appreciate. But these characteristics don’t mean that Noh is totally inaccessible to the average audience member!
In an interview, Otoshige Sakai, who has been active for more than 75 years and leading Japan’s Noh movement, gave some tips on how to enjoy Noh to those who are not yet familiar with the art. Let’s learn what they are!
These photos show scenes from Aoinoue, based on 11th-century novel Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji). The protagonist Genji is such a handsome, sexy guy that the vengeful spirit of his extra-marital lover possesses his wife. The lover had become so sad after losing Genji’s love and being humiliated by his wife that she turned into the vengeful spirit to haunt his wife, who was eventually driven into a corner and fell ill of an unknown cause. The lover’s feelings of sadness and jealousy caused by her lost love and the agony and animosity generated by humiliation are described in this piece. The feeling expressed through Genji’s lover is universal, irrespective of gender or nationality. When we look at Noh as an expression of feelings common to us all, doesn’t it turn from an abstract and difficult art into an everyday human drama that depicts our emotions?
Look at it this way, you will discover the commonality between you and a Noh character created over 650 years ago. Based on the premise that Noh is an art form through which universal human feelings are expressed, let’s learn how to enjoy Noh in concrete terms.