Japan from the inside out

Noh by firelight

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, September 1, 2007

WHAT DO THE PEOPLE IN JAPAN associate with summer? The intense, otherworldly sound of cicadas, wind chimes, sweat, snow cones, watermelons, sweat, grade school kids exercising in an open lot while listening to the Rajio Taiso (Radio Exercise) program broadcast on NHK at 6:30 in the morning, a mountain of homework, and more sweat.

firelight noh

Less frequently mentioned, but just as much a part of the summer landscape, are the performances of takigi Noh, or bonfire Noh. For those unfamiliar with the form, Noh dramas are the oldest remaining professional theater in the world. Most of the repertoire dates from the 14th and 15th centuries, though one popular drama in the canon dates from the 19th century. It is extremely stylized; the actors wear masks, the lines of text are delivered in a distinctive chant (as intense and otherworldly in its own way as the cicadas), and the stage movements are rather deliberate and strictly defined.

For a good explanation of Noh, I recommend this excellent overview by Paul Binnie. He seems to sincerely love the form and does a good job of explaining its appeal. (For an in-depth look, try the Noh and Kyogen website on the right sidebar.)

Noh is usually performed indoors, often in a theater built specifically for that purpose. Come summer, however, Noh performances are staged outdoors at night with small bonfires for illumination. There have been dozens of performances throughout the country in recent weeks.

One, held at the Izumi Shinto Shrine in Kumamoto City, demonstrates that this is a living tradition; those outdoor performances began in 1960.

They are not a Japanese version of summer stock theater, either. The renowned Kuroemon Katayama IX, a national living treasure, appeared in four different dramas, including a kyogen performance, at the annual Shinshu Azumino Bonfire Noh in a local park in Azumino, Nagano Prefecture, with about 800 people in attendance.

Meanwhile, 700 people came to see Noh by firelight at Nikkozan Rinno-ji, a Buddhist temple in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture. Many also made the trek to the countryside in Asahi-mura, Niigata Prefecture to see performances that are an intangible cultural treasure of the prefecture. Noh dramas have been presented in Asahi-mura annually for 150 years, though the outdoor Noh performances date back only 20 years.

One word that the media invariably use to describe bonfire Noh is yugen. That’s one of those inscrutable Japanese words with no direct equivalent in English. The late Alan Watts explained it this way:

The Japanese have a word yugen, which has no English equivalent whatsoever. Yugen is in a way digging change. It’s described poetically, you have the feeling of yugen when you see out in the distant water some ships hidden behind a far-off island. You have the feeling of yugen when you watch wild geese suddenly seen and then lost in the clouds. You have the feeling of yugen when you look across Mt Tamalpais, and you’ve never been to the other side, and you see the sky beyond. You don’t go over there to look and see what’s on the other side, that wouldn’t be yugen. You let the other side be the other side, and it invokes something in your imagination, but you don’t attempt to define it to pin it down

That’s the Zen hipster definition; the one in a standard Japanese dictionary is more mundane. There it’s identified as “something with a profound and unfathomable aspect”. Actually, unfathomable is a good word to describe the whole business. Because most Noh plays are several hundred years old, the language of the texts is no longer the language in common use today. The unusual chant used to deliver the lines renders them even more difficult to pick up.

fireside no 3

I’ve been to two Noh performances, one in a theater and one outside with firelight, and I quickly gave up trying to understand what was going on. It’s best just to sit there and enjoy the spectacle.

It’s not much easier for Japanese to understand, either. At the theater performance, the audience consisted mostly of women who brought books containing the text of the plays and used those to follow the performance.

It was next to impossible for me to dig the change of yugen at the outdoor Noh, however, because the entire experience was downright uncomfortable. First, Japanese summers are oppressively hot. Sitting outside on a sweltering night has all the negatives of a sauna with none of the positives, especially when you lack the foresight to bring along some refreshing beverages. Second, while the bonfires may help create the ineffable yugen experience, they certainly don’t make the area around the stage any cooler.

Yet, I could have managed all that but for one additional element that made my visit to a takigi Noh nearly unbearable:

The mosquitoes!

One Response to “Noh by firelight”

  1. Aki said

    When I visit Noh theater, I always fall into a doze in the middle of the play, and when I wake up after 10 minutes, players are still at the same position as before. Their movement is too slow.

    I like Mibu Kyogen (壬生狂言) held in the Mibudera temple (壬生寺) in Kyoto rather than authentic Noh. Although Mibu Kyogen has a number of plays common to the Noh repertoire, it is more entertaining than conventional Noh. Mibu Kyogen seems to be maintaining the style of primitive plays for commoners while Noh is an art established for the ruling class people who had probably too much time.

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