Japan from the inside out

No business like noh business

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, September 13, 2007


IT SOUNDS LIKE SOMETHING Mel Brooks might come up with if he were Japanese. The English version of the Daily Mainichi passes along this report from the Sunday Mainichi of a special performance of Isseki Sennin (One Stone, 1000 Hermits), a modern Noh play based on the life and times of Albert Einstein, with a special focus on the Theory of Relativity.

Then again, maybe the combination is not such a mismatch after all. Both Noh and Einstein are so famous that everyone has heard about them, but when people actually see a Noh play or read an explanation of the Theory of Relativity, they have a hard time staying awake.

University of Tokyo Professor Tomio Tada was the playwright, and he talks about his inspiration:

I wrote a Noh play about Einstein because his theories cast an enormous shadow over humanity. The nuclear issue proving a serious threat to the world at this moment is something he discovered and is also guided by his theory that energy is equal to the square of mass. The fervent peace campaigner Einstein will speak out about the power of the atom in this Noh play, too.

See? You’re starting to nod off already, aren’t you!

Director Ken’ichi Kasai chimed in,

“We’ll be able to pass on the message. We’ll certainly make it a hell of a lot easier to understand (Einstein’s Theory of Relativity) than any mathematical formula.

Well, that won’t be hard to do. Most of us aren’t physicists, so it’s unlikely we’d understand the mathematics behind Einstein’s theory. Then again, I think Kasai is being optimistic when he talks about making a Noh play easy to understand. Even the Japanese find the plots difficult to follow, unless they already know the story in advance. One attends a Noh play for the atmosphere, not to see what happens in the end.

The article awakened my curiousity about other instances of modern Noh plays, so I did some searching. Most of the repertoire dates from the 14th and 15th centuries, but one popular drama in the canon dates from the 19th century. It turns out that Yukio Mishima, the influential—but really weird—novelist who so loved Japanese tradition that he dressed up in an old fashioned military uniform and committed hara-kiri one day, wrote a few modern Noh plays in the 50s. Here is a site with some photos from the productions, including a few of Mishima himself. There is one taken on his wedding day, with his poor bride wearing an expression that makes one wonder if she knew even then she would have to share him with his male lovers.


This site features a plot synopsis of Dojoji, one Mishima’s Noh plays. It takes place in a secondhand furniture shop. And here’s the site for the Theater of Yugen, which sometimes performs other modern Noh plays. One of them, Down the Dark Well, was written in 1996 by the same Dr. Tada who wrote the play about Einstein.

A little research unearthed the information that Irish playwright and poet William Butler Yeats also wrote Noh plays (well, sort of) after Ezra Pound introduced him to the form. This website tells you everything you’ll want to know about Yeats’s experiments with Noh in his Four Plays for Dancers. It quotes from “Certain Noble Plays of Japan,” in which he wrote: “With the help of Japanese plays translated by Ernest Fenollosa and edited by Ezra Pound, I have invented a new form of drama, distinguished, indirect, and symbolic.”

It goes on to explain:

Yeats adapted the raw material presented by the Noh for his own artistic purposes, in much the same way that he altered the details of the Irish myths, the symbols of the Kabbalah, the Tarot and other ‘image banks’ from which he borrowed.

I think I’d better close with that before I get a nosebleed from all the artistic excitement.

2 Responses to “No business like noh business”

  1. Aki said

    Just trivia: Tomio Tada is a famous immunologist and a fomer president of the International union of immunological societies.

    As mentioned in the Daily Mainichi’s WaiWai Report, Isseki (一石) of Isseki Sennin means “One Stone” that is “Ein Stein” in German. In addition, the whole title, Isseki Sennin (一石仙人), is a parody of a traditional Noh play, Ikkaku Sennin (一角仙人 (One-Horned Hermit)).

  2. Ken said

    Noh is difined a play to perform the aesthetic of form.
    I had taken charge of stage setting director of ‘Yoroboshi’ by Yukio Mishima when Yoshiko Miyazaki, the popular actress, was playing the role of heroine.
    The performance was highly evaluated but criticized that theme was ambiguous.
    Mishima’s work is rally hard to grasp.

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