“I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.” – Joseph Campbell
When I was a theatre major at the University of Colorado at Boulder there was an Asian professor whose specialty was Noh Theatre. I was 18 and couldn’t understand what on Earth Noh theatre was let alone the history of Greek theatre I was forced to study in the Theatre History class. I was more into Sam Shephard.
Flash forward to age 52 and recently I attended with some Community House and Information Centre friends an introduction to Noh Theatre Workshop at the Yamamoto Nohgakudo in Osaka. WANOBI Beautiful Japan led by Yuko Sangu led the event, which promotes traditional Japanese culture and artisans.
Noh theatre is designated a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. It integrates masks, costumes and various props in dance-based performances requiring highly trained actors and musicians.
I wanted to ride my bike from my house to get there, as it’s less than a half-hour bike ride, but rain was in the forecast, so I easily took the Osaka Metro instead and walked to the Tanimachi District.
Designated as a Tangible National Treasure, the three-story wooden building with a traditional Noh stage of the Yamamoto Noh Theatre was established by Yamamoto Hiroyuki in 1927 and is the oldest nohgakudo in Osaka. Fire destroyed it during World War II, and it was rebuilt in 1950.
Indeed, I was transported into another world with Noh.
Noh started about 650 years ago, it was explained, and is the world’s most ancient mask drama and is filled with Buddhist elements. Gorgeous costumes, splendid masks and ancient stories of humans gods and demons of all life’s plots of sin, rage, lust and more are played out.
The history is profound and the art intricate. So much to know about Noh! More than I can write and repeat here. So click here to know more about Noh!
According to Brittanica: Noh—its name derived from nō, meaning “talent” or “skill”—is unlike Western narrative drama. Rather than being actors or “representers” in the Western sense, Noh performers are simply storytellers who use their visual appearances and their movements to suggest the essence of their tale rather than to enact it. Little “happens” in a Noh drama, and the total effect is less that of a present action than of a simile or metaphor made visual.
What impressed me most was learning about Zen philosophy behind Noh, especially about being present in the moment. One of the terms is the concept of Ichigo Ichie –期一会
Ichigo Ichiaya –期一会 literally means “one opportunity, one encounter.” The terms is often translated as “for this time only,” “never again,” or “one chance in a life time” between people. The unrepeatable moment. This moment cannot be replicated, such as a photograph can, so be sure to be present for it! Be awake and alive! The mechanical world can repeat or replicate nature, (read Hans Christian Andersen’s The Nightengale) but at this theatre, at this moment, the meeting of friends together, we are alive watching it, we are BEING, connecting mysteriously to it through another term yūgen, Japanese aesthetics.
“The essence of yūgen is true beauty and gentleness,” but not mere outward beauty: it had to suggest behind the text of the plays and the noble gestures of the actors a world impossible to define yet ultimately real, ” wrote Zeami, (1363 – 1443) who was instrumental along with his father Kan-ami in developing Noh into its its present form during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Zeami wrote numerous plays still performed in today’s classical repertory of some 250 plays. He also wrote a number of secret works which explain the aesthetic principles governing Noh and give details on how the art should be composed, acted, directed, taught, and produced.
Zeami’s main rule of aesthetics was the ‘flower’, an abstraction based on the effect to be felt between actor and audience only when a perfect balance of performance and reception has been achieved, a kind of mystic suspense.
Britannica continues: In his treatises—of which the most important is the collection Fūshi kaden (1400–18; “The Transmission of the Flower of Acting Style,” also known as the Kaden sho), “flower” representing the freshness and appropriateness of fine acting—written as manuals for his pupils, Zeami said the actor must master three basic roles: the warrior, the woman, and the old person, including the singing and dancing appropriate to each. The two main elements in Noh acting were monomane, “an imitation of things,” or the representational aspect, and yūgen, the symbolic aspect and spiritual core of the Noh, which took precedence and which became the touchstone of excellence in the Noh.
The spirituality of the present moment goes even deeper with Noh theatre.
Japanese symbols of presence writes that Noh theatre has strong roots in the Shinto tradition and was also influenced by the Buddhist tradition. An important rule of aesthetics Zeami used was the hana or flower, which can be explained as the effect felt between the actor and audience when a perfect balance of performance and reception is achieved; a kind of mystic suspension.
“To know the meaning of hana is the most important element in understanding Noh, and
its greatest secret.” — Zeami
This mystic suspension is the experience of Divine Presence, a state of transcended awareness in the actor and audience, brought about by the performance of the actor. A flower is used to symbolize this state.
When we are longing for something that is not in the present moment, we cannot be present and we are psychologically speaking, sick. When we have the desire to be present, or when we have reached a state of prolonged presence, we area Tree of Life.
It is a rare occurrence when the actor and audience both experience a transported state in which their Higher Selves are present. It can occur in any great performance, but usually happens by accident. Even though the performer may have a sense of how extraordinary the experience was, he is usually not able to bring it about again and his whole life may be dedicated to experiencing it again. This experience is what unknowingly attracts many musicians and actors to performing. That is to say, an extremely sensitive and small part in them that strives for the highest, is attracted to it, while the rest of the lower self is attracted to being the center of attention and blind adoration. For Zeami, being able to bring about this experience was the center of Noh drama. The word Noh means skill or ability; the ability to bring out hana.
Zeami says, “in order to understand the Flower you should first observe a flower blooming in nature, and then understand this as a metaphor for the principle of the Flower in all things.”
The growth of a flower begins with a seed, which symbolizes the desire to be present. From the seeds, roots grow into the ground, symbolizing this desire penetrating one’s whole being. The stem of the flower supports the flower itself and represents tools and techniques by which the flower — Divine Presence — is established.
Present moment awareness is replete throughout Noh. For each play, and to keep the spontaneity, there is only one rehearsal, we learned at the Workshop. Each performer practices by himself, yet already knows the other performers’ style so presumes how they will act and interact with each other. There is a great deal of improvisation, depending again on being awake and aware in the present moment.
Additionally there is a great deal of silence and slow motions in Noh theatre, something many modern audience can’t handle in today’s fast-paced world, we learned at the Workshop. In Japanese Noh theatre, time may become extraordinarily slow and concentrated. There is also a lot of old Japanese language even Japanese don’t understand nor have the patience to sit through it. It’s like a Westerner trying to learn Latin or read Chaucer.
Noh requires one to use of imagination, for in general, the use of space and time is not portrayed realistically. Rather, there’s a freedom of portrayal which requires the audience to use their imaginations. And in a modern world where people consume media pre-visualized and prepared for them rather than actively participate in it, Noh forces the audience to use their imaginations to be entertained as people did before television.
Dressed in Noh costume! Transformation of myth through time and suspension of disbelief!
Indeed, the theatre and art form must adapt to survive and fulfill its mission of the continuation of an “alive and attractive classical performing art.” Yamamoto Nohgakudo does so by putting different performances such as the Workshop I attended, and has made modern updates to survive, as attendance has dropped over the years. The Yamamoto Nohgakudo has adopted color LED lighting as one of its updates. I would think it would also allow women to perform, who were once completely banned from Noh theatre, perceived as unclean because of their menstrual nature.
At the Introduction to Noh Workshop at Yamamoto Nohgakudo, a friend was transformed into a Noh performer adorned in the traditional costume, noh-shozuku, and wig. As soon as the mask snapped on it is as if she really were a spirit and character from Noh theatre.
We were ready to have the performer connect us to the emotions we humans have of grief, fear, rage, joy – which is the purpose of theatre – to suspend disbelief and pitch the watcher out of this world into the mythic world. One is able to, like in Greek tragedy and comedy, identify with the characters and relate to his or her own life and even find catharsis and even healing.
Mark Saban, writing about Theatre and Psyche says: Theatre is all about seeing. That is what ‘theatre’ means. It derives from the Greek word Θέατρον (theatron), which means a place for seeing. If we wish to engage with psyche on its own terms, and with Jung believe that ‘image is psyche’ (Jung, 1929, §75) then it is crucial that we think about what it means to engage with image. The metaphor of theatre provides this and it does so because it is essentially dialectical, thus allowing room for the many faceted reflexivities that we come up against when we start to involve ourselves in image and how to look at it.
From Symbols of Presence in Japanese Culture: In the mirror room, the Noh actor, fully dressed and preparing to go on stage, gazes into a mirror to concentrate on his role, and then puts on his mask. The mirror symbolizes a heart yet without presence, but with the desire to be present. If the heart is completely pure, it can reflect the image of God, prolonged presence. The actor looking into the mirror symbolizes focusing on, and strengthening the desire to be present.
It helps us be present too!
So get thee to a Noh theatre and get to Noh the present moment as well as your imagination, you SELF and so much more!
Next time you are in Osaka, visit the Yamamoto Nohgakudo. There are plenty of workshops and opportunities in English and other languages! It will take you out of this world of time and space and into eternity of the now!