Noh Theatre

August 10, 2007

Kenn and I enjoyed a wonderful treat last weekend. Our friends Masanobu and Ayoka Katoh took us to an educational performance of Noh Theatre, an ancient form of theatre/music drama in Japan. The performance took place Zojoji Temple, an ancient (founded in 1393) temple that was the main temple for Japan when the Shogunate ruled. There is a burial ground for shoguns behind the temple. After listening to beautiful chanting by monks in this still active temple, we made our way to the performance.

A series of acts, starting with a young child, a girl, and then a woman, were performed with elaborate dancing and singing. Then a series of acts with seated performances. We couldn’t understand the stories, but the language is so ancient that most of the attendees were no better able to understand the words.

After a break with green tea and sweets, we were given a real treat – we were shown how the player who performs the role of the woman is dressed in ancient Noh Theatre. Normally this sort of instruction is not available to the audience and the oohs and ahhs of the audience were testament to how fortunate we were.

As in Shakespearean time, the female roles in Noh Theatre were performed by men. The Noh Theatre instructor at this particular performance was to play the part of the woman. He came out dressed in undergarments, loose cotton shirt and trousers. Two other players then layered the costume and the accessories onto the teacher to transform him into the leading lady.

First, the player donned a pair of enormous and stiff looking orange trousers. The top took several layers – and one of the first was an exquisite silk robe threaded with gold. The most expensive robe is beneath the outer layer, only slightly visible once the costume is in place. This is in part for modesty but also to reward the attentive eye. The following picture shows the player mid-way through dressing.

Noh Theatre First Layers

You may notice that he has long black hair. The hair is made of the tail of a horse. It was placed on the player’s head and then wrapped and twisted to create a fold just beneath the ear. It was tied on in several ways and the long tail hidden under the robes.

No pins or fasteners were used in the costume. The layers were sewn on one by one. At the time when Noh Theatre was crated there were no safety pins or snaps.

The next picture shows what is nearly the finished product. The purple outer layer is slightly translucent so that the robe with gold thread I mentioned earlier can be glimpsed.

Noh Theatre Finished Product

The final touch was a mask tied to the player’s head. At each step, the player was asked to confirm taughtness. With so many layers, it is apparently not uncommon for players to faint during a performance. As the head swells, the ties become tighter, cutting off the blood supply.

The two men who were dressing the “woman” and the teacher did a brief performance. Sorry the video quality isn’t great, but gives you an idea of the finished product.

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One Response to “Noh Theatre”

  1. blackpoetry Says:

    Hello. This is a great video and I learned something very new. I will be travelling to the east in November and I am looking forward to the experience.
    Well take care of yourself!
    Kenya
    http://www.africanamericanchild.com


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