Okina: Religion and Male Chauvinism in Noh

by Hanna

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Okina performance by Udaka Michishige, March 10 at Itsukushima Shrine

Perhaps the most beautiful Noh stage in Japan is located in Hiroshima at Itsukushima Shrine. It is surrounded by water at high tide, drawing a natural division between the material world to which the audience belongs and the world of gods presented onstage. Only men may stand on this stage, and early in the morning on March 10, I saw a performance of Okina by Udaka Michishige-sensei.

Okina is the oldest Noh performance piece, more a set of dances than an actual play. It is a piece that women may not perform. The lead actors (shite) who dance Okina are said to become invested with the presence of a god, to literally become the embodiment of a god, during the performance. In preparation, the lead actor will do bekka (a period of ritual purification), during which they are not to eat from the same dishes as women, cannot eat food prepared by women, and are not supposed to communicate directly with women. According to the demanding schedule of an actor and the traditions of their school, actors will practice bekka for a week to a month or (at least in the past) a year in hopes of calling the gods into their performance. Udaka-sensei went through a similar practice for a week before his performance, or so he says since I didn’t see him in that time.

When I explained this all to my father, he commented on the male chauvinism of Noh performance. I had not allowed myself to think about Noh performance as exclusive of women, but wanted to think that the exclusion of women from the professional Noh stage was rather in performances related to particular religious institutions that did not allow women to perform Noh in front of the gods. Yet, although believing male chauvinism exists can also lead to reverse prejudices, this comment prompted me to question women’s role in Noh performance more directly.

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The shite enters the stage without a mask. The tide was unusually high for Udaka-sensei’s performance.

For Udaka-sensei’s performance at Itsukushima Shrine, the high tide was in and water surrounded the stage as it is meant to be. Afterwards, the tide drew quickly out. The shrine priests said it was very unusual to have the high tide just perfect for a performance as tide comes so far in only twice a month. The dance itself was trance-like, accompanied by the unusual rhythms created by using three shoulder drums (kotsutsumi). As an audience member, the magical presence of gods was palpable.

Of course, Noh theater is historically an all-male performance art, but women were allowed into the Noh Theater Society for the first time in 1948, which is no more than 60 years ago. Yet before the Edo period, there are temple records of women having performed Noh as well. It was during the harsh regulations by the Tokugawa shogunate in the Edo period that women became banned from the stage.

In the modern age no woman – except perhaps Uzawa Hisa, who regularly performs abroad – has made a name for themselves as performers on the Japanese Noh stage. Recently, on March 24 at the National Noh Theater in Tokyo, an annual performance of women’s Noh was founded and at this first performance, Uzawa Hisa played the lead of Kokaji, about the fox god at Fushimi. I hope some day to see a performance by her or by any professional female Noh actor.

On May 19 at the National Noh Theater , I saw a performance of Utaura by Udaka-sensei, and afterwards a performance of Aoi-no-ue, by another actor of the Kongo school. What struck me as well as the rest of the audience about Aoi-no-ue was that the tsure, or supporting actor, was a woman、Hasamoto Sanae. Since she wore a mask when she entered the stage, few people noticed, unless they had studied the program well enough, but when she began chanting, a few women behind me even gasped out loud, “She’s a woman!” In my humble opinion, she played the best of the whole play, in the role of a female shaman called to exorcise a demon from Lady Aoi. The eerie mood she created in her solo was not continued in the performance by the lead actor playing the demon spirit of Lady Rokujo. He had a weak voice, stumbled through parts of the chant, and looked awkward as he pulled his robe over his head near the end of the first act.

Women have a future in Noh thanks to the support of their professional teachers. On April 4th, Sensei performed Dojoji, a play about the power of a woman’s jealousy. Dojoji, with its ranbyoshi, or technically challenging sequence, and onstage costume change within the sealed bell, into which no stage assistant can enter to help the lead actor chage, is a play that usually marks a Noh actor’s coming of age. Yet, the content of the piece and the fear of a woman’s ability to break men’s concentration has traditionally kept women from the backstage area during the performance of this piece. The same evening as Sensei’s performance, at an after-performance party in a small exclusive bar called Shojo-an, when asked about this practice of baring women from backstage, Sensei said in all seriousness that some day soon a woman will perform Dojoji and for that performance, no man will be allowed to enter backstage. To be able to do this, a large number of female Noh actors must have gained knowledge about all aspects of Noh performance.

In private lessons, female students of Noh are treated as seriously as male students. In fact, most students of Noh are female. Perhaps this is because Japanese women have more free time and the means to support various hobbies. Students’ support of Noh is a large financial sum in the form of lessons fees, recital fees, and ticket sales. A month of lessons (for any student, male or female) could easily be $200 (US) and to perform a short piece in a recital starts at $500 and skyrockets to $20,000 for staging a full Noh performance.

Yet what will it take for a female to become a leading figure in the world of Noh? Definitely a solid training in the techniques of Noh, but also the charisma and drive that come from spiritual training. In my own lessons, I’ve begun learning Shingon esoteric Buddhist practices of meditation, since Udaka-sensei says that Noh performance technique is one wheel, but spiritual depth is another, and both have to be equally developed to create a strong performance. If only one or the other is developed, the performance will be haphazard.

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At the beginning of Okina, the lead actor bows deeply towards the audience.
The actor is bowing to the god who is about to take physical form in his body.

If such spiritual depth is necessary, one could say, that Noh is a religious art, and the gender-specific guidelines on who may or may not perform are religious precept. However, this spiritual depth is not necessarily tied to religious institutions, since only a portion of performances are performed at temples and shrines. Also, the content of Noh plays, although often religious, draws on ideas from multiple traditions, including Confucianism, Shintoism, and Buddhism, in a cross-religous dialogue. And since Noh needs to create an international audience if it wishes to survive, it cannot be solely a religious art form, since it would alienate many otherwise religious audience members. Performance of Noh needs to emphasize the universal spiritual nature of its content and needs to encourage dialogue with other spiritual traditions not represented in its repertory.

Upon writing this piece, a dream has formed itself within my mind, one that will probably not come to fruition at least in my lifetime: when a woman has become famous enough as a Noh actor, she will have incredible stage presence partially from natural talent but refined through rigorous spiritual training. Once this actor has proven herself as a superior actor, she may be invited some day to play at Itsukushima Shrine. On that day, maybe a foreigner will be dancing the lead role, and a female god, who never came down before because she does not show herself to men, will reside in the actor for the duration of the performance.

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