Sleeping Mountains

Reflections on life, literature, and culture.

Category: Performances

Sunday at the Philharmonic. . .

Yesterday afternoon, I went to hear the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra at Suntory Hall. They played a program of Debussy and Ravel that was truely ethereal. The Finnish conductor, Pietari Inkinen, was unable to come because of his country’s warnings against radiation, but Hirokami Junichi, the current conductor of the Kyoto Symphony Orchestra, stepped in and created a magnificent performance, and as planned, Kosugi Yu was on piano for Ravel’s Piano Concerto.

Of the three times I’ve heard the Japan Philharmonic, this was definitely the best. Their technical skill set off the deep, emotional waves of sound into full expression, a balance they were not quite able to achieve with Haydn a year or so ago. This time is was like entering a transient dream.

At the end of the performance, they announced the program they have started that sends musicians to the evacuation shelters in Tohoku. The sincerity of their effort moved me to tears. . .

(Video of the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra in Namie, Fukushima, from their blog.)


Kasuga Wakamiya Onmatsuri

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Shrine priestesses dance kagura to open the Kasuga Wakamiya Onmatsuri dance performances.  The kagura piece pictured above is entitled Sensai or One Thousand Years.

On a rainy Wednesday afternoon in December, I took the trains to Nara, the capital of Japan from 710 to 784 and a center of Japanese religion ever since.

I had set my mind on seeing the Kasuga Wakamiya Onmatsuri since I had first read the 1349 records of the shrine festival.  That year, a shrine priestess named Otozuru Gozen performed Okina, which in the contemporary repetoir of Noh is performed exclusively by men (see my previous entry about Okina here). In 1349, Okina was the first dance of the day’s performances.  Okina’s position at the beginning of the program shows the religious weight of the piece.  Even 650 years later, contemporary performances of Okina are always at the beginning of a program, and it is said that a god decends and inhabits the dancer during his performance.  Now Okina is not performed at the Onmatsuri, but priestesses dance kagura to open the day’s performances (see picture above). Kagura are shrine dances, and the titles of the four dances performed all indicate the celebratory nature of kagura. Read the rest of this entry »

The End of Summer at Horin-ji

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The priests’ prayers before the Noh performance.  Their robes were sumptuous purple and orange silks.  Only one of them wore black silk.

The temple Horin-ji annually holds a Noh performance on September 9th.  I wrote a little about it two posts ago.  Usually Udaka Michishige performs, but two years ago I was too busy with work to go watch, and last year September 9th landed on a weekend, so Udaka-Sensei was too busy to perform.  Finally, I had another opportunity this year and made sure I was able to take time off from work to go to the temple in Arashiyama.

I joined Sensei and a troop of young people who study with him and generally support his activities, including his two sons, Tatsushige and Norishige, who are actors in their own rights, his daughter, Keiko, who carves masks, his daughter-in-law, Haruna, who is also a semi-professional actor, and Natsuko, who also studies mask-carving, but has taken on a leading role in organizing events and working PR for Sensei.  We made an excursion out of the event, for the weather had grown sunny after a few rainy days that had brought an end to the summer heat.

Read the rest of this entry »

“Makura-Jido” at Horinji Temple

For those of you who have heard me talk about Noh and about Udaka-sensei, but have never quite understood what it was I was talking about – maybe you simply haven’t seen a Noh performance before – here is a You Tube recording that may show you some of the appeal. This video is of Udaka Michishige-sensei dancing “Makura-jido” at Horenji Temple in 2006 on September 9. I do not know who took it, and there are some shaky spots and a pillar that gets in the way of the view, but I am glad they did. I remember that morning getting a call from Sensei saying he was picking me up to go, but I was already at work and had been unable to get the day off. Seeing the video only makes me regret not having gone even more.

Watching the video, you can see the chorus sitting across from the camera. It was a pleasant surprise when I realized I knew all of them. On the left is Ono-sensei, a professor of environmental biology at Okayama University and student of Udaka-sensei, in the middle is Udaka Tatsushige-sensei, Udaka-sensei’s son, and on the right is Urushigaki-san also a student of Udaka-sensei. To the left are the musicians, and the performance is taking place facing a Buddhist altar inside a temple, which is a very rare setting. I haven’t had another opportunity to see a similar performance.

Okina: Religion and Male Chauvinism in Noh

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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. Read the rest of this entry »

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