A lantern inscribed with the words Kyoto Takigi Noh
Last week, on the evenings of July 1st and 2nd were the 57th Annual Takigi Noh performances. Noh drama is performed on the grounds of Heian Shrine by the light of fires in raised metal braziers. Thanks to Rebecca Teale, an expert in Noh drama and fellow student of (or rather English publicist for) my Noh drama teacher, Udaka Masashige, I got to do odd jobs to help foreign, English-speaking guests and see the performances for free.
The first night I was even roped into doing the English announcements about cell phones, lavatories, English pamphlets, and bus stops. Sitting in the sound booth, I got to look over the heads of the chorus to see the performances right up close. But with everything going on and all the people around me in the sound booth, rushing out to mike the chorus, adjusting the sound levels as the wind rose, chatting right next to me, or sitting behind me eating their dinners, the simple elegance of the first few performances didn’t draw as much of my attention as I had hoped I could give them. So rather than bore you with the details from the program, let me point out the highlights in my evening.
During the second play, Nonomiya, about Lady Rokujo from The Tale of Genji, I wandered to the back of the audience. There at the information booth, John McAteer, another Noh scholar and fellow student of my teacher’s, was working – or rather enjoying the performances. He pointed out some of the symbolism of the actor’s movements, the moment Lady Rokujo was attempting to pass through the tori (shrine gate) to purify herself. In The Tale of Genji, Lady Rokujo is a tormented woman, jealous of Genji’s wife. The symbolism represented by her stepping through the gate was simultaneousely Shinto, since a tori gate can be found at almost any Shinto shrine, and Buddhist, since her attempts to step through the gate represented her reaching for enlightenment. Talking wtih John McAteer was a relief to me, as it was the first time I had ever been able to discuss a play with someone.
The next performance of the evening was a kyogen (“crazy words” or comedy) piece that was absolutely hilarious. It was called Onigawara, and about a daimyo lord who recognizes his wife in the face of a demon molded in a roof tile. By this time, I was back in the sound booth towards the back of the stage. I only wish I could have seen the daimyo‘s face as he mimicked the face and the audience all laughed.
Finally, Kokaji was performed about a sword smith ordered by imperial command to make a sword. Yet the sword smith has no assistant, so he goes to Fushimi Inari Shrine in southern Kyoto and prays for help. Later at the forge, a magical fox appears and helps him mold the sword. The fox, the main character of the play and the most dramatic character of the whole evening, was my teacher, Udaka Masashige.
Udaka-sensei’s ability radiated from him in his role as a wise, old fox. The moment the colorful curtain at the end of the hashi-gakari (bridge leading to the stage) opened, his face behind the mask seemed to stare directly at me in the sound booth. The air cleared at his appearance. With fox-like movements, he came forward onto the stage. During his whole performance, when he put one foot on the railing at the edge of the hashi-gakari, when he tilted his head like a fox, when he helped the sword smith pound the bland, and when he rushed about brandishing the finished sword, I was entranced. This was the height of Noh drama.
Afterwards, John McAteer and I waited outside the dressing room in one of the side buildings of the temple to catch a glimpse of our teacher. We were satisfied when he gave smile and a nod in our direction as he talked with his family.
As the shrine had grounds had almost cleared and it was late, John walked with me to the bus stop outside the shrine, and talked about the Robert Frost poem Death of the Hired Man, for which he had written a Noh score and a full Noh play using the original English text. It was performed once in the Oe Noh theater. Then, just before the bus arrived, John chanted “You’ll be surprised at him – how much he’s broken. His working days are done; I’m sure of it,” in a voice sad and mysterious with its sliding tones and irregular intervals so very different from Western music, but standard in Noh chant. If only I could always understand the words I hear the actors chant… if only, I thought.
After Udaka-sensei’s performance the evening before, I could only watch and hope for something as beautiful and stunning to happen the second evening. Having heard John’s chant, I could only dream of understanding the words chanted on stage. A true interest in Noh had sprouted within me.
The second night, I watched all the more intently than I had the first night. So many things I had read about came slowly fitting into their places. The plays began slow, then built up in speed at the ending. The first play was congratulatory, the second about a beautiful woman. In the middle, the kyogen piece gave a nice, gentle tug at the audience, a reminder that less serious, more common things exist than the exquisite beauty of a Noh performance.
The final Noh play was the most dramatic, about a spider demon who threatens a sick nobleman. Spiderwebs arched across the stage and became tangled in the nobleman and his retainer’s swords. It was better than fireworks, but left a longing for the performance the night before.
During the final performance, Rebecca came to watch with me at the information booth. I asked her if she understood the words they chanted. No she couldn’t, she said, unless she had studied the same play herself before. How bleak the chances are for me now having studied Noh for only 3 months considering she has been studying this art for 35 years. Yet one must not give up before one has started. There is so much to learn, and I must begin somewhere.