Original Noh masks for the play Inori, written by Udaka Michishige
I just returned from an unreal world created in unreal time and space. From November 4 to November 15, I took time off from school to be with a group of actors, musicians, technicians, mask carvers, and general supporters in Paris, Dresden, and Berlin for a tour of Noh performances. In each city, Udaka Michishige made vengeful spirits and tormented souls appear on stage and helped them find enlightenment by telling their stories to the public. Even I got to join in the performance as a light-bringing angel in the original Noh play Inori.
The purpose of the trip was to perform Inori (Prayer), a play by Udaka Michishige about the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also about violence and terror throughout the world, to an international audience for the first time. Before our departure, Sensei went with Nakamura Yuko to Hiroshima to the Peace Memorial to inform the spirits there of the intentions for the tour. As they prayed in front of the arch, facing the A-Bomb Dome in the distance, Sensei closed his eyes and could see only a deep, dark red. Thinking this was strange, he turned his face in another direction and closed his eyes. The red color was gone. He turned back towards the Dome and saw the same oppressive red again. Was this the color of the sky during the atomic bombing? His eyes filled with tears, which he hastily wiped away before he turned around for a newspaper interview.
We arrived in Paris in the evening of November 5 and had performances at la Maison de Culture de Japon nightly from the 6th through the 9th.
On the 7th and 8th, Udaka Tatsushige performed well-received lecture/workshops about Noh, at which I worked as supporting staff, and every evening he also performed encores of the Takasago shimai (a dramatic dance piece) each evening after his father’s performances. As his father always wore a mask and never appeared for curtain calls (at least in Paris), the face the audience most surely remembers is that of the son, 25 years old, confident, and on his way to stardom, if he keeps it up.
The performances themselves were breath-taking. Considering Udaka Michishige usually performs once or twice a week, this tour was a real test of his stamina. Takasago on the 6th for the 10th anniversary celebration of la Maison du Culture de Japon, is particularly demanding, but always impressive. Aoi-no-Ue on the 7th was no match to any other performance I had seen before by other actors, in its smooth transitions and heightened suspense, particularly in the moment when he pulled the outer kimono out of his waist-band and over his head as he ran off-stage. On the 8th was an equally impressive performance of Funabenkei, a piece that shows off an actor’s talents of playing the contrasting roles of a refined noblewoman distraught at sending off her lover in the first act and a frenzied male warrior ghost in the second act.
On the 9th was the performance of Inori, and I was told the day before that I was to appear as a light-bringing angel who lights the candles placed around the edge of the stage. As with all Noh performances, there was only one rehearsal, and since all performances on the tour were in the evenings, rehearsals were held in the afternoon the same day. Sensei showed me in a matter of minutes how he wanted me to walk around the stage, raise my hands to my forehead and then lower them slowly towards the battery-run candles to make it look like I was giving the light.
After my reheardsal, Nakamura Yuko also practiced her dramatic reading of the script, which also takes place before the actual Noh starts. I had never heard her performance first-hand and found as I listened to her void vividly expressing the pain of the atom bomb victims that tears were streaming in broad streaks down my face. My role is to bring light to this horrific world, I told myself.
At the actual performance that evening, I was standing at the edge of the hall, in full view of the audience, waiting for my cue. As I waited and watched the candles being brought out, a recording of Sensei’s composition, Reimei, was being played. In front of me, along the hashigakari (the bridge from the mirror room, where the main actor dons his mask, to the stage), were hung the original masks which had been made by Sensei and by his students to represent the spirits of atomic bomb victims.
As I watched the masks and meditated in an attempt to fully take on my role, I heard humming accompany the recording. How strange, I thought at the rehearsal Sensei had told the choir not to hum, because they couldn’t do it right. I stared at the masks. The sound seemed to come from their direction, and it wasn’t exactly a humming sound, but had a rough, gravelly, rasping quality that didn’t sound human or at least not like it would be produced by a conventional choir.
On my cue, I started my way around the stage to the furthest candle, realizing the music was quickly drawing to a close. I moved slowly from one candle to the next. The music is about to end, I thought and wondered if I would be able to light them all in time. I came to the final candle, placed in the midst of the spirit masks, my hands slowly lowered to light the candle. As the light flickered on, the final notes of the music intoned through the hall. Perfect timing, but was it my doing?