Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Oh Noh

There is no cure for a case of the giggles. You try to stifle, and the “funny thing” just becomes funnier. Your sides hurt from the quaking. Your eyes water. Maybe they’ll think you’re crying, maybe no one will notice, maybe they won’t send the usher over to politely whisk you out of the theatre.

Browsing shop stalls at the Temple of Asakusa, I saw some Kyōgen masks, the characters for the comedic interludes during Noh theatrical pieces. The two that caught my eye were Oji, the old man, and Usobuki, a face with surprised eyes and a pinched mouth, a character who can only whistle. I was reminded of my wish to see some theatre while we were in Japan, and turned to my sister. “Do you think there are any Noh productions happening while we’re in Tokyo?” She did some research. The National Noh Theatre had a Fukyu-Koen (Dissemination Performance (Introduction to Noh) on the 11th. Perfect. She got us tickets.

The National Noh Theatre entrance is an open space, with sculpted trees in front of a low building that has a center courtyard. While we waited for the doors to open to the performance, we explored an exhibit of scrolls that depicted scenes from Noh plays from the Edo period, on loan from the Kobe Women’s University Library. There was also a small series of chant books that the actors used for rehearsing.

The theatre seats 200 people, and each seat back is outfitted with a screen for translation. A relief. I’d need that. The National Noh stage looks like a small temple, with some trees painted against the upstage wall, and a long stage right entrance that leads onto the main stage. Actors glided in from behind a curtain and made their way to the mainstage like they were floating on clouds.

Before the production began a professor from Kobe University stood in the center of the stage in his white socks and dark suit and discussed the historical context of the plays. This wasn’t translated. Kristen leaned in occasionally to whisper — “He’s talking about the sea, and the geography of a battle. Now he’s explaining some kind of helmet collar that gets pulled.”

The first play, a Kyōgen titled, “Suhajikami,” was about two farmers going to market. One is a seller of ginger, and the other a seller of vinegar. The entire play is a series of puns, various plays on the words “su” for vinegar, and “hajikami,” which means ginger, as the two sellers vie for space at the market. The twenty minutes of wordplay ends on a boisterous laugh between the two. There were chuckles from audience members throughout, but if you are not a proficient in Japanese, some of the puns are lost, even with translations. My sister seemed to understand most of it. I enjoyed the slow movements of the actors, and the spirited tonality of their voices, which was song-like and made the chant books in the exhibit make more sense to me.

The actors didn’t wear masks. Their action was a slow float, glide, and turn. In many ways, it resembled martial arts, loaded with intention and meaning. The costumes were elaborate, and I felt I was missing something here as well, not understanding what the patterns and textile choices might mean. It felt a bit like reading Chekov — I got the gist, but I wasn’t experiencing the richness for an ignorance of cultural and historical background.

The main Noh play, which came after the Kyōgen, was “Akogi,” a story in which a monk encounters an old fisherman on the beach and discusses an old poem describing Akogi-ga-ura beach. The monk asks why the beach is called Akogi-ga-ura,and the old man tells the story of a fisherman named Akogi who was discovered poaching fish in the sanctuary, and was executed by drowning off the shore of the beach. He encourages the monk to console the spirit of Akogi, who is still suffering in hell.

In the first half, we hear the old fisherman tell the story of Akogi to the monk. It is nearly sung, with little movement, with the addition of some drumming and chanting. Reciters add to the text in a way that felt echoic. After intermission, when the fisherman (who we now suspect is the spirit of Akogi) disappears, we are introduced to a traveler returning home who sees the monk resting in his hut. The monk explains that he was just regaled with a story by an old fisherman, and he thought the hut belonged to him.

This is getting long, isn’t it?

I peeped down the row of audience to my left.  All asleep. The man who was seated late in the middle aisle was sleeping. Four people in our row were nodding off.

The owner of the hut begins to tell the tale of the fisherman … again. Another long, poetic retelling of poaching on the high seas, with drums, echoing words, and slow movement. I wasn’t prepared for the retelling. Kristen leaned in as we read the translation of the traveler’s monologue together. “Maybe he doesn’t know the whole story.” And then he began, “In the year …” and she whispered, “Nope, looks like he knows it.”

That set me off in giggles. It was a release from intense storytelling, but I was in the National Noh Theatre. I should have reverence for a craft that has been around since the 14th century. My laughter felt worse than poaching fish. I was in a state of helplessness, like Akogi, unable to find my way back to the shores of propriety. When I couldn’t stop, Kristen and I slipped out of our seats (luckily they were in the back on the aisle) like two schoolgirls skipping class.

The drama ends with us disappearing into the ocean of Tokyo’s winding streets to meet everyone at the Akita Festival —a festival devoted to dogs so devoted they wait for their masters who have been dead for years to return from work. I wonder if Akogi had an Akita still waiting for him to return from his damnation. I wonder if there will be one waiting for me — hee hee hee.

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