1/17/17: Kiyomizu-dera, Noh with Udaka-san

Kiyomizu-dera was stunning but also underscored some trade offs being made to preserve history. The most entertaining example of this was definitely the Otowa waterfall, which passes beneath the temple. Its pristine water is the source of the name Kiyomizu (pure water). At the waterfall there’s a station for visitors to sample the legendary water using long ladles. Unfortunately, people had a habit of drinking directly from the ladles, spitting into them, and generally being unsanitary. To remedy this obvious health hazard, the ladles were stored in antimicrobial ultraviolet cabinets. Ironically, the water obtainable from Kiyomizu-dera would be downright filthy without the addition of aggressive modern technology. This was a bit of a disappointment but it illustrated how arduous adapting tradition to the demands of modernity can be.

Udaka-san’s explanation of the masks and movements in Noh gave me a new understanding of some of the limitations and challenges Noh actors face. At first I didn’t fully appreciate the need for the masks to be kept perfectly level. Because masks are meant to convey different emotions depending upon viewing angle, it’s critical for the performer to strictly regulate head movements.This in turn makes it necessary to adopt a relatively stiff posture and the characteristic Noh walk. It also imposes limitations on the dances that can be done in Noh performances. Even worse, the masks drastically reduce the wearer’s field of vision.

The difficulties associated with wearing masks appear rather severe. The main advantage of wearing masks is that the performers can use them to easily take on different personas. Even so, Udaka-san himself said that when he’s on stage without a mask on he just pretends he’s wearing a clear mask. From my perspective this somewhat lessens the usefulness of masks. Why give up so much for an effect you can replicate yourself? One somewhat unsubstantiated theory is that the actors believe the masks actually have the ability to “possess” them and guide their actions during performances. This is supported by the idea that the more experienced a performer gets the less of their own emotions and thoughts they bring to the stage. Instead, they channel the character represented by their mask and act more as neutral vessels. Then masks would effectively be instructions on how to play the character. The practice of bowing to the Noh masks also points to them being more than just props. They are characters in and of themselves, and the performer’s job is to allow those characters to shine through.


This entry was posted in kyoto. Bookmark the permalink.