Today we met with Tatsushige Udaka, a Noh performer, to talk about Noh masks and performance. The talk began with a bit about sitting seiza; apparently, at the origins of Noh one finds that they did not sit in this manner, but eventually adopted it into their practice. Seiza existed at that point; it was just not used. Then he began showing us his masks. By way of his luck, we were also lucky that his father was a mask maker because he had a significant amount on hand to demonstrate their properties. Despite having done some reading on the masks, he definitely provided some new information. I had not known about the range of expression for masks. Thinking about it afterwards, it seems quite logical; but different masks are only able to portray a certain amount of expression. One of his onna masks, for example, when tilted slightly down gives her a sad face, but when tilted further lose the power of the expression. Just like the human body, there are limits to what a mask can do. As such, it is the performers job to work with the mask. He showed us an Ō-beshimi mask where you the expression was very limited; it only seemed to absorb energy despite the tilt; in that case, it is the performers job to take that energy and release. He brought up this concept of duality in Noh, that I had not quite thought about. While the mask and wearer must fully fuse together during a performance, that comes about through the pushing and pulling between the properties of the mask and character, and the person’s performance.
At one point, he let a person try on a mask for reference (that person was me!) It was very surreal. The mask limits the performers field of vision to a very small circle. To be honest, it was closer to being sightless than seeing. It really impressed upon me the skill with which they move about the stage and dance; it is quite close to being blind. In addition, one must hold their face in certain positions while moving, and so that removes an even greater amount of freedom.
After the talk on masks, we were shown some costumes and then a small he did a small performance of a few dances. Having been to Tatsumura Co., we were already a bit knowledgeable about woven designs and so we understood how some of the kimono are made (there are also some cheaper ones that are embroidered as most actors probably cannot afford the woven pieces) I learned that regardless of gender, power is the signaled by more geometric objects. So a powerful female deity might have a geometric pattern, and a “gentler” man might have more rounded patterns. When he did the dances, he showed that there were some legible, literal dances, and then some more abstract ones. I personally found the literal one much less interesting, and I think patrons of Noh feel the same way. Much of the essence of Noh is the secrets, or flower, and so the less specific the dance the more room for interpretation; and I think as a consequence, more beauty. It has a stoic, removed quality that is pristine. At theater, I am reminded of Sumiyoshi’s dance in Haku Rakuten. It was fairly simple looking (though we all know how difficult it is at this point) but intensely beautiful.