Day 8: Noh Performer

Today we met with a Noh performer and mask maker, interpreted by Prof. Diego Pellecchio. Although we already had an informative lecture from Diego about various aspects of Noh, this was a good follow-up especially since we were able to talk about parts of Noh within the context of the Noh plays we saw the other day. He taught us more about the masks, uniforms, and movements used in Noh.

The most interesting parts of the mask explanation was the effect of angle on the expressions coming from the mask. It’s truly astonishing how different an impression the makes give of just by being tilted 10-20 degrees. Sometimes sadness turns to anger, sometimes the reverse. Other times subtle differences between masks contain different amounts of energy. A closed mouth portrays contained or stored energy, while an open mouth demonstrates the release of energy. Further on the subject of energy is the concept of yin and yang which seems to be a common theme in much of Japanese culture. Because the masks portray a certain energy or theme, the actors must attain balance by using their bodies to counteract this energy. If a mask portrays energy loss, the actor must use their body to convey energy conservation.

Also watching David try to function while wearing the mask was a great demonstration for the difficulty that Noh performers have seeing. When prompted to grasp a fan from one of the teachers, he held out his hand in the complete wrong direction because he was unable to see things right in front of him through the mask without fully turning his head. This was also important for me because I’d previously wondered why the Noh plays needed assistants on stage who’s job is to keep things running smoothly. As Diego told us earlier, if for some reason the main character can’t continue to perform, the assistant must stand and take his place to the plays end. I can’t think of any other performances in which this level of preparation is an institutional concept. Understudies are one thing but this is something else completely.

I enjoyed looking at the different types of clothing used in Noh performances because my actual topic is textiles. In fact there was quite a bit overlap between his explanation and thoughts on the costumes, and the things we heard from Tatsumura-san before. What stood out to me was the use of 0s and 1s as the term for the punch cards used on jacquard looms. The same metaphor was used with Tatsumura’s group but I didn’t really think of it in that way until the explanation today.

However, the most impactful part of the talk was when he performed to illustrate the difference between abstract and concrete dance in Noh. In the abstract dance, he first did the dance without context and asked us to fill in the blanks. We all had a wide range of interpretations (I thought he was approaching a lord or getting ready to bow or something of that sort) but it was completely up to us to understand it. Then he gave some context, a man on a beautiful mountain side, and then the movements began to make sense. However,the concrete movements, a hunter hunting a fox, were pretty straightforward from the start. The reason this was so important is because it illustrated the different ways in which performance is utilized to make the audience think in different ways. The dance with the hunter is important because it is part of the plot line and thus illustrates an important plot point (the hunter turning into the fox after the fox has been shot). The abstract dance forces the audience to create an entire world or situation for the duration of that performance.

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