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I Know Noh – Young Connecting to Tradition


Japanese traditional theatres are registered as Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.  The oldest of them all is called Nogaku, or Noh.  It is based on stage entertainments travelled from China in the 8th century.  They mixed and merged with Japanese traditional entertainments and played at and often protected by shrines and temples.  They were like variety show that included singing, instrumental music, dance, comedy, and acrobats.

Genius Takes Entertainment to Art

In late 14th century; the theatre saw a genius called Kan-ami.  Shogun at the time sponsored Kan-ami, and he developed the simple village festivity to theatrical art.  He concentrated on the philosophy of “Yugen”, so subtle and profound that it cannot be grasped and explained solely in words.  It is something to feel and pursue.  Kan-ami found the way to express this concept in very stylised theatre format.  Iconic Noh masks featured from the early age of the theatre.

But it was his son Zeami who finalised the art, with the format of having one actor with small group musicians behind, adding elegance and beauty with minimal movement.  He had the greatest protection from Shogun and created a lot of plays.  (Kan-ami and Zeami wrote most of 120 to 130 titles performed in modern Noh theatres.)  Zeami left a lot of literature about the theories and methods.  They are founding masters of this beautiful art form.

Protection Leading to Isolation – Popular Arts to Classics

The irony of this great success story is that the theatre became pretty much exclusive to the ruling class.  So in the history of Japan, Noh theatre faltered during the power struggle period and got the utmost protection of the powerful during peace.  The tradition and skills were greatly appreciated, and the craft of the mask making, stage arts and constructions, and traditional dance and music enhanced to please the powerful patrons.  But the protection meant that the organic and lively development of the art was limited.

During 17th and 18th century, Edo Shogunate era, was a very stable time in Japanese history.  There were many occasions for entertainment, and civilians were looking for excitements.  The government strictly regulated the theatres to avoid street troubles, and Noh was never the people’s entertainment.  (Kabuki was born during this time as light entertainment for ordinary citizens.)

After Japan reopened to the world in 1854, during the time of rapid Westernisation, Noh and other traditional arts were rapidly diminishing.  However, with the encouragements from foreign governments and individuals, the recognition of the importance to preserve the classic local art found its feet.  It is very much enshrined in the system of preservation now.  It is something to protect, inherit, and display to the outside.

“I Will Noh”

Once something becomes a subject of protection, it slowly drifts away from everyday life, even further.  It is what has happened to Nogaku.  There are theatres in relatively easy reach all over Japan, but it is not a popular day out for many people.  It is something special that you decide to go, that requires pre-theatre learning.  It is something of the showcase of Japanese history.

A Recent development is defying this history of protection.  There are numbers of young actors with traditional theatre family background.  They appear in the leading roles in the movies and TV series, playing modern, everyday young people, as well as kept appearing in their traditional fields of art.  Their publicity drew younger generation’s interest to their origins.  The interest in traditional theatre and art increased.   The audience wants to see it and to appreciate it, but it is hard to find the entry point.  To break this cycle and to build on the newly found interest, Nogaku community is trying many ways, including media communications.

One unique movement is a group of young volunteers running “Young People Noh”, with the catch phrase of “Do you know?  I will Noh”.

The performance starts with introductory talk about the theatre and the title they will perform.  The smart phones are allowed, or rather encouraged, to be switched on as there will be twitter feeds on what is happening on the stage.  They recently added English tweets.  The student volunteers take the initiative to make changes around the theatre to lower the barrier, but the art itself never changed.

It is not a commercially viable operation but is getting sponsorship from companies whose products are based on Japanese traditions – mainly teas and sweets, another topic for stylised classical culture.  The initiatives came from grassroots and relatively small theatre.  It seemed like a long way, and it did take centuries to come back to the everyday life of modern Japan, but the key to connecting to the cultural root could be nearer than you might think, maybe just on your dinner table.


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