Monday, June 15, 2009


The centre of Shibuya is the famous Tokyo intersection where the many feeder roads simultaneously turn red, leaving an empty area the size of a football field as a scramble crossing. The sheer numbers and speed of repletion, when only a blink before there were cars, is astounding. This pulsing of people and cars is a continuous endless beat fed by one Tokyo’s largest transport nodes, a multi-multilevel vascular network of metro lines, above ground rail, bus interchange, freeway ramps, local roads and pedestrian thoroughfares. 

As you step into the arena, what overwhelms you is no longer the number of people, you have lost touch with the edges of this swarm, but an increasingly loud high pitched chatter and babble as you move through the centre of hundreds of talking Japanese, which quickly fades away as you move out the other side and continue on, released on your way.

And at night all this is ablaze with a dazzling array of neons, plasma screens, LED displays, and signs of every imaginable size, shape and colour.

A short walk from these crowded streets, funky shops, department stores, cafes, myriad of little side streets, along a winding road up a short hill and past a small shrine among private residences, is the Kanse-Noh Theatre. 

My introduction to Noh theatre was oblique, when many years ago The English Opera Group, an all male ensemble, came to Sydney. I was lucky enough to have been taken to a performance of Britten’s Curlew River in one of the lecture theatres at the University of New South Wales. It was a profoundly moving and formative evening, for which I was completely unprepared, and completely transformed by the power of simplicity, as deceptive as simplicity is, or appears to be.

Britten and Pears had travelled to the East seeking and embracing the instruments, musical structure and aesthetic of Noh theatre, an influence self-evident is much of Britten’s work, none more so than Curlew River. 

After many visits to Tokyo, at last things had conspired that K and I could go to a Noh theatre, both for the first time, and so we took that little walk at last.

Noh (1) is a form of ancient Japanese stagecraft, combining song, dance, music and drama. Drama is the least of these, for unlike Kabuki, the purpose is not so much to tell a story (although the plays do to a certain extent) but to make the audience feel a sense of profound beauty. Realism is avoided. The essence of expression in Noh play lies in concentrated simplicity, unity, harmony and in patternized symbolism. Minimum movement to achieve maximum effect, accompanied by music and chant.

The roots of Noh extend back at least 600 years and have evolved through various influences, not the least being Buddhist rites and legends, to the current 5 schools of Noh. Kanse-Noh is one of them and Noh survives not as an historical artefact, but as an independent part of current Japanese theatre.  

The Noh stage is quite specific, a cyprus wood performance space 19 feet square with thick cyprus pillars at the 4 corners serving as a guide to the (all male) players, whose vision is restricted by their masks. To stage left is a space for chorus, at the back a space for musicians (flute and 3 drums) and assistants, and the stage right entrance is a long covered way marked by 3 pines set in gravel. There is no scenery, although props may be used.

Chant is the essence of the vocal line, by performers and chorus. There was no spoken word at all and the singing was mostly in a narrow low male voice range, with variations in dynamics and vocal colour. The drummers also sing, at our performance repeating a series of monotonal cries that would glissando up to a high pitched welp, followed by the drum being struck. The effect was quite unsettling at first, and offset by intermittent monastic chanting by the chorus. There is no conductor or equivalent, except perhaps the drummers, and the actors control the delivery with their concentration and interaction with each other

The costumes are gorgeous adaptations of 15th C robes, exquisitely woven and dyed silks, some with elaborate head-dresses and wigs.

The plays themselves (around 250) are grouped into 5 categories - god, warrior, woman, madman and devil.

We saw KAMO, a 2 act 90 minute play about a priest’s pilgrimage to a sister shrine where he meets a woman (the Shite - main character) who tells him that long ago a woman found an arrow floating in the river by the shrine and taking the arrow home was miraculously conceived of a god-child. In Act 2 the goddess and her son come to dance and promise protection for the land and its people.

 The first thing to point out is that, with the exception of the main chararcter, a man head and shoulders above anyone else on stage, standing there virtually immobile clutching a beautiful little purse, we were many centimetres taller and many kilos more than anyone else. It concentrated our difference immediately.

What I had been expecting was that movement, precise, spare and meaningful, would be the essence of the experience. What was the surprise was the continuous vocal line. Without the meaning of the words, it was their delivery and expression that was to be our source, and this again was minimal and tightly focused, most lost on our untrained ears no doubt.

We were left to let the experience wash over, aware of the whole but wishing for some insight that only birth and familiarity would bring.  It is a very educated discipline, and as removed in the other direction from the attention deficit nonsense of our western entertainment, particularly television, as you can get. We had been transported back to an period when the focus was on small and time was the most available commodity of them all. It was incredibly beautiful, and equally exhausting.

After the first of three, running continuosly, we slipped out a side door and back into the mania and 21st C just down the hill.


(1) A Guide to Noh, P.G.O’Neill

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