Raw Japan

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Knowing Noh

March 9, 2009

I had never seen a Noh performance until I went to interview an actor from the ancient Japanese theatre genre. Watching him on stage changed my perceptions of the art completely.

Yoshimasa Kanze, 38, knows that many people, myself included, are put off by Noh’s image of actors in masks, moving ever-so-slowly on stage to long, monotonal chants and choruses in ancient prose.

But he is convinced that more people would appreciate Noh once they understood the subtleties and meaning behind its choruses, many of which depict an interplay of spirits with humans, set to the music of three drums and a flute.

JAPANTo make Noh more accessible, Kanze runs workshops with commentary on the ancient language, helping to design fliers and posters with colourful pictures of costumes and masks.

The wooden mask is one of Noh’s unique features, changing expression depending on the angle shown to the audience.

Actors are said to undergo rigorous physical training so they can control their heads while moving around the stage. 

“In Noh, an actor can’t cry with tears because he is wearing a mask, but he can still show sadness like this,” he told me, slowly lifting one hand to his brow while tilting his head forward.

“It’s possible to express deep emotion with just the slightest movement.”

Kanze said more people in Japan are taking an interest in Noh, even showing up for lessons to experience singing and dancing themselves.

Perhaps surprisingly, he finds Noh is more widely accepted outside Japan, where audiences are fascinated by its mysterious, minimalist elements.

“When we do performances in Europe, the audience focuses intently on our every move,” he said.

“People ask, what was the meaning of that pause? And they are right — every move has a meaning.”

Photo credit: REUTERS/Issei Kato

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