Just a few weeks into my stay in Japan (18 April), I was incredibly lucky to have a chance to see my first live noh, thanks to Richard Emmert (Noh performer and scholar based here in Tokyo, and leader of the Noh Training Project UK).
Kantan is the story of a Chinese man, Rosei, travelling in search of enlightenment. When he sleeps on the magical ‘pillow of Kantan’ he dreams a life in which he becomes Emperor and lives a life of pleasure, riches and power for 50 years. When he wakes it is with the realisation that his rule was just a dream ‘as short as the time it takes to cool millet’ – and more, that life itself is as transient and fragile as that dream.
The experience of live noh is, to say the least, different from recordings – the sounds of voice, drum and flute do not translate well in recordings or videos. The most abiding impression, though, of this first experience of live noh is the impact of and weight imparted by the physicality of the stage itself.
Warned in advance that Kantan can be boring, with long stretches with nothing much happening (the English-language subtitles on the seat screen was a great help in understanding what was happening, even with advance knowledge of the story), in reality it was a masterpiece of the building of physical tension. Unusually for a noh, the majority of the shite’s (main actor) dance and movement was contained – constrained – to within a small rectangle of the bed prop, while the stage filled with the dream Emperor’s retainers and ministers. These characters, as representations of the Emperor’s wealth and power with their brightly-patterned costumes, create a knot of physical density and visual intensity, which melts away as the dream does on Rosei’s wakening.
The whole play, musically and visually, far from being boring, was a single graceful arc from lightness to density and back again, from which Rosei and the audience emerge with a new appreciation of simplicity, fragility, and space.
The National Noh Theatre in Tokyo was built in 1983, but its cypress stage follows a design established in the 16th century – a roofed and pillared raised stage (hon-butai), with walkway (hashigakari), areas at the side and back for the chorus (jiutai-za) and musicians (ato-za), and of course, the kagami-ita with the painted pine backdrop.