Ben Hills

There is a moment when the thin, reedy notes of the flute pipe up, the chorus falls silent, and the old woman falls to her knees clutching the scroll, when you get an inkling of what it would be like to be a Martian newly arrived on Earth.

The action makes no sense. The words, even if you are fluent in Japanese, are barely comprehensible. The music conforms to no known scale. The bare pine boards of the stage and the stylised mural of pine and bamboo provide no scenic reference.

Noh, a dramatic form that was already ancient when Shakespeare was born, more than lives up to its billing as the most arcane and difficult of all the Japanese arts – even when it deals with themes as modern as war guilt (World War II that is), heart transplants, and Einstein’s theory of relativity.

This performance, for a near-full house at Tokyo’s plush new National Noh Theatre, is the latest attempt by an eminent immunologist and connoisseur of noh named Tomio Tada to breath new life into what many regard as a mummified art form that lost its relevance centuries ago.

So reactionary is the noh community, that until Professor Tada began writing, and sponsoring performances of his plays, six years ago, most of the repertoire dated back hundreds of years. Only one new play, on the coronation of the Emperor Hirohito, has made it into the repertoire this century. It is as if, to use a Western analogy, no-one had written an opera since Mozart.

An integrated form, incorporating chant, mime, music, masks and poetic text, noh bears no resemblance to any Western performing art, and little to any in Asia. Its closest cousins are the colourful Japanese kabuki theatre, and the kyogen sketches which form a comic interlude (to the initiated) in a noh performance.

Professor Tada says his critics believe the repertoire is so large that there is no need for something new. “But I believe that if a traditional art repeats the same theme over and over it is in danger of dying out. A contemporary theme, while remaining loyal to the classical form, is the way to go.” His latest play, Lament for Unrequited Grief, deals with an issue which is still highly controversial in Japan, even 50 years after the war. A Buddhist priest discovers a letter written by a Korean slave labourer killed while working in a coalmine in Japan, and travels to Korea to find his widow.

Although the theme is contemporary, the trappings of the performance are those of classical noh, little changed in the 600 years since it was formalised from the saru gaku or “monkey music” of travelling sideshows in medieval times.

Beneath the pine stage which juts out into the audience are ceramic urns, to enhance the stamping of stockinged feet which punctuates the performance. To one side, a narrow bridge leads to the spirit world – ghosts are popular figures in noh.

The performance is punctuated with notes on the flute, the rapping of small drums, and shrill bird-like cries. To one side, men in formal kimonos chant a commentary, much like a Greek chorus. The action by the eerily masked actors is minimalist – a fan raised in front of the face symbolises sleep, a few steps across the stage a journey of thousands of kilometres.

Like opera, noh has a tiny audience of connoisseurs, which has been dwindling in recent years. A senior official of the Government’s cultural agency tells me he never goes because it is “too boring” – and, indeed, this performance is faintly punctuated by snoring from the stalls.

There are 40 or 50 performances a month in Tokyo, in small “art houses” like the national theatre, and all are “one off” events sponsored by the actors or by patrons such as Professor Tada. Because noh plays do not have a season, it is hopelessly uncommercial.

Indeed, noh fans will tell you this is the whole point. “We say it is ‘ichi go, ichi go’, a one-time performance, like the tea ceremony,” says Professor Tada. “There is no dress rehearsal – because the second performance would be predictable, not the miracle of the first.”

Professor Tada hopes that his plays with contemporary themes will bring the audiences back. His first, The Well of Ignorance, dealt with a human heart transplant – a controversial theme because transplants are still illegal in Japan, and the only surgeon to attempt one was charged with murder.

Last year, he took the play to the US. It drew big houses in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and New York, receiving critical acclaim and a review in The New York Times. He would love to be invited to Australia.

Professor Tada is hoping that once again foreign interest may revive this most Japanese of arts – noh very nearly died out when the courts of the shoguns, where it was the principal form of entertainment, were abolished last century. It was salvaged by the interest of such diverse Western literati as W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Bertolt Brecht and the French poet Paul Claudel.

Professor Tada is a typical noh “angel” who puts up $30,000 to $40,000 of his own money to sponsor each performance.

Although Professor Tada’s works have aroused interest abroad – and from foreigners in Tokyo – the noh establishment in Japan is rather po-faced about his attempts to modernise the ancient art.

Richard Emmert, an American who has been studying noh in Japan for 20 years (and who travels to Australia to workshop the theatre) says the Tada performances are not well received by traditional audiences.

“There is so much opportunity for creativity and reinterpretation of the traditional works … you don’t say that just because Mozart lived 200 years ago his work is fossilised today,” he says.

Undeterred, Professor Tada is working on his next noh play – one which sounds like the greatest challenge of all. “It’s about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity,” he says. “Noh ignores commonsense. Something far away can be seen close up. Time takes on a different shape, it becomes longer and shorter. Einstein is perfect for noh.”

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Thursday 29 June 1995
Edition: Late
Sub section: ARTS
Page: 41
Word count: 858
Classification: The Arts, Japan, Australia In Focus
1. Noh artist Cumas Hashimoto in Bokonka.
2. A typical mask
3. Noh artist Kanze Motoaki (above).