Noh Drama and Eiko and Koma Travel Slowly Into Dreams

Japan pervades two dance performances

Unrequited love, infidelity, revenge, battles for territory and honor, suicide, repentance! I’m not talking about spaghetti westerns or sci-fi epics, but about the Noh plays of 15th-century Japan. In the latter, you do not see rough-and-tumble combat. Angry or violent action may be conveyed by the suddenness of a performer’s gesture or the closing of a fan, and by the clacking of three different small drums, the call of a wooden flute, yells by the drummers, and the chanting of a seated chorus of men. Emotion is restrained by the traditions of the all-male Noh style; often, like the contents of a too-full jar, feelings seem about to spill over into reckless physicality, but rarely do. And the crux of the terrible tales is told at one remove: Usually, in the climactic scene, the central character, the shite—perhaps returning as a ghost—remembers the events of his or her past.

Kashu-Juku Noh Theater was founded in Kyoto in 2000 by the celebrated actor Katayama Shingo (I’m using the Japanese last-name-first custom followed in the program for the company’s Japan Society season last week). Although only a modest number of expert musicians and performers appeared in New York, they render scenes from these ancient dramas with exquisite intensity. That intensity is especially compressed and refined in the opening number, a form of Noh called mai-bayashi (meaning dance and music). This mai-bashi relates to the final scene in Yashima (by the great playwright and teacher Zeami), in which the shite represents not just a ghost, but the ghost as it appears in the dream of some travelers.

In the play, priests visiting Yashima Bay stay overnight in an old fisherman’s hut. The way the fisherman describes the battle that took place there between warring clans (one in ships, one ashore) suggests that he may be the ghost of Atsumori, the general who commanded one army. In the priests’ dreams, the ghost appears, now masked and elaborately costumed, and tells of that furious day when he lost his bow in the ocean and to save his honor risked his life to retrieve it. Now, like all warriors, he resides in a particular Buddhist afterworld where the fighting never stop. In the mai-bashi version of this scene, the shite wears neither mask nor costume. He enters with the musicians, dressed in the same simple traditional garb in dark blue and gray.

Katayama Shingo of Kashu-Juki Noh Theater as the living spirit of Lady Rokujo in Aoi No Ue
Courtesy Kash-Juku Noh Theater
Katayama Shingo of Kashu-Juki Noh Theater as the living spirit of Lady Rokujo in Aoi No Ue
Slow cookin': Eiko and Koma in Naked: A Living Installation
Anna Lee Campbell
Slow cookin': Eiko and Koma in Naked: A Living Installation


Kashu-Juku Noh Theater
Japan Society
March 24 through 26
Eiko & Koma: Naked: A Living Installation
Baryshnikov Arts Center
450 West 37th Street
March 29 through April 9

The performer, Umewaka Naoyoshi, moves sparingly—little gliding steps in different directions, sudden turns, an intent gaze at events unfolding in the remembered scene, and occasional telling movements like a stamp, a lunge, or the unfolding of a golden fan. The heat of battle is supplied by the quickening drumbeats and the stylized cries of the drummers. But the chanted words (projected in translation on a screen at the side of the proscenium) aren’t all about action; the ghost remembers the look of the day—the sky, the light, the waves. As dawn breaks, he thinks he sees more arrows coming from the ships, but no, “it is only a raft of seagulls.” The elegant, minimally moving performer becomes a page on which the poetic words are inscribed; they color his shifting emotions for us.

Kashuku-Juku presents the final play of the evening, Aoi No Ue (by Zeami or his son-in-law Zenchiku) in full costume, and the characters enter via the traditional wooden gate and walkway. In this tale, drawn from the novel The Tale of Genji, Lady Aoi—pregnant and mysteriously ill—is represented by a kimono, ceremoniously laid at the front of the stage. Masked and gorgeously attired, the sorceress Teruhi (Tamoi Hiromichi) determines that the illness is caused by the vengeful spirit of a still-living woman: Lady Rokujo, who was loved and cast aside by Genji and snubbed by Lady Aoi, Genji’s current mistress, during a collision of their carriages.

When summoned by Teruhi, Lady Rukoji’s apparition (played by Katayama and seemingly invisible to those onstage) dances slowly and evasively, then faster as she approaches the kimono representing Lady Aoi. Which one of them is the true victim, she wonders: “On spring mornings I rode out/In royal retinue and on autumn nights/Among the red leaves of the Rishis’ Cave
I sported with moonbeams,/With colours and perfumes/My senses sated./I had splendour then;/But now I wither like the Morning Glory/Whose span endures not from dawn to midday./I have come to clear my hate” (in Arthur Waley’s translation)—presumably by killing Lady Aoi.

In the pulse-quickening climax, the spirit reappears in a demonic, horned mask. She’s fully possessed by evil, and a priest (Hara Masaru) who has been summoned engages her in a battle of words and actions that’s intensified by the musicians. She wields a long-handled red mallet, he a kind of rattle that he rubs between his outstretched hands. Now she advances and he he retreats, now he persists and she falls back. Their duel is measured, but dramatically paced. She threatens him and tells him he’d better go. He resorts to reciting a sutra that names and invokes powers of the universe. She quails, crumples: “My evil spirit dies at last.” Lady Rokuju is redeemed and (perhaps) Lady Aoi recovers. A stagehand folds up the red kimono. Hot stuff!

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