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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.
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!
The audience at Japan Society relishes Boshibari (or Tied to a Pole), a kyogen (the comedy form traditionally interspersed between Noh dramas to cleanse the mind with a little laughter). This play is famous, and, even without translations of the dialogue, the carefully plotted physical comedy would tell you just what’s going on. A well-to-do man (Shirada Hiromi) is convinced that whenever he goes away, his two doltish servants break into his cellar and gorge themselves on his best sake. His solution this time is to get one servant, Jiro-Kaja (Shigeyama Ippei), to demonstrate the pole-fighting he’s been secretly studying and then, with the help of the other, dopier servant, Taro-Kaja (Shigeyama Doji), to yoke him to his pole (many foiled attempts). That accomplished, the master binds Taro-Kaja’s arms behind him. The fun comes when the two servants gradually figure out how to collaborate on getting the sake anyway; the contortions they go through and their resultant drunken carryings-on are hilarious, and wonderfully performed by these two cousins, scions of a famous family of kyogen performers.
The week before the members of Kashu-Juku Noh Theater performed, Japan Society launched an exhibition called Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art (it runs through June 12). I wish I’d arrived early enough to see it before the performance. It purports “to meld traditional styles with challenging visions of Japan’s troubled present and uncertain future,” and the fetching postcard advertising it shows Makoto Aida’s Harakiri School Girls, a vivid montage in which girls in plaid uniforms gleefully plunge long knives into their vitals, and blood spouts like red flowers.
Japan’s “troubled present” acquired new meaning after this exhibition was arranged. From the stage before the Noh performance, Japan Society’s artistic director, Yoko Shioya, announced a special Concert for Japan to raise money for the Japan Earthquake Relief Fund —an all-day series of events on April 9. See japansociety.org/earthquake.
Like Noh and Japanese butoh, the works of Eiko and Koma unfold slowly. But until you’ve seen the two of them perform, or lain nose to the ground to watch a snail cross a patch of grass, you may not have fully experienced slowness. Their moving and beautiful Naked: A Living Installation doesn’t just transform a sixth-floor studio at the Baryshnikov Arts Center; it alters your breathing and your sense of time, as well as prolonging anticipation. Will Koma’s foot actually reach Eiko’s knee, or will she begin to draw away from him before that happens?
The exhibit in the adjoining studio prepares you. If you look deep into any of the five squared-off, chest-high black columns there, you’ll see videos of the pair in earlier dances that they performed unclothed. They lie in water, on leaves, upended against a chain link fence. Their images swim in a shallower tank that looks like a fishpond adjoining another that displays a curling assemblage that might be burnt paper.
Naked attracted around 8,000 viewers during its premiere season at Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center (which commissioned the work). Throughout November 2010, Eiko and Koma were on view in their installation—an important part of the pair’s ongoing three-year retrospective—six days a week during museum hours from (11 a.m. to 5 p.m). At BAC, they perform Tuesday through Friday from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Saturday from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. (with a rest break). The fact that the event is free encourages people who may want to pay only a short visit, although, after watching Eiko and Koma for a while, you may not be sure what “short” is.
To experience Naked up close and not just through holes in the heavy paper walls that surround the living installation on three sides, you enter a created “room.” Those walls and its paper floor are strewn with black feathers and pitted with holes made by scorching. In the middle of the space, ringed by dark earth, Eiko and Koma lie on a pile of feathers. High above them, suspended bundles of black strips stir in the breeze from an unseen fan, altering the patterns of light. The lighting itself (adapted by David Ferri from the design at the Walker) slowly morphs—sometimes flickering—from cool and dim to golden or white and back again. From the darkness above, water drips intermittently onto the soil.
In almost all Eiko and Koma’s pieces, they merge with an environment—growing into it, feeding off it in some way. At BAC, their pale, dirt-marked bodies stand out among the dark feathers like mushrooms on the forest floor. Closer to them than usual, we see every tiny move—the way a feather gets caught between two of Eiko’s fingers, the slight settling down of Koma’s buttocks. You could count the vertebrae on their spines. Viewers come and go, finding seats on the single row of benches or standing behind them or sitting on the floor. Some draw what they see on paper provided in the antechamber.
The performers are naked in the most profound sense of the word. They’re hairless, except for the black tangles on their heads. For a few uncomfortable seconds, staring at Eiko’s lean haunch, I see a skinned animal carcass—as if she once had fur. When they’re still, they look dead, discarded. Although naked, they don’t cater to the prurient. Koma twists subtly in and out of an almost fetal position, and only Eiko exposes the front of her long, sinewy body.
The heap of feathers has a slight ridge at the center, as if it covers a fallen tree. And this is the barrier over which the two must reach if they are to touch each other. The more severe restriction is that they can’t sit up. Sometimes it seems as if touching—even mating—is their goal, but they neither fully understand how to do it, nor what they’ve accomplished when they do feel each other’s flesh. I think of just-born animals nosing their way to a nipple, falling back, trying again. Or creatures emerging from some primal sleep that has erased their memories. At one point, Koma has brought one knee face to face with Eiko’s lifted knee, and the two knees suddenly look like blind, featureless worms. Because the movement are so minimal, so slow, so controlled, I find my focus shifting like this from the whole picture to details and back. When Koma lifts one hand and moves it slowly toward where Eiko’s lies half-buried, his hand appears to be an independent sentient being.
The room feels alive with anticipation. Do we all wish for the two to connect with some semblance of finality? Eiko’s leg slides along Koma’s, the back of Koma’s hand brushes Eiko’s cheek—gently, clumsily, yet charged with erotic promise—then slips off. These people don’t know how to hold onto anything, nor, seemingly, do they want to.
They are slow, but time moves swiftly. When I think I must have been watching them for about 40 minutes, I find that an hour and 20 minutes have passed, and 10 is approaching. I stand and change my angle of vision. Eiko and Koma seem finally to be drawing closer, without any more withdrawals into what could be exhaustion or despair, and to rest with their hands touching. I begin to ache even more for them—for their vulnerability, their clumsiness, their persistence. I feel the prick of incipient tears. An usher quietly tells each of us that it’s time to leave. As I cast a glance backward, I imagine this man and this woman beginning to separate again, and hurry away, hoping that isn’t so.