Dating back to the 14th century when they had no big black box or Wi-Fi, Noh entertained the Japanese.
Noh (能) is a form of theatre involving music, dance, and drama that was popularised and formalized by a man named Zeami during the Muromachi Period (1333-1573). It was developed together with kyogen, which are comical pieces performed during interludes of the main noh performance. The dual art of noh and kyogen is known as nogaku and is listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.
That’s google-able. Now let’s dig more in depth about Noh – a deeper insight by the 14th-generation Noh master of the Hayashi family, Mr. Soichiro Hayashi.
When and how did you start to be involved in performing Noh?
My family has generations of Noh actors, so I’ve been on stage since I was 3 years old. However, I have no recollection of what it was like back then. I have seen photos or video footage of myself performing on the stage at that age, and it was definitely me, but I couldn’t remember (doing) it at all. Of course, in order to make the stage debut at 3 years old, I would’ve started practicing Noh at 2 years old.
Who inspires you to perform Noh?
After seeing my father’s stand and approach towards his craft, I thought it was admirable and I wanted to be like him. He wasn’t the most dexterous of a person, not natural in a way, but that made (him) look more attractive to me. And it was last month that I lost my father who was also my mentor. In order to be able to surpass him one of these days, I continue with my practices and rehearsal.
Can you tell me more about Noh?
Noh actually came about in the old days as entertainment for the gods – something to be shown to the gods. When gods descended from the sky, they resembled a pine tree. So the beginning of Japanese theatre was to perform facing towards the pine trees. Once such performance was known, Noh came to incorporate the good point about the all the different performing arts that existed at the time. When you listen to Japanese songs today, a lot of them incorporate English words but that is something we’ve done long ago. We put in foreign words as parts of the lyrics (in Noh performance). For instance, it could be some reference from old Chinese literature.
What are the themes portrayed in Noh performance?
The themes portrayed in Noh are something to do with humans or mankind. In other words, there are things that people always think about regardless of what period and history they’ve lived in or country they’re from. For example, one is to pay respect to the gods or to (body savers) or to ancestors, wishing for peace, valuing one’s parents or loving ones (children). Of course, some of the themes that we pick up in Noh play aren’t always the beautiful and wonderful things only. For example, it could be being separated from one’s loved ones because of war or the feeling of wanting to vanquish or defeat another person. But if you do that, then later on something bad will happen. And the idea (the message) that Noh tries to convey is that one shouldn’t repeat the mistake. And what Noh does is to incorporate gods or historical characters or personalities from literature as its characters to communicate stories.
The title for tonight’s performance is Funa-Benkei. Would you please elaborate on that?
As I said earlier, in the beginning, it was designed to be a performance to the gods to please them but over the years (Noh) became an art form to give enjoyment to the people. Although originally Noh tended to be quite plain in terms of visually speaking, because of the demand from the audience, plays that are more flashy in nature was developed as well. The piece that we are performing tonight – Funa-Benkei is an example of that. So I feel that the style or what people want from Noh is constantly changing, even today. For example, today in Japan, the preference among the audience is not so much for the flashy play like Funa-Benkei which is simpler and plainer. I think this is because people are trying to look for the typical, stereotypical Japnese soul or Japanese mentality that is something modern people have forgotten. But this time around we choose to bring Funa-Benkei to Malaysia because of its highly entertaining values – there’s the beautiful costumes as well as wonderful dances, the way the voices are used as well as the music.
What is so unique about Noh?
In Noh, depending on the movements and the way the actors use their voices, we actually help the audience imagine the setting. Because tonight there will be an explanation before the performance, it would make it easier for the audience to comprehend what the actors are doing once the performance has started and what kind of scene they are trying to re-enact. In Japanese culture, this not only applies to Noh but there is the tendency to make use of emptiness or negative space, and the reason we do that because we want to leave room for the audience’s imagination to develop. We don’t want to overload them with huge impact and almost shove it down their throat. We want to give them space to re-interpret or imagine things.
Can you tell me more about the role of performers in Noh?
In Noh, we have a few roles such as shite, sure, waki, jiutai, koken, and hayashi. Shite refers to the central character in the Noh story. Sure refers to the supporting roles. Waki is the ones that support the supporting actors. Jiutai refers to the people who sing the chorus. When jiutai sing the chorus, the story progresses to the next. As for koken, at first glance, you must be thinking that they are not doing anything or just sitting in the corner but they (actually) have an important role. If there’s any problem happen on the stage, it’s the koken‘s responsibility to solve it. This is an extreme example – let’s say tonight, if I were to fall down in the middle of my performance, then the koken will have to take over my role. This is because, in Noh performance, we don’t have curtains to separate audience from the stage. Once we have started the performance, we have to finish it till the end.
Hayashi refers to those who play the flute (fue), small drum (kotsuzumi), big drum (otsuzumi), and side-based drum (taiko). However, let’s say today I feel like playing the flute during the performance. Even if I said that, it wouldn’t be allowed. The reason is because I was born into a family that has the true generation being responsible for playing the role of shite or the main character. Having said that, (if) you were born into a family that is known to be responsible for being the shite, at times, you will also have to take the role of sure, jiutai and koken.
It’s often said that shite is the main character or the central character but I don’t like that explanation. Perhaps I’m being very particular about the wording but shite is actually centre of the story but we are not the lead or the conductor on the stage. Like tonight’s performance, the audience comes not only to watch the shite – which is me but the whole Noh performer or troupe.
In your spare time, apart from practicing Noh, what other things you like to do?
Driving (laugh). I often get asked what would I have been if I didn’t become a Noh actor. My answer would be – a taxi driver.
About Soichiro Hayashi, Shite (Principal actor), Kanze School of Noh
Born in 1979, Soichiro is the 14th-generation Noh master of the Hayashi family, which belongs to Kyo Hanze Gokenya (The Five Kanze Families of Kyoto). He studied under his father, the 13th Noh master Kiemon Hayashi, and Kiyokazu Kanze, the 26th gandmaster of the Kanze School.
Making his stage debut at the age of three, he held his first independent showcase in 2012. In 2013, he founded Soichiro no Kai to produce his own performances. The next year saw him being selected for his hometown’s special encouragement programme for arts and culture.
In addition to serving as a local omonetashi (hospitality) ambassador, Soichiro also teaches Noh chanting and dance at studios in Kyoto, Tokyo, Okayama, and Tottori.