Fukuoka Now recently attended the trial run of a new Noh experience, one which is designed to help foreigners appreciate this complex art form.
The venue was, to our surprise, a house in the Kego district – about 10 minutes by cab from Tenjin. This residence has a purpose-built Noh theater on the second floor; the stage of which is constructed of wood smoothed by the passage of hundreds of tabi (traditional Japanese split-toe socks). A private Noh theater is an extremely rare thing in all of Japan, but the stage itself is a beautiful example of the layout traditional to Noh. A bridgeway (called the hashi-gakari) leads from the actors’ door to the main stage, on the back wall of which is painted an ancient pine tree. The audience sits to the front and left of the stage, either on tatami mats or Western-style theater seating.
First to enter the stage were the musicians. The ensemble was made up of a fue (flute), kotsuzumi (shoulder drum), ōtsuzumi (hip drum), and taiko (drum played with two sticks). With immense ceremony injected into every movement, they began to perform a slow and stately melody. The beat of the drums were regular but sharp, which contrasted with the high-pitched trills of the flute. The drummers then began to add their own cries to the mix, creating something akin to a refined, elegant compilation of war cries. To add to this impression, all the artists had the calm yet slightly angry look I associate with the samurai of Japanese movies from the ‘60s.
Now it was time for the entry of the actors. One thing that immediately struck us about the performers were their appearances. Noh actors wear masks which are ingeniously designed so that the angle at which the actor tilts his head changes the mask’s expression. Their costumes are also a wonder: voluminous fabric in vibrant hues, embroidered with beautiful designs.
The two short pieces we saw were selected to especially appeal to foreigners and those unacquainted with Noh; this meant pieces that were only around 15 minutes in length, and had lots of dynamic, engaging action. In the first performance, a lone artist danced in a stately manner with his fan and sword. In the second, a venerated elderly character, the white hair of his wig reaching down past his waist, took to the centre of the stage. Soon the second actor, assuming the role of a young man with a vibrant red wig, made his abrupt entrance.
What followed was an energetic scene of a competitive nature, with plenty of jumping, stamping and throwing back of heads. I’m not entirely sure I ever fully understood a storyline per se, but there was enough emotional movement and dramatic pauses for me to feel transported and involved.
After the show, we got to try our hands at the instruments. Donning the white tabi we were given (only those in tabi may walk on the stage), we entered the stage through the colourful curtain that marked the actors’ entrance. Each participant was given the opportunity to select one of the four instruments to try, and the musicians, who had just performed for us with such confidence and skill, came out one by one to teach us the basics. No-one seemed to be “a natural”, but the musicians taught their pupils with patience and good humour.
Then came the chance to try on the costumes. I was helped into a purple kimono-style jacket, embroidered with wisteria, whilst Nick put on a fetching, semi-transparent pink piece with gold detailing. For the final flourish, each of us were given a fan decorated with natural scenes highlighted in gold paint.
The final treat was an opportunity to speak with Mr. Morimoto, one of the Noh actors who performed for us. It turned out that it was he who owned the theater, which had been in his family for 50 years; his father was also a well-respected Noh actor before him. Morimoto himself has performed 15 times overseas (most recently in Bulgaria), and his longest ever show was a staggering three hours and 20 minutes.
This was a great introduction to Noh at its best, with not only dramatic entertainment but opportunities to participate; the audience was thus able to get some idea of the difficulties and rewards of a life in Noh. Hopefully this experience will give the participants a greater level of appreciation for any other – perhaps more traditional – performances they see in future.
The Morimoto Noh Theater was established in February, 1965, and has a seating capacity of 220. It’s used not only for Noh performances but also traditional Japanese music performances, other forms of theater, rakugo and weddings.
Special programs for visitors from overseas coming soon!
For more information: email@example.com (JTB KYUSHU Corp International Tourism Center)
Morimoto Nohbutai (Noh Theater)
• 3-8-1 Kego, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka
• Jonan-sen, 2 min walk from Futaba Gakuen Iriguchi Bus stop
• Paid parking spaces available next to nearby McDonalds.