March 9, 2009 / 6:44 AM / 10 years ago

Japanese Noh actor lifts veil on ancient theater

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - An actor, his face covered with a white oval mask, shuffles across the stage, pauses, then slowly raises an arm clutching a gilded fan as a flautist plays a haunting, tense tune.

Noh actor Yoshimasa Kanze wearing a traditional mask and wig performs about malt whisky with his troop Kamiasobi at a whisky merchandising event in Tokyo in this February 10, 2008, file photo. REUTERS/Issei Kato

This is Noh, a Japanese theater genre that has portrayed spirits and their interplay with humans since the 14th century, but which many people have chosen not to see because of its slow moves, monotonal chants and lengthy choruses in ancient prose.

Actor Yoshimasa Kanze, 38, is one of a handful of performers trying to turn Noh from an esoteric art form into one everybody can appreciate by helping audiences understand its subtleties with workshops, trendy posters and refined performances.

Kanze’s efforts began when he was in college, just as he was about to follow his father’s footsteps in a career as a Noh “shi-tay,” or main, actor.

“I got together with other traditional art performers my age, and we asked ourselves if people would come and see us in 20 years’ time,” he told Reuters in an interview at Tokyo’s Yarai Noh Stage over a cup of green tea.

“At the time, our fear was that they wouldn’t, unless we did something to promote ourselves.”

Noh, sometimes referred to as “Japanese opera,” involves 20 or so men on a pavilion-like stage, including actors, a flautist, three drummers and a chorus of around eight.

One of Noh’s distinct features is the use of masks carved out of cypress wood, which covers the main actor’s entire face when portraying a woman, deity, demon or a young or elderly man.


Kanze has been trying for some 10 years to get more people to see Noh for the first time.

In 1997, he and four young Noh musicians formed “Kamiasobi” or “God’s Play,” a group whose mission was to make the art more accessible to a wider audience.

Fliers and posters, previously filled with print, were given a fresh look with colorful pictures and modern designs. While over 200 plays exist, the group first focused on performing those with simpler story lines.

“It was a great success,” Kanze said of the group, recalling how more and more showed up to see performances.

“Eventually, our audience wanted to see not only introductory plays, but also very classical plays that are harder to understand.”

Kanze also started his own project “Know Noh Courses” in 2001, running workshops with commentary on the theatre’s archaic language and lessons in singing and dancing like the actors.

The growing interest in Noh has been a sign that the art’s aesthetic elements still resonate with audiences today, he said.

“In Noh, an actor can not cry with tears because he is wearing a mask, but he can still show sadness like this,” Kanze said, slowly lifting one hand up to his brow while tilting his head forward.

“It’s possible to express deep emotion with just the slightest movement.”

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Kanze hopes that such minimalism, along with Noh’s centuries-old history of combining dance and music with story-telling, will attract even more fans and help the theater thrive for years to come.

“We’ve been making changes to some extent, for example, providing audiences with commentary, urging people watch simpler performances and adding new plays to our repertory,” said Kanze.

“But what’s most important is to make sure that the essence of Noh remains and is passed on to future generations.”

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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