Richard Emmert; The World of Japanese Classical Noh – A Social View

Prof. Richard Emmert, Musashino University

Held in association with The Japan Foundation, London

Prof. Emmert began his talk by outlining the performers in noh: shite (main actor), waki (secondary actor), kyogen (interlude), nohkan/fue (transverse flute), kotsuzumi (shoulder drum), otsuzumi (hip drum), taiko (stick drum).

The shite actor may take the main role in a noh play, act as an accompanying shite role (tsure), function as a significant member of the chorus (jiutai), act as a koken (stage attendant) or hataraki (back stage assistant). The shite are the most important participants in noh.

The waki performs the secondary role, with the waki-tsure playing the accompanying waki role. The waki never takes the shite role, and is relied upon to deliver the waki role to a very high standard.

Richard then discussed the kyogen role within a noh play. An ai-kyogen is an interlude within a noh, which is only occasionally comic in nature. Kyogen actors take roles in independent kyogen plays that are performed in the same programme and on the same stage as noh. These plays are more comic in nature. Kyogen actors may also act as koken stage attendants in kyogen plays.

Some people think that there are five schools in noh, when actually what they are referring to is only the shite schools. There are five shite schools in Noh: Kanze, Hosho, Komparu, Kongo, Kita, but there are also other schools. There are three waki schools (Takayasu, Fukuo, Hosho); two kyogen schools (Okura, Izumi); three flute schools (Isso, Morita, Fujita); four kotsuzumi schools (Ko, Ko-sei, Okura, Kanze), five Otsuzumi schools (Kadano, Takayasu, Okura, Ishii, Kanze) and two taiko schools (Kanze, Komparu).

Richard argued that whilst noh is often considered an exclusively male art form, there have been women performing noh professionally from at least the early twentieth century (if not earlier). These days, around 10% of noh performers are female. Amongst amateurs, the number is far higher, with around 75% (guesstimate) being female. Some schools do not encourage female professionals, though amateurs are always encouraged.

The difficulties of bringing male and female performers are practical. They result from an inability to match male and female singers in the same chorus because of different pitch ranges. Larger schools sometimes sponsor mostly or all female productions (though perhaps musicians will still be male). Such performances also take place across different schools (for instance, a Kita school female noh actor recently performed with a female Kanze school chorus). Female actors can play male or female roles, in the same way that men can. Whilst mixing a chorus of different sexes is difficult, matching a female shite to a male chorus and vice versa is manageable.

In discussing the relationship between amateur and professional performers, the role of the Noh Performer’s Association is important. Only professional actors are in the association, and membership of the association is determined by each school. Many professionals have amateur students, but many amateurs have teaching licenses (semi-professionals). Amateurs make up a large audience for noh, numbering anything between 20,000-50,000 (guesstimate).

Most performances are one-off events and are organised by shite or kyogen schools, factions within schools, individuals or groups of actors (around 80% in this way), by other schools or individual performers (2%?), the National Noh Theatre in Tokyo (10%?), or other organisations such as cities, temples, shrines (8%).

The stage of National Noh Theatre in Tokyo is used by all schools of noh. The Theatre itself sponsors performances, but the stage is also rented out for performances it does not sponsor. Schools, and larger factions within schools, have their own full stages or practices stages (there are 66 in Japan altogether). Larger venues exist in Tokyo (6-7), Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka and elsewhere. These venues belong to one school, but they are rented out to other schools. There are also outdoor stages in temples and shrines.

For a noh performance, there needs to be one shite, chorus, stage attendants, between one and four performers from one waki school, between one and four ai-kyogen performers, and one musician from each specialty (though some plays do not have taiko). The number of schools creates a great amount of variety. One individual play, taking account of the different permutations of schools, could be performed in 3600 different ways.  This number does not include textual variations, differences within a school, or differences between families of performers!

In the Edo period, a noh programme consisted of five plays, one from each category, and four Kyogen plays (the five noh play categories are God, Warrior, Women, Miscellaneous, and Demon). Today, it is very rare for a programme with all five noh plays in it to be performed. This would take five to six hours. Instead, at weekends, two to four noh plays, with one to two kyogen plays might be performed. On weekdays, only one to two plays at most are put on the same bill.

Schools/factions have regular performances, which range from monthly to four times a year. Richard insisted that there was no such thing as a ‘noh troupe’, but there were groups of performers who were brought together for a performance. Actors themselves decide who will do a programme, and whilst there are some producers, usually it is actors that create the schedules of performances. Work is confirmed by oral contracts made a year in advance. The organising group advertises the performance, sells tickets, and will pay performers even if this means a loss. With the exception of the National Noh Theatre, all of this is done without paper contracts. If a play is cancelled at short notice, the expectation for payment would remain because other work would have been turned down. Failure to pay would result in difficulty for the individual to mount another performance.

The National Noh Theatre was established in 1983 and sponsors four to five performances per month. The Theatre instigated “revival noh”, that is, plays from 400-600 years ago that have fallen from the repertoire. These plays involve significant creativity in the reconstruction of movement/choreography, musical patterns, and in some cases, portions of text. Since the 1990s between four and eight new noh plays are created. Thirty years ago, there might have been one every four years.

Richard concluded his talk by stating that the world of noh is a highly complex one.

Following the talk, questions were asked. These included:

From what age are performers trained? Richard suggested that some performers are put on stage at the age of three, others at eight. Some start later, but it is unlikely that a performer will become a professional if they begin in their late teens or early twenties.

How is space and presence constructed and how an audience discerns and appreciates it. Richard suggested that there was a lack of definite musical timing in the way a performance takes place. Thus, whilst some of the music follows a musical measure, and the overall performance follows a pattern of jo-ha-kyu, there was immense energy in the way performers expressed this in a moment that did not fit a precise musical time.

What difficulties are there in taking Noh out of Japan?  In addition to money, Richard suggested that there was often some misunderstanding about cleanliness of the stage (stage hand moping a stage in shoes will not be considered clean) or background duties.

Are all amateur learners middle class? Richard suggested that amateurs were from all classes of Japanese society.

About the speaker:

Richard Emmert has studied, taught and performed classical noh drama in Japan since 1973. He is a certified Kita school noh instructor, and has studied all aspects of noh performance with a special concentration in movement and music. A professor of Asian performing arts at Musashino University in Tokyo, he directs the on-going Noh Training Project-Tokyo. In summers, he leads the intensive three-week Noh Training Project in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, and the two-and-a-half week Noh Training Project UK at the University of Reading.

He has co-authored a series of Noh performance guides published by the National Noh Theatre in Tokyo, has led extended Noh performance projects in Australia, India, Hong Kong, the UK, the US and Canada, has composed, directed, and performed in numerous English noh performances, and has released a CD entitled “Noh in English” by the Japanese Teichiku Records. He has also performed in and/or directed several Asian multi-cultural performances including “Siddhartha” by Teater Cahaya performed in Kuala Lumpur in 2003. The founder and artistic director of Theatre Nohgaku, he has led performance tours of “At the Hawk’s Well,”” Pine Barrens” and “Pagoda.”

Summary by Ashley Thorpe

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