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Views Discovering “Nōgaku”: The Blossoming of Tradition
Helping Beginners Say Yes to Nō Theater

Kawamura Junko has been leading a nō workshop for students, foreign tourists, and other visitors to Kyoto for over two decades, giving the more than 400,000 participants a renewed appreciation for Japan’s traditional stage art, often considered difficult to understand.

Just a few blocks north of the Kyoto Imperial Palace, along one of the city’s major thoroughfares, stands Kawamura Nō Theater. From the outside, it looks no more than an elegant, private residence. I wonder to myself, “Could this building actually contain a theater seating 350 people?” I make my way to the entrance and, taking off my shoes, step inside—still skeptical.

The front gate of the Kawamura Nō Theater.

What a surprise, therefore, to find a full-fledged nō stage just beyond the small lobby. Built using hinoki (Japanse cypress), the stage features a kagami-ita pine drawing by Matsuno Sōfū, famed for his paintings of nō plays; a traditional thatched roof; a hashigakari bridgeway with a balustrade; and a five-colored agemaku curtain separating the bridgeway and kagami no ma (mirror room), where the main actor puts on his mask. The seating area—with a high ceiling to accommodate the roof above the main stage area—was filled with high school students visiting Kyoto on a school excursion.

Kawamura Junko leads a workshop for high school students.

“Nō was popular theater in the old days,” explains Kawamura Junko from the stage in a clear, confident voice. “In the 1300s, it was what TV dramas or Broadway musicals would be today.”

Kawamura has been leading workshops like this one since 1996, when she and her late husband, Nobushige, developed an experiential program for nō novices. Many people in Japan tend to shy away from nō, thinking that it is impenetrable and hard to understand. The Kawamuras wanted to communicate its charms and make it more approachable.

Their effort has paid off, as the program’s popularity has grown through word of mouth. Some 400,000 people have participated in it over the years, mainly groups of students visiting Kyoto or employees undergoing corporate training. She led over 300 workshops in 2017 alone.

Getting an Audience’s Attention

Nō is a traditional stage art recognized as an important intangible cultural property by the Japanese government and—along with kyōgen (comedy performed alongside nō)—is inscribed in UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. It originated in the mid-fourteenth century, making it two centuries older than Shakespeare.

Describing nō as a musical makes perfect sense, but the lines spoken by the actors are nonetheless difficult to follow, which is why modern audiences have shied away from performances. The language of nō, though, is not as esoteric as most people imagine.

“Most of you may think that nori ga ii (fast-paced, upbeat) is a phrase coined by modern comedians,” Kawamura tells her audience, “but it’s been around for hundreds of years. In fact, it comes from the nō theater to describe up-tempo musical sections of a play.”

Students listen attentively to Kawamura’s description of nō costumes, which, like this karaori woven using gold and silver thread, can weigh as much as 10 kilograms.

The students look up, as if drawn by mention of a familiar point of reference. Kawamura knows how to get her audience’s attention.

“There’re about 250 plays in the nō repertory, and the greatest number are about ghosts,” she goes on. “You can look all around the world, but you’re never going to find another theater form with so many nonhuman characters. Those ghosts all enter the stage along the hashigakari, past the three potted pines. The world beyond the curtain represents other dimensions, and that’s where the ghosts dwell.”

The area beyond the five-colored curtain represents the abode of other-dimensional beings.

An ayakashi nō mask, used for the ghosts of fallen warriors. The outward expression of rage and resentment veils an inner dignity and calm.

As Kawamura describes it, the ghosts enter the stage to recount their tale—their joys, pain, bitterness—to human characters (and, of course, to the audience) before exiting, usually feeling much lighter for having shared their story.

An engaging speaker, Kawamura stirs the imagination of her listeners. You can almost sense a shadow moving onstage as she describes its desire to speak.

  • [2018.04.12]
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  • “Teika”: A Work of All-Consuming Passion from the Nō RepertoireThe second article in the Discovering Nōgaku series continues the dialogue between the head of the Kanze School of nōgaku and a leading scholar of the traditional stage art, who examine nō’s treatment of amorous passion in a play depicting the affair between an imperial high priestess and one of Japanese most renowned waka poets.
  • “Nōgaku” Drama Kept Alive by Family TraditionsNōgaku, consisting of and kyōgen dramas, is the world’s oldest surviving theatrical art, dating back some 700 years. How has this ancient art (designated an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO) managed to remain a living art into the twenty-first century? For insights on this, a leading nōgaku scholar interviews Kanze Kiyokazu, the twenty-sixth grandmaster of the Kanze School.

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