All posts by Diego Pellecchia

Noh theatre scholar and practitioner.

Noh costumes and female bodies

Today has been an eventful day at the Oe Noh theatre with performances of Yashima by Miyamoto Shigeki and Aoinoue by Washio Yoshiko. The latter is a young female performer belonging to the Kyoto Kanze group of performers. As it often happens, the mask and costume used for this performance did not suit the small stature of the main performer. This is all the more thought-provoking in the case of a female role. We watch a female body in female clothes designed to be worn by men – and it does not fit. The sleeves are too long, the bottom hem too low. The body is lost in the costume. The large mask hides the chin. As long as masks and costumes meant to be worn by men will be put on women, it will be hard to consider performances on par. I share this experience of unfitness on the other extreme: my arms, as those of many Caucasian males, are longer in comparison to our east-Asian ounterparts (this applies to buying shirts at Uniqlo, too), making kosode costumes such as karaori or atsuita difficult to wear.

While I do not see a pressing need for costumes that white males could wear, I think it is very important that efforts are put in creating costumes for women. Noh costumes are extremely expensive, and actors buy costumes individually – not everyone could afford a rich wardrobe in male and female sizes. But important households such as that of the iemoto grandmaster also purchase costumes with the intention of renting them to other actors. I think that a fair share of that budget should go to purchasing costumes for female performers. The same counts for masks. My teacher, Udaka Michishige, and some of his mask-carving students, such as Rebecca Ogamo Teele, have been making masks for women for several years now, and the results are excellent.

— Diego Pellecchia



Event on Katarimono at Kyoto City University of the Arts

Event on katari (narration) in Japanese medieval performing arts. Prof. Fujita Takanori from Kyoto City University of the Arts talked about two traditions still performed today: Kōwaka-mai in Fukuoka and Daimokudate in Nara. Fujita analyzed musical aspects of the chant-narration such as melody and meter. It was interesting to compare styles of chant that are thought to pre-date noh (this point is currently debated by scholars) with noh chant. Videos of training and performance were also shown during the lecture. This is rare footage as these traditions are currently transmitted only within small local communities. The videos from Kōwaka-mai are available as DVD here.

In the second part of the event waki actors Yasuda Noboru (Hōshō school) and Arimatsu Ryōichi (Takayasu school) discussed narration drawing from the plays Aoinoue and Sumidagawa. It was interesting to see actors from different schools who usually do not appear together on stage (or backstage!) discuss differences in narration styles.

Internationalization of Noh: does good art need explanations?

Yesterday I attended an event on the internationalization of Noh at the National Noh Theatre in Tokyo. The event was organized by the Nohgaku Performers’ Association and featured an award ceremony for the three winners of the English composition contest. These were carefully selected out of 80+ submissions. They all stressed the need for a better understanding of Noh in order to appreciate it more. Two papers, in particular, focused on the need for multilingual surtitles and explanations as a way for the audience to appreciate performance through the understanding of the text. Does good art need explanations? Hard to give a single answer to this question… no, and yes. No, good art should be able to be at least partially appreciated for most of those who receive it. However, a greater appreciation of an artwork may (not must) depend on a deeper knowledge of its history, cultural context, techniques, etc. Does good art need explanations? The counter-question should be: who is the audience we are considering when asking the question? Greater appreciation of Noh will depend on the ability of its practitioners to understand their audiences better. As long as communication is one way (art producers instructing art consumers), we will see little improvement in the appreciation of noh. It would be a shame.
– Diego Pellecchia

Studying Yoro

I am studying the maibayashi from the noh Yōrō (養老) which inspired Yeats’s At the Hawk’s Well. The main character of the play is the deity of a mountain from which an elixir of eternal youth flows. The deity reveals to be at the same time the guardian of the mountain (山神) and an avatar of Yōryū Kannon (楊柳観音), the Willow Kannon. The willow tree is associated with the element water, and this Kannon is depicted with a vase containing a medicine. This representation also overlaps with that of Suigetsu Kannon (水月観音), the Water and Moon Kannon. Famous Korean depictions of this deity were displayed at the Sen-oku Hakuko-kan in Kyoto last year. It was such a wonderful exhibition!


20 questions on the Japan Times


Wow… my last post dates back to August! I have been pretty busy keeping up with work and research duties and had little time to update my little blog here. I will make that a New Year proposition. Meanwhile, Mika Sato Eglinton, fellow PhD at Royal Holloway, theatre scholar and journalist, was kind enough to invite me to answer 20 questions on my life in Japan, which appeared on the Japan Times this Sunday. It was great fun to try come up with answers. Newspapers have limited space so my verbose answers had to be cut, and something got a bit lost in the process, but that is part of the game! Anyway, I will leave a link to the article here!

Diego Pellecchia

Thoughts on my first run-through of the Noh Hagoromo

Hello, everyone. I have not posted for a while on this blog. Recently I have been pretty busy with my new job at Kyoto Sangyo University, as well as with various research projects in which I am involved. Also, I have been busy preparing for a training run-through of the play Hagoromo. This performance took place in the context of a kenkyū-kai, which is a training session organized by Udaka Michishige, in which his students (including me) take turns performing noh excerpts or, as in this case, full noh plays. This time I took the shite role in the full noh Hagoromo, which I performed in plain kimono/hakama, but wearing a mask. In the latter part of the play, I also wore the chōken cloak which symbolizes the robe of feathers. This was an approximation of a full performance and served the purpose of helping me familiarize with how it feels to perform with a mask and with a chōken. So, how does it feel?

Wearing a noh mask severely restricts the actor’s vision. In particular, peripheral vision is obstructed, and one can only see ‘in front’. What ‘in front’ means may depend on the mask and how it fits on your head. In the case of the zō-onna mask I wore yesterday, ‘in front’ meant in ‘in front and slightly below’, though not ‘below’ enough to allow me to see the stage as I walked towards its edge. The risk of falling from the stage is real. I saw that happen to someone else last year, and it was not good. In the case of practice sessions like these, the instrumentalists are sitting on the floor rather than on stools, which makes it hard to find the end of the part of the stage where the actor is supposed to dance. Obstructed sight impacted on my sense of position on stage. Where am I? How far am I from point A? How many steps can I take before I get to the edge?


One more thing that I noticed is that I had trouble measuring not only distances but also angles. Some movements request you to face different directions: as long as someone is standing in front of you, you know where to point, but when you need to face the front of the stage, what do you rely on in order to be sure to be facing the front, perpendicular to the edge of the stage? Chairs lined up in parallel lines in front of you may help. Also, it is possible to use architectural elements at the bottom of the hall as a reference to guess how centered one is on stage.


I found the angle issue particularly challenging when facing the audience (no audience this time, just empty chairs) while standing on the hashigakari bridge. The hashigakari is not perpendicular to the main stage but follows a diagonal line. Hence, if I stand on the bridge with my feet perpendicular to its edge, I would be facing somewhere between the front and stage right, looking away from most of the audience. I tried to draw this – not sure you guys can see what I mean. Should I adjust my angle to actually face the audience? This is something I had not considered until I got on stage yesterday. (We do not use a hashigakari in usual training).

Training sessions like these are useful precisely because they urge you to think about aspects of performance that cannot be really appreciated until you try them first-hand. I am grateful I had the chance to perform Hagoromo this time.

Photos below come from a trip to Yogo Lake 余呉湖 (just north of Biwa Lake) I took a few months ago. Yogo Lake is one of the many areas in Japan transmitting local versions of the Hagoromo legend (the most famous one being set in Mio, currently Shizuoka Pref.) In this version, the Angel descended on Yogo Lake and married the fisherman who took away her robe. The couple had several children, but the Angel eventually returned to the heavens. One of the children was particularly intelligent and eager to study, so he was sent to study with a monk living in a monastery nearby. The monk recognized the child’s exceptional talents and sent him to Kyoto to continue his studies. The child grew up to be none other than Sugawara no Michizane, one of the most celebrated figures in Japanese history and literature, who would be deified post-mortem as god of poetry!

The tree on which the robe of feathers was hanging
Yogo Lake is a very peaceful place
The statue of the Tennin

Filming noh performance at the Kongo Noh theatre

On June 15 2017 Kongo school actors will perform the plays Hashitomi and Kokaji as part of the research project on Noh as intermedia, led by musicologists Jaroslaw Kapuscinski (Stanford University) and François Rose (Pacific University), with Takanori Fujita (Kyoto City University of the Arts. Kongō Tatsunori will take the lead role in Hashitomi, while Udaka Tatsushige will perform the main role in Kokaji. I, along with Rebecca Teele, have acted as consultant and local coordinator here in Kyoto. The project is still in the works, so I should refrain from saying too much about it… Two full noh plays will be filmed live, and the resultant audiovisual recordings will be available as part of an educational website exploring the connections between the various media that constitute a noh performance. 

Diego Pellecchia

Heian Jingu Takigi Noh pre-show at Kyoto Porta Shopping Mall

Yesterday I went to see Kongō school actors perform an abridged version of the play Tsunemasa at Kyoto Porta Shopping Mall, B1F Kyoto station. Udaka Tatsushige took the shite role. The actors were forced to perform on a very small platform – quite a task when you wear a mask that restricts your vision considerably. The performance was a pre-event aimed at advertising the big 2-day Kyoto Takigi Noh 2017 @Heian Jingu June 1 and 2. This year’s topic is ‘A Fantastic Tour of Kyoto Powerspots’. The Kyogen Bōshibari was performed by Okura school actors.

Diego Pellecchia

New challenge accepted: Hagoromo 羽衣

Hirasawa Yumiko in the Noh Hagoromo (Photo: Fabio Massimo Fioravanti)

In 2016 we celebrated Udaka Michishige’s 70th birthday with a Taikai, a large performance event in which I danced the shimai excerpt from the Noh Kurama Tengu. This coming summer (2017) we are not going to hold a public event, but a closed-door practice session in early August. I am going to take the main role in the play Hagoromo, performed in its full format, with costume and mask. My teacher assigned me this role knowing that I have been wanting to perform a female role after a long series of warriors, gods, tengus, etc. (the only exception would be the tsure (secondary) role of goddess I have occasionally performed in other practice sessions – see, for example, this old post).

Hagoromo is a relatively short one-act play, following the Aristotelian unities of time, space, and action. The action takes place on Miho bay (currently Shizuoka Pref.) just before dawn, when the fishermen’s boats return to the shore after night fishing. There, a tennin (a celestial maiden living in the ‘palace on the moon’) who has descended on earth in order to admire the beauty of the scenery, has taken off her ‘robe of feathers’ (the hagoromo) before bathing into the sea. The fisherman Hakuryō has found the hagoromo hanging on a pine branch and decides to take it back to his village. The tennin demands that the robe is returned to her: without it, she cannot fly back to the moon. Hakuryō says that he will give the robe back if she performs one of her famous dances, but without the robe the tennin cannot dance. Hakuryō insinuates that if he gives the robe back in advance, she will leave without dancing. However, the tennin reminds the fisherman that lie and deceit belong to the world of the humans: deities don’t lie. Ashamed of his distrust, Hakuryō finally gives back the robe. The tennin dances, admiring the beauty of Miho bay. Finally, she sends blessings and gifts, before flying back to the moon as the dawn breaks.

Despite its apparent simplicity, Hagoromo is a demanding play. The focus of the action is the shite, who sings or dances almost without interruption since its entrance. It will be my first time to perform the graceful jo-no-mai slow tempo dance. It will also be my first time to perform in kinagashi, that is, with a kimono-style costume instead of the large ōkuchi trousers used for male roles or, sometimes, for goddesses. The type of costume influences how one performs. In this case, the kinagashi style will considerably restrict the length of the steps I will be able to take.

Hagoromo will be an interesting challenge. This summer I will perform Hagoromo in a kenkyūkai (practice session), but I wonder if my teacher is not thinking about having me perform this noh on the Kongo Noh stage sometimes soon…