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!
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!
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…
Every year February Udaka Michishige hosts the hayashi kenkyūkai. In Japan a kenkyūkai is a meeting of people gathering for a day of intensive study. In this case we members of the Kei’un-Kai and INI (Udaka-sensei’s students) get together for a day of intensive noh practice. In a hayashi kenkyūkai we perform only maibayashi and full noh plays performed in kimono and hakama. Those of us who study instruments also join as musicians when we don’t chant or dance.
This Sunday I am going to perform Takasago maibayashi, featuring the godan kamimai, one of the fastest dances in the Noh repertoire. I will also play the taiko for Makura Jidō maibayashi, featuring the gaku, another godan (five sections) dance.
The kamimai is not my first godan dance: I already studied the godan hayamai for Tōru and the gaku for Kantan. However, the speed of the kamimai in Takasago is quite a challenge. It requires not only confidence in the movements, but also full understanding of the music, and ability to think well ahead in order to keep up with the fast tempo.
Anyway, good luck to me!
- The chorus for Kami-uta, the recitation of the chant from the ritual performance Okina, often performed at the beginning of celebrations such as an important birthday. Difficulties: here Kami-uta serves as ‘opening ritual’ – we will perform with formal kamishimo. It is an honour for me to partake in this recitation.
- Immediately after Kami-uta I will perform in the su-utai solo chant recitation of the full Noh Shunkan, recounting the story of three men exiled to Kikai Island after they failed a coup attempt against Taira no Kiyomori. Two of them (tsure) are pardoned, while Shunkan (shite) has to remain on the island alone. I am going to take the role of one of the tsure, Taira no Yasuyori. However, in su-utai recitations singers chanting the part of shite, waki or tsure are also singing in the chorus. Difficulties involved in this: 1. Yasuyori and Naritsune (the other shite) get to sing long sections in unison. 2. Yasuyori reads the pardon letter – highly dramatic scene. 3. The chorus part in this play is particularly difficult.
- Chorus for a round of 12 different shimai. Difficulties: 1. shimai chant typically is faster and with shorter pauses compared to chant performed with music, putting more emphasis on adjusting the tempo to the shite’s acting. Without musicians as reference, being able to follow the chorus leader is crucial. 2. being the lowest in rank, I will be sitting upstage right, the farthest from the chorus leader (sitting upstage center-left). It will be more difficult to isolate and follow the leader’s voice while hearing one more voice to my left, as well as while producing a loud voice myself. 3. this round of shimai consists of basic pieces, but still, twelve assorted dances is a good number. It will be important to be able to quickly switch from mood to mood.
- Chorus for the maibayashi from the noh Tomoe, the only warrior piece in which the shite is a woman. Difficulties: 1. Tomoe is a long piece, featuring chant sections that range from melodic to dynamic, from poetic description to energetic narration. 2. A chorus for a maibayashi is typically composed of four members, meaning that individual mistakes are clearly heard. 3. Once more my position is the farthest from the chorus leader, yet the closest to the flute player (in this case Sugi Ichikazu-sensei, one of the highest ranking flute players in Kyoto), who will be able to hear every syllable slip or rhythmical inaccuracy. Sugi-sensei listening to my chant is on my mind every time I practice Tomoe 🙂
- Chorus for the full Noh Sesshoseki – nyotai (The Death Stone). This is the second time I sing in the chorus for this play, which is very useful as I understand the development of the mood of the play better. Difficulties: 1. downside of having sung the play already: my position is not the lowest. I am now sitting to the extreme left of the front row, meaning that I am the closest to the audience, as well as to the waki who will be sitting in the downstage left corner for most of the play. Luckily during our last training session in Matsuyama I could practice the chorus chant alone, while another students and Udaka-sensei would play the drums. Thiswas very useful for memorizing the ‘ma’, or pauses between phrases.
Source: INI trainees – Hana Lethen
My teacher’s son Udaka Norishige is preparing to perform as shite in the play Kayoi Komachi, at the bimonthly training session his father organises. When my schedule permits (they usually do this in the morning) I join in a chorus member, but this time I will take the tsure companion of the shite role. In Kayoi Komachi this is a rather demanding role as the tsure (the ghost of the Heian period poetess Ono no Komachi) acts alone during the first half of the play, de-facto acting as a shite.
It will be challenging also because it is the first time I take on a female role in a full play. I will need to practice hard to train my voice to sing in a ‘feminine mode’, (though this kind of mode still sounds quite manly to the untrained ear).
On Sunday 17 August I took part in the 2014 Kei’un-kai, INI Memorial Taikai performance, a collective recital in which a great number of Udaka Michishige’s students performed dance and chant excepts, as well as full Noh plays. This year’s highlights were the Noh Atsumori and Funa-benkei. As for me, I danced the maibayashi from the Noh Tōru, featuring a godan-hayamai, an instrumental dance in five parts. I enjoyed performing in an environment that is becoming increasingly more familiar to me. Everyone has been extremely supportive during the preparation and on the day of the performance.
Oddly enough though, the most difficult performance of the day was singing in the jiutai for a cluster of seven shimai (dance excerpts at the accompaniment of a chorus of four). They were all basic pieces (Tsunemasa kuse, Yashima, Momiji-gari, Kochō, Yuki kuse-kiri, Hagoromo kuse, Kakitsubata kiri), but this was my first time in such a formal situation. In the case of a shimai, four jiutai singers are sitting at the back of the stage, facing the front. I was in the lowest ranking position (A in the drawing), upstage right, which is coincidentally the most difficult to be in: it is the furthest from the jigashira (chorus leader, sitting in position C in the drawing), and the closest to the waki-shōmen side of the stage, where the audience is sitting and can hear your voice clearly: not a comfortable place for a beginner. In addition, the way jiutai is sung for shimai is different from the way it is performed for a maibayashi or for a full Noh. It is not easy to explain all differences, but generally speaking a jiutai for shimai is ‘lighter’, often quicker because it is not forced to respect the extension of syllables regulated by the rhythm of the drums, and all pauses (ma) between verses. This is particularly evident in hiranori chant type, in which twelve syllables match an 8 beat rhythmical pattern. It is less evident in chūnori and ōnori, where the syllables subdivision is more regular and a certain set rhythm has to be maintain.
The way jiutai chant for shimai is performed does not depend on the jigashira’s extemporaneous feeling. It maintains a rhythm that all four chanters have to follow, but should not be sung ‘as if’ drums were there, or it would result in a boring, predictable recitation. Chorus of sole amateurs or novices often end up singing this way. In a professional shimai jiutai, notes are often shortened, and the speed is generally faster, but it maintains a certain jo/ha/kyu. Talking about this with Udaka-sensei the other day, he confirmed that in order to sing well in a shimai jiutai, I would first need to master utai with the percussions, then I will be able to understand better the utai for shimai, which definitely stands at a higher level of expertise.
Now that I have learned my first godan dance, I will continue to research progressively challenging mai (instrumental dances). My next assignment is the maibayashi from the Noh Kantan, a beautiful piece featuring the gaku, a stately dance characterised by many hyoshi or feet stamps. At the same time, I will continue studying various ji-utai for Noh that other people will perform as shite. It will be important for me not only to learn how to sing, but also to deepen my understanding of rhythm.