A long, long time ago, a powerful dude in Japan decided that what the country REALLY needed back then was some new, fancy-shmancy art form. So he summoned an artsy dude that was on his payroll and said, “Yo, Kanami, you’re doing OK with that rice-field monkey dancing stage thingy you have going on, but we need something that would blow other clans socks off. Something truly impressive. Something that only the truly classy and cultured ones would understand.” Kanami, the artsy one, nodded, because he knew where his money was coming from and besides, he liked his head in its current position.
But the Ashikaga shogun, being the pragmatic guy that he was, had an ulterior motive as well. He was going to show those other clans what a classy, cultured guy he was, that’s for sure! But why stop at that when you can do so much more? And all at the same time, in a classy, cultured way.
He added, “And oh yeah Kanami, while you’re at it, make sure this new art is a real killer.”
Kanami (観阿弥 清次) and his son Zeami (世阿弥 元清) took those words to heart and devised the highly refined form of torture known as the modern Noh (能) theatre. Stuff so mind boggingly boring that killing off rival clans members after they fell asleep during the performance was actually an act of mercy (otherwise the poor schmucks would have to kill themselves when they woke up to restore their honor and atone for sleeping during the show).
Either way, the Ashikaga clan flourished and very quickly rose to prominence. The shogun constructed himself a very fancy residence in Kyoto, the audience learned to stick toothpicks into their eyes to stay awake during Noh performances (because chewing your leg off would be so low class), and the rest is history.
This history manifested itself a couple of weeks ago when we went to watch a Noh play in Nikko. It was an open-air performance right outside the Rinnoji temple. The tickets were rather expensive - section A – about 70 bucks per person, which considering the type of chairs we had to sit on was, hmmm… how to put it nicely? Excessive would be the word, I guess.
Yes, I know, not exactly a budget activity, but it’s art, dammit. And I was going to be artsy and cultured and all that.
Well, what I turned out to be was wet – it started to rain in the middle of the performance.
The show was stopped and the organizers patiently began distributing plastic rain covers. So we sat there, on hard seats in the pouring rain and watched a couple of guys in funny masks move across the stage with the speed of a snail going backwards. The masked guys were shielded by clear plastic umbrellas held lovingly by an assortment of various stage hands.
Lacking toothpicks, I was unable to keep my eyes open and began to seriously consider chewing my leg off to stay awake. Not a very honorable alternative, I know, but still better than falling asleep. And just when I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, the gods took mercy upon me and the show finally ended. And all through this ordeal I was thinking of all the exciting things I could have done with my 70 bucks. So that’s a definite “no” for Noh from me. I think I’ll stick to super-kabuki (the kind with lots of smoke, fire and wire action).
PS. Husband really enjoyed the show. He said the actors looked like badly operated bunraku puppets.
And the next day I read on the internet that the plays we saw (two of them, actually) were "full of action". And let me tell you, if that was full of action, then I really don't want to know what kind of sick torture boring Noh must be.