• 06 . 08 . 05
  • Noh theatre is a traditional style of Japanese drama about as far removed from the modern-day TV stuff as you could imagine. It’s so old that it’s apparently akin to watching Chaucer, without having first rewritten it and drafted in Billie Piper. Like kabuki, even Japanese people don’t understand what’s going on half the time, […]

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Noh Way

Noh theatre is a traditional style of Japanese drama about as far removed from the modern-day TV stuff as you could imagine. It’s so old that it’s apparently akin to watching Chaucer, without having first rewritten it and drafted in Billie Piper. Like kabuki, even Japanese people don’t understand what’s going on half the time, and it has a reputation for being interminably boring and long. There is a joke, in fact, that the name comes from the cries of people who scream “NO!” when they are invited/cajoled into going to a performance. Of course, only gaijin would really get this joke, so it’s probably apocryphal. That, and it’s over 600 years old.

Nevertheless, it remains popular and is supposed to be something you should see once, so I’d been hoping to go for some time. It’s lucky then that I live in Gifu, which I discovered this week was holding a free outdoor Noh performance on the banks of the Nagara River. Me and Chris both had the day off, so we backed across the river and joined the hundreds of people who were already there. Many of the women were in yukatta, the traditional Japanese dresses, because even though it was outside, it’s still culture, and you still have to dress up. Maybe especially so.

Unfortunately, just as the performance and began and the actors rolled in, so did the thunderclouds. A light rain began falling, which was met with hundreds of readily prepared umbrellas, apart from above me and Chris. We’d temporarily forgotten the temperamental nature of the climate and had neglected to bring ours, but luckily we were loaned one by a kindly couple sitting next to us. After a brief consultation, the show was given the green light, which was totally unexpected. Normally, Japan shuts down at the first sign of bad weather, with schools closed on “Typhoon Days” and trains cancelled when it rains heavily. Apparently, Noh actors are hardier than normal; apparently the only thing that has caused this annual performance to be cancelled in the 17 years it has been running was the stage floating downstream after a particularly vicious storm. The show, it seems, must go on, even here.

Despite their best intentions, it didn’t last long. After a couple of minutes forked lightning started appearing within a kilometer of where we were, with the loudest bolt reverberating off the mountains with a crack like a whip, causing the hundreds of spectators to duck simultaneously. When it became clear that the audience was more interested in the sky than the stage, the performance was halted. Next came a great electrical storm with loads and loads of fractal-like lightning appearing over Kinka mountain. Just like last year I tried to take a couple of photos, and just like last year I totally failed. If anyone knows how to take photos of lightning, I’d be much obliged. Most of the people were pretty scared, but I felt secure with my basic physics and rubber-tyred bike. It didn’t stop me from getting totally soaked, though.

So, I still don’t think I’ve seen Noh theatre, though I guess I could say I was involved in a Noh drama… Hopefully I’ll get the chance again soon enough.