Visiting the Ohori Park Noh Theater in the Fukuoka Prefecture provided the TOMODACHI Inouye Scholars a glimpse of traditional dramas that are constructed to preserve and enhance cultural heritage for future generations. This theater brings to life a practice hundreds of centuries old through dramas performed by actors who work diligently since childhood to understand, rehearse and execute the art form. Since the 14th-century during the Muromachi period (1333 – 1573), noh and kyōgen dramas have been two relatively distinct art forms that are both performed on a simple stage as complements. Noh is structured around song and dance with symbolic themes concerning human destiny and kyōgen strives to incorporate humor and human nature into its realistic themes. While noh is an elegant and symbolic drama with subjects from history or classical literature, kyōgen is a fast-paced spoken drama that is centered around the lives of common people in feudal society or folk tales. Noh and kyōgen together are thought of as the art of nōgaku (野学), which is performed on the stage along with traditional Japanese music, another artistic form persevered at the Noh Theater.
As TOMODACHI scholars, we were invited to experience the role of a performer by acting out several characters that are typically portrayed in kyōgen drama. Before participating in the art, we watched an informational video regarding the history of the dramas and a demonstration from a kyōgen actor of the Ohori Park Noh Theater. We learned that although the plays often include female characters, all the performers are male. As demonstrated by the actor, kyōgen and noh dramas utilize ranbyōshi (乱拍子), or “confused rhythm”, which describes short shuffling motions of the feet in which the actor does not lift his feet off the stage. Another notable distinction of noh plays are the beautiful masks of the main actors, many of which are passed on from generation to generation.
In the dramas, a chorus and a group of instrumentalists play significant roles in propelling the storyline of the drama. Musicians specialize in either the fue (flute), kotsuzumi (shoulder drum), ōtsuzumi (hip drum), or taiko (stick drum) during their Noh career, and these four instruments are known as the shibyōshi. One specific example of Noh we learned about is Dōjōji (度女児), which is a famous play traditionally written by Kan’ami and revised by Zeami. It is the only noh play to use a substantial prop: a large bell. Thus, participating in Dōjōji often comes with risks for in this play there is a scene in which a large bell is dropped onto the actor even though he does not know exactly where it will land. Although this drama was composed centuries ago, it is currently performed almost exactly how it was first written. Noh actors are committed to performing the play precisely as possible to the way it was initially enacted in order to preserve the culture and understand the drama.
During our acting experience on the noh stage, the TOMODACHI scholars attempted to portray several characters that are common in kyōgen plays under the guidance of the experienced actor. He first demonstrated his rendition of the character and guided us in motions to mimic his actions and verbal expression. We portrayed characters such as the rooster, dog, mushroom, mosquito and devil, all of which require both repeated physical actions and specific verbal expression. This was an engaging, fun and humorous cultural experience that evoked appreciation for the drama performers. We also drew parallels between the noh and kyōgen arts and hula, a traditional art of Hawai`i. Both these art forms require immense diligence, strength, and commitment in performance which is often done in a public setting. They preserve the cultural heritages of Japan and Hawaii respectively so future generations can appreciate the identity and background of the country. This activity broadened our horizons because we had the opportunity to experience the intensity of these dramas and truly understand the significance of their roots in Japan.