Guide to SKOPJE

The Japanese “Noh” theater: one actor, empty stage, a thousand plays


We’ve heard many stories (or myths) about the Japanese culture of minimal usage of the surrounding environment, about using only what’s necessary and no more, which has led to little apartments, little gardens, ultimately rationalized traffic solutions etc. What we’ve known less was that the Japanese have the same approach towards their traditional stagecraft.Noh_ theater_ Japan11_balkon3

Until the first time ever, a play of the classical Japanese “Noh” theater was performed in Skopje. It was a completely unexpected and unusual experience, that offered to the numerous viewers a new way of understanding art, or even life. The small and crowded theater in the town center traveled a few hundred years back in time and over 9000 kilometers to the far East.

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But what kind of theater is that, since it’s been such a surprise for the ones that have seen it? What’s so unusual about it? We were told the story about “Noh” by Kyutaro Hashioka, a man that has made his debut performance at the age of 3, got his first starring role when he was 8, and today he’s a professor and one of the best connoisseurs of this ancient Japanese tradition. Prior to his performance, he prepared the visitors for what they were about to see. And that was the oldest continuous stagecraft, that was founded two centuries before Shakespeare. Of course, the Japanese know very well that the Greek drama is much older than that, but its tradition was interrupted, as for “Noh”, it lasts continuously for 700 years.

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“Noh” is rooted in the Japanese Zen-Buddhism, and that says a lot already. In complete accordance with the world view of this country, it’s a theater that uses very little to show a lot. In brief, the plays are performed by only one actor, dressed in a traditional costume, who switches different masks every time he needs to change the character that he plays. There are also no stage designs at all, only a rhythmic music performed live (although a recording was played at the demonstration in Skopje), which serves to tell the story in the play, while the actor captures it with his dance. And that’s all. It looks too simple, up until the Zen-moment when you realize that it’s actually too complicated. It’s a theatrical play that the viewers should create in their heads while they’re watching it on stage.

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– The actor changes his masks and in one play he can be old and young, a man and a woman, human and a divine creature. For example, I’ll be playing a female divine creature later for you. Can you imagine me like that? The scenery is minimal. In the West, if a castle of 5000 rooms should be presented in the play, the stage would need to be built for a long time. But in “Noh”, you will have to imagine that castle. The first actor to perform will present a divine dance. Please, while you’re watching, imagine a heavenly beautiful place – Mr. Hashioka told us.

The “Noh” stories are simple, without complicated characters and interconnected events, and with a moral in the end. Like the one about Hakuryo the fisherman, who found a beautiful mantle hung on a pine tree and wanted to take it home. But a female angel appeared and asked him to give her mantle back, so she would be able to go back to her celestial home. Initially, the fisherman refused and set a term for the angel to perform a divine dance in order to get the mantle back. Upon agreeing, she explained to him that she can’t do the dance without the power that she draws from the mantle. But Hakuryo wondered how can he be sure that the angel wouldn’t simply get away in the sky onse she gets the mantle. But the celestial maiden replied that only humans are capable of lying, while that cannot be attributed to divine creatures. The fisherman felt very embarrased and returned the mantle, and the angel performed her dance for him. It was the dance that we saw in the theater.

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The lights turn off. The lone actor appears on the empty stage. A Japanese song, incomprehensible to us, and its rhythm, make the background sound. There are no acrobatic moves or difficult motion, only strictly determined and simple steps, without shoes. That’s also just the appearance, since the formal data have shown that the “Noh” dance is one of the most exausting physical activities that exist. The steps and the sounds they produce are a very important part of the play and follow the rhythm. The actor stopped. So did the music. This is an important part, too. Like a body that, after reaching its maximum in motion, tends to calm. Then, he continued. He performes the celestial dance promised to Hakuryo the fisherman. There’s no sky, not much dancing either (according to the understanding by Western standards), not even a heavenly garden. A thousand people watch a thousand different plays while a single actor performes one for all of them. Everything else happens in their heads. The performance of the master Hashioka continued in the same fashion. He performed a part of a play with a mask, where he was a deity that blesses an aged couple for their eternal love and unity, particularly expressing that as pine needles grow by two, everything in nature comes in pairs.

That’s the Noh theater, and that’s its way of changing people’s world view.

Goce Trpkovski