NOH THEATER is the great performing art of medieval Japan, as a fruit of the union of ancient dances, entertaining arts and religious rituals which date from the beginnings of its written History. Noh is a merge of drama, chanting, dance and music, led to recreate life in a new dimension where the earthly and the occult blend together. In an almost naked scenery, thanks to a bunch of symbols, an emotional music and a subtle gestual language, combined with the beauty of garments and masks, the Noh artist creates a unique and irreplaceable work of art in the heart of the observer. Whatever the plot is (history, myth, spiritual) imagination marks the boundaries between this world and the other. Non-realist, misterious, often linked to zen and the tea ceremony, Noh is associated with the samurai class, which developed and sponsorized it in the XIVth century. Nevertheless, its spirituality is still so alive that it has trascended space and time, and is being studied by the vanguards. Noh theater was designed World Heritage by the UNESCO in 2001.
Noh Reimagined is a project by a group of Noh actors and musicians from the most important schools. It has brought this fine and mystic theater to Europe, and after visiting London, it has performed in Madrid. Clásicos en Alcalá housed it this year, and thanks to Japan Foundation, in the night of the 4th of July, Noh Reimagined played wonderful pieces from Noh´s classical repertory. That same morning in Parador de Alcalá we had the privilege of speaking with Yukihiro Isso, a master of nôkan flute and one of its members.
JE: Master Isso, welcome to Madrid and this literary city of Alcalá de Henares. It is an honour for me and my team to have you speaking to Japan´s Eye.
YI: It´s my pleasure.
Yukihiro Isso, son of a National Treasure of Japan and a member of the group Noh Reimagined, is blessed with a great sympathy. He is wearing the tradictional attire: black kimono, hakama, tabi and geta clogs. He talks mildly, and by his attitude, he seems to be pleased to be with us. That makes everything easy.
JE: Noh theater is still the great stranger for the Western public. Japanese folklore scholars call it ‘aristocratic drama’. Why? What´s the origin of Noh theater?
YI: Noh theater had its peak in the Muromachi period, XIVth century, when shôgun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu ruled the country. Kanami and Zeami were the most reputed playwrights. Talking about the origins, the older dance sarugaku is one of the greatest influences. This dance became of the noble thanks to the buke, the samurai class. They were keen on watching and also practising them. Dengaku, too. But none of these dances reached the finesse of Noh. Noh drama enhanced and blended all those genres of dancing, chant and music in a complete art.
JE: Other forms of theater like Bunraku or Kabuki tell us about historical events, but mainly stories of the commoners. What are the stories of the Noh?
YI: What is special about Noh is that it often moves between this world and the dead. This implies that time is never real in a Noh plot. You always skip from past to present, and the other way round. That´s why in many plays there´s a ghost. Ghost plays are called mûgen noh or yurei noh.
JE: Noh theater, like other Japanese forms of drama, is made by various arts in turn. In other words, within a Noh play there are different artists intervening: the actors who dance and act (shite, waki, shure), the chorus and the group of four musicians (hayashi). What´s the purpose of each component in a Noh play?
YI: I´m a flutist in particular. I think that, above all, each component has to know his art in deep and do the best work possible. We make the story together, that´s all.
JE: In what concerns to Noh, qualities like ‘misterious’, ‘non-intellectual’, ‘obscure’ are often repeated. The great Noh author Motokiyo Zeami said that ‘you always have to watch a Noh play with a novice´s mind’. That´s true: for instance, if one looks at the minimalistic gesture of the actor, how he moves the fan, his gaits…it seems like a misterious child´s play. What´s the best way to approach Noh?
YI: About the actors´ moves or kata, they certainly do it pretty slow in the first part of the play… (he laughs). But in the second part they speed up, they move much faster. You can see this in plays like Takasago or Funa Benkei. For me, the way of enjoying Noh relies on the type of play. There are some pieces where music is the main attraction, while there are some others where the story is the one which touches the heart of the public. Outside Japan language is an obstacle, so musically attractive plays are preferred for performing.
JE: Therefore, do you think that it´s better to watch a Noh play free of prejudice?
YI: In my opinion, I insist, music has a great power of attraction. Like flamenco (he laughs). Paco de Lucía! (We all laugh, too. Master Isso is a great admirer of the Spanish guitarist). Noh music has got eight tempo. Flamenco´s got twelve. But in both of them there´s the falsetto…
JE: Really? Is there falsetto in Noh? (I laugh)
YI: Yes. But Paco de Lucía was the best. Awesome!
Mr. Isso seems touched when remembering great master de Lucía. But we have to go back to the interview.
JE: Is it true that Noh is based in rhythm more than in melody?
YI: It actually has both of them, rythm and melody, mostly from the times of hayashi´s consolidation. But it´s also true that the flute is the only instrument that performs a melody, while the three drums set the rhythm of the play. That´s how it is.
JE: Very interesting. That reminds me of something I wanted to ask you about. Apparently, in Noh theater there isn´t a musical director or conductor, someone who takes the lead of the performance. How do they ensemble, then? It´s said that their technique is ‘sophisticated improvisation’, completely different from Western method.
YI: Well, direction of the performance depends on the piece. There are some parts where taiko takes the lead and marks tempo, while the rest follow it. Some other pieces have the kô-tsuzumi leading, or the flute. It changes. At the same time, we usually perform in a way that resemble a canon; that is, an instrument starts, and after a while other instrument overlaps, and then another… so there´s no beginning nor end of the musical phrase, and you cannot distinguish a regular rhythm.
JE: Complicated, but appealing.
YI: Yes, it is.
JE: Before returning to music. I wanted to ask you about an issue that seems seductive to Western public: the Noh masks. What is the purpose of the mask, which is worn by the main actor (shite) in a Noh play?
YI: There are some Noh plays in which the actor doesn´t wear a mask. They´re called hitamen-mono. But regarding the nômen, the more simple the mask, the more interesting it is, because it lets the spectator imagine what´s inside. Let me tell you. If the shite bends down and does this (the master puts one hand horizontally before the face), the character is crying. If he does this (now he puts the two hands), he´s crying a river!
I laugh. The example is a typical one, but it is very illustrating. That is one of the gestures in Noh female roles I like most.
JE: I would like to remark something. It´s not a question. One of the most outstanding features for me in a Noh mask, mainly in female ones, is the effect of the light on the surface: if it falls on the forehead, the character seems like smiling or laughing, but if the mask bends towards the floor, shadow reflects on it and the character gets sad. Light has an incredible transmutation power…
YI: Yes. It´s abstract and simple. That´s why it excites our imagination.
JE: I wouldn´t have said it better. (We laugh)
JE: Talking about nôkan flute, which you master. It seems a bit different from other traditional Japanese flutes like shinobue or ryûteki. What´s the origin of the nôkan, and what is it made of?
YI: There´s not absolute certainty about the origins of the nôkan flute. It´s said that in times of Zeami it already existed. (The master takes his nôkan out of the waist of the hakama and shows it to us. It´s solid, lean, but beautiful). It´s made from eight bamboo stripes that are ensembled in a cylinder and then this whole piece is turned inside out, so the hard face is inside. The flute has seven holes and the mouthpiece. (After this, Isso takes out another flute, green-coloured and a bit longer). This is a dengaku flute (a precedent of Noh). As I didn´t have any reference, I made it craft based on an old design which describes simply all that is known about this kind of flute…
JE: Is it wholly hand-crafted?
YI: The concept has been mine. Then I gave it to a craftsman.
JE: I would like you describe the sound of the nôkan with your own words.
YI: It´s… like the wizz of an arrow in the air. However, it can produce other type of sound, softer, sweeter.
JE: Let´s talk about the pieces we are going to enjoy tonight in ‘Clásicos en Alcalá’. One of them is the shishimai style, a dance of two lions, which is part of the play Shakkyô and we had the opportunity to watch in the Kabuki version some days ago. Which are the main differences between the two versions?
YI: Above all, tonight we will perform the strongest, most thrilling part. The lion is a powerful animal, also very imaginative. Shakkyô was born a Noh play. Kabuki theater, which is younger than Noh, took the most amusing piece, this second part I´m talking about. With shamisen and the more intense moves of kabuki actors, Shakkyô looks very different from Noh version.
JE: The last question. It´s said that in Noh theater doesn´t make stars, as Kabuki does, and the performers are not famous. Moreover, despite of the prestige of Noh schools, there aren´t dynasties in purity. We would like to know if this situation can shorten the future path of Noh theater.
YI: There´re some shite actors (first roles) who are very popular. Also among the hayashi there are artists who succeed working independently. Some musicians are stuck to tradition and to the classic repertoire, while others like creating new things, exploring new ways. All this counts. But in any case, Noh world is still a rigid, conservative one. In Japan it´s required for a future artist not only to be skillful but also to have a good familiar background, and more…Some schools start to accept the ‘new’, but others fear change. My position is one of freedom, not only regarding to people but also as music is concerned. Tonight, indeed, I will perform three new pieces I wrote, and one of them is inspired in flamenco. Flamenco tempo!
JE: How exciting! I will attend not only this evening´s conference but also the night show in Teatro Cervantes. I´m eager to watch you performing live.
Mr. Isso nods gaily. He seems to have felt comfortable with us. His face shows gratitude and joy.
JE: Master, I have to sincerely thank you again for this meeting. I wish you and all the group the greatest success tonight in Alcalá. I hope we can enjoy more Noh soirées in the future. Thank you sincerely.
YI: I´m very grateful to you, too. Thank you very much.
Master Isso and I have some photos taken in the living room. I am still lacking of some more talk, but it is almost Japanese lunchtime. Moreover, that evening we have to cover a workshop of the whole group, and the show at night. While walking towards the hall, Isso asks me about Paco de Lucía. ‘His death must have been a big loss for Spain’, he suggests. I nod. ‘Yes. He was an odd genius, unique in his modesty’. Along the corridor he talks to me about the technique of the Andalusian master. He´s fascinated with it. I must confess some details are too ethereal for me, but it doesn´t matter at all. The flutist´s enthusiasm catches me.
The way we see Japan here in the West, and the Japanese´s point of view about us in return, both so different, still amaze me. For us Westerners, Japanese art is a secret arcane that takes years to decipher, and to prove it, we try to put pompous words to describe its natural inner beauty. However, for Yukihiro Isso and his fellows, the art of the Noh seems much more simple. They are like a group of children playing a game, where the rules are set just a moment in time.
Interview and redaction: ©María Jesús López-Beltrán
Photographs: ©Carlos Estévez, ©María Jesús López-Beltrán, ©Rubén Gámez (two images courtesy of Clásicos en Alcalá)
Our gratitude to Master Yukihiro Isso for giving this interview. Also thanks to Noh Reimagined group and producer Akiko Yanagisawa of Mu:Arts, for the amazing workshop and the marvellous night show. Thank you very much also to Japan Foundation Madrid for their arrangements, and we must mention Alcalá de Henares City Hall for letting us publish this Noh chronicle. Double thanks to Risa Imamura for acting as a contact in JF and doing the oral translation.
If you want to know more about Noh Music, you can read our article La música del samurái (press link, Spanish)
If you are interested in Noh masks, you will like Leyendo a Kawabata (I). Las máscaras de nô y el ideal de juventud (press link, Spanish)