Noh Theatre: Ancient Japanese Opera

Last weekend I got to see a short Noh play during the 125th celebration ceremony at Kwansei Gakuin University. They were opening the new auditorium and they had an Oscars like ceremony, with lots of music and lights between speeches.

The most unusual aspect of the ceremony was the ancient Japanese theatre form called Noh. This started over 800 years ago and is very traditional without innovation so it was like going back in time. It was strange to watch! The chorus sang in few tones and in character. The two women in the front row had solo parts and they sang in a deep voice, but forced. The music ensemble consisted of a primitive flute and these drummers making the oddest noises with their voices while occasionally beating on the drum.

This group wrote an original play, which is rare in the Noh art form as they have a traditional list of around 250 plays. The play was based on the founding of the university by American Methodist missionary, Charles Lambuth. 125 years ago he started a school in Kobe and it has now grown to over 24,000 students from K-12 schools to graduate university programs.

I am glad the university put Noh into the ceremony. It is a distinctly Japanese art form and those isolationists, the Tokugawas, had it be the official theatre form of the their court. I can’t say it was entertaining, but it was fascinating. I couldn’t understand the weird vocal grunts and what appeared to be random beats of the drum.

There must be something to it because it is still performed today and there are theatres in Tokyo and Osaka dedicated to Noh. I am not sure if I will give it another try, but it was an experience and gave me a better understanding of Japan.

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