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General Remarks on No and Kyogen
No has repeatedly been called the world's most perfect theatrical form, a seamless fabric of spoken and sung dialogue, instrumental music, pantomime, and dance, with its masks and costumes providing a rare treat for the eye. Before the constituent elements of N coalesced in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, there had been a long history of dance drama in Japan. Buddhist imports from China (ultimately, India), grafted onto local traditions were the Gigaku of the 7th and 8th centuries, performed in temples, and the Bugaku of the succeeding centuries, performed at the imperial court—both forms employing masks, but without dialogue. Bugaku is still performed on a few ceremonial occasions. Of the numerous religious and secular entertainments that eventually fed into No, outstanding were Dengaku ("rice-field music"; probably originating in agricultural rites) and the kaleidoscopic variety show that came to be called Sarugaku ("monkey music"). By the mid-14th century, these old forms had been so refined that they were spoken of as Dengaku-no-No and Sarugaku-no-No, the affixed syllables meaning "[partaking] of ability (or: talent, art)." By then they probably differed very little from incipient No. The great theorist of No, Zeami, still spoke of his art as Sarugaku.
The shogun (military chief and de facto ruler of Japan) promoted the rise of No in the 1370s when he took under his wing the dancer Kanami (or Kwanami, Kannami, Kan'ami; Kanami Kiyotsugu, 1333–1384) and Kanami's young son Zeami (or Seami; Zeami Motokiyo, 1363–1443). Kanami and Zeami both wrote, composed, performed, and produced plays that are still in the repertory (though altered by time), and Zeami wrote numerous treatises that still serve as the "Constitution" of No. Important plays were written until the late 16th century. The chorus was added in the 15th century, the form of the stage evolved, and no doubt many other features of present-day No performances accrued over the centuries.
The dances in No, of many types, can be traced back through Japanese theatrical history. The music is provided by three or four men: one flute player, one player of a hand drum held at shoulder level, one player of a hand drum held at hip level (its sound is different), and—not in all plays—one player of a stick drum (also known as a barrel drum); the drummers also utter calls in some plays. The multilayered costumes worn by the actors are rich, sometimes superb in their colors and designs, often stiff with brocade; they are conventional, for even humble characters are elegantly dressed. The manner of wearing the costume (e.g., off the shoulder) or managing it (e.g., flipping a sleeve) provides clues to the meaning of the situation, as do the colors and certain details of the garments. Every actor carries a fan, which has a myriad uses to indicate emotions, simulate other objects, or merely to point. Props are few and simple; hand props are usually unrealistic, and stage props are symbolic in the extreme.
Not all characters wear masks. A few masks personify one named character, and that character alone, sometimes in just a single play, but most of them are generic, though associated with specific character types and groups of plays. Since all actors have traditionally been male (in 1947, a new law in Japan allowed women to perform No, but most casts are still not mixed), masks are naturally needed for female characters, but also for males with certain strong characteristics, notably the very young and the very old, not to mention demons, gods, ghosts, and spirits. Some masks are combined with elaborate wigs, headpieces, and headgear. Subtleties of carving make some masks take on different emotions as the actor moves. A typical mask is carved from cypress, paulownia, or other light wood, and weighs about 7 ounces. Masks range in height from about 7 to about 9 inches, many being smaller than the actor's own face, so that in performance they give the illusion that he is taller. The mask is primed with a solution of powder in glue before it is painted with a brush or a rag. It is sometimes fitted with horsehair (for beards, etc.) and metal insets for the eyes. It is held on by strings, the holes being in the ear area. Between performances, valuable old masks are wrapped in silk and kept in wooden boxes.
The all-wood No stage is unique. Accessible from the ample backstage dressing and storage area, there is a small room at the audience's extreme left (i.e., those in the audience directly facing the main acting area) called the "mirror room"; it is there that the protagonist puts on his mask and headgear and examines his appearance in the mirror before entering the long ramp that leads to the main stage. A curtain, which is raised by bamboo poles at its lower corners, separates the mirror room from the ramp. The ramp, in front of which three pine branches or saplings are located (for reference these are numbered 3, 2, and 1 as one approaches the main stage), is used as a playing area in parts of some plays. The main stage is roughly 20 feet square (its floor surface being divided into 9 imaginary or conceptual squares in which given parts of the action must take place—everything in No is strictly controlled) and is raised about 3 feet above the auditorium floor. At its corners are pillars about 15 feet tall (so that the main playing area is more or less cubic), on which rests a roof resembling that of a Shinto (indigenous Japanese nature religion) temple. The musicians are located on an extension at the back of this main stage, just in front of a painted backdrop depicting an aged pine tree. On a smaller extension at the audience's right kneel the 6–10 members of the chorus, who chant in unison; they never represent specific characters; rather, they offer general reflections on the situation, or take over some of the speeches of the actors, especially of the protagonist while he is engaged in a strenuous dance. A gravel path runs around the ramp and stage. Plate I shows the plan and sections of a typical No stage, and Plates II–VI are performance photos showing various details of the architecture and participants.
Aside from the musicians and chorus (who all perform from memory, like everyone else), the visible actors and other personnel are few. The protagonist of a N play, called the shite (pronounced "shteh"; literally "doer"), usually performs the main dance; in some two-part plays, he plays two altogether different roles, even of different sex. The next most important character (though the weight of roles can vary from play to play) is termed waki ("side[man]"); normally playing a male character without a mask, the waki often is the first to speak, providing the geographical and historical setting, while also introducing himself. A Kyogen actor usually plays a local resident who furnishes background information in the interlude section of a two-part play; most of the time, this actor (called the Kyogen, ai, or aikyogen) makes no attempt to be funny (as he would in a Kyogen play), but a little humor does creep into quite a number of No plays (this may be a throwback to days before N was institutionalized as a quasi-sacrosanct performance almost exclusively intended for lofty audiences—the high military, clerics, courtiers, and the like—shutting out commoners, who increasingly turned to Kabuki, Bunraku, and other more popular forms of drama). There are various terms for subordinate characters, especially tsure ("companion"); there may also be a real boy actor. Stagehands bring hand props to the actors as needed, and remove them later, as well as bringing stage props on and off, or even constructing complicated ones in full view of the audience.
The themes and plots of classic No plays were drawn from the history and literature (and even from scholars' comments on the literature) of Japan and, to a lesser extent, China. Some are based on famous military exploits, others on famous books or even single poems. Some involve specific historical or legendary characters, some reflect local traditions of geographical sites or temples, some are purely imaginary. Almost all are pervaded by the tenets of some school of Buddhism (especially Pure Land and Zen), and many allude to the transience and emptiness of earthly existence. The texts are in a mixture of choicely worded prose and of poetry that is supremely exquisite, but extremely difficult: not only are the texts archaic (most Japanese need a translation into current language), but they are also filled with arcane literary allusions and the most elaborate (but not humorous) word plays conceivable.
No plays are usually classified (sometimes opinions about a given play differ!) into five categories: (1) plays about gods (these are usually auspicious plays involving the epiphany or theophany of a national or local god who utters blessings); (2) plays about warriors or, rather, warriors' ghosts forced to haunt their death sites because they are still too strongly attached to their hatred; (3) plays about women (the subjects of these plays vary, and can sometimes be very romantic; the endings may or may not be unrelievedly tragic, but the proceedings are serious); (4) plays about real, ordinary people (these can be quite varied, but a major subcategory involves women who have gone mad after an affair ended badly or after a child disappeared—usually kidnapped, to be sold into slavery); and (5) plays about demons (a very large category). Since any given N play lasts from one to two hours only, a selection is usually offered by troupes, though only rarely nowadays is the former classic program given: one No play from each of the five categories, preceded by an Okina play (see next section of this Introduction), and with a Kyogen farce acted between each two No plays—a 10- or 12-hour show!
The plots of No plays take many twists, and there is no one play that is typical of them all, but there is one pattern that covers an extremely large number of plays of categories 2–5. A sketch of this pattern follows. The waki arrives wearing traveling dress; he is a priest or monk on a pilgrimage, an imperial messenger, etc. The place he has come to is famous for its scenery, as a battle site, as a religious site, or as the locale of some other great event, personality, or literary reference. He espies an unusually interesting or arresting person engaged in some normal or odd activity; this is the shite in his or her first-part-of-play persona. There are strong hints, sometimes even an outright declaration, that this person is really someone loftier, and that some revelation is imminent. The shite withdraws. In an interlude (not signaled by any change in lighting, or anything else mechanical), the kyogen (usually portraying an informed local) relates the historical (or other) background to the waki in relatively plainer language. Though this may be of some aid to the audience, the interlude principally exists to give the shite time to don the much more elaborate costume and the mask (or second mask) he or she needs for the second part of the play. Then he or she reappears in propria persona, as the actual warrior, poet, ghost, etc., associated with the site. If the waki is a priest or monk, he may pray for the ghost or soul of the shite, leading the protagonist back onto the path of orthodox Buddhism (like a psychoanalyst curing his patient), so that the shite unties his bond to earth and finds peace and release from rebirth.
Currently, about 240 No plays are performed (not all of them by all acting companies—there are five traditional "schools," i.e., performance lineages and traditions, of No, and sometimes their texts differ for a given play), but texts are said to exist for some 250 more, and titles (only) are said to be recorded for an additional 500 No plays. (This doesn't count the recent modern N plays, which will be mentioned briefly in the footnote at the very end of this Introduction.)
Even when merely read in translation, without the accompanying action and music, No plays are extremely impressive. They have influenced a large number of Occidental writers and theatrical people. One need only mention William Butler Yeats's incredibly beautiful No-style verse plays, and Sir Benjamin Britten's opera Curlew River.
Kyogen ("wild words") plays, performed in conjunction with No plays, on the same stage, are all humorous farces. They are shorter and simpler and use fewer actors than No (the role-types corresponding to shite andwaki are often called omo and ado), simpler costumes, and fewer masks (Perzynski, much less interested in Kyogen than in No, offers only a sampling of Kyogen masks in his section on mask types, and says very little about the genre in his main text). Musicians and chorus appear more seldom, and, if they do, make a specific entrance (in No, they are already in place before any actors enter). Kyogen texts are easier to understand, reflecting 16th- and 17th-century speech. Of the three "schools," one is extinct. Plots often involve stupid daimyo (feudal lords) who allow underlings to impose on them, masters who are outwitted by their sly servants, con men, henpecked husbands, etc. A few Kyogen plays, among the most fascinating, parody plot elements of No plays, even specific ones; thus, a No play in which a professional bird catcher (who has taken life, contrary to Buddhist precepts) suffers torments in the afterlife is parodied in a Kyogen play in which a bird catcher, arriving at the court of the king of hell, induces the entire court to taste roast gamebirds for the first time, to everybody's delight. Kyogen arose around the year 1350; there are about 240 plays in the current repertory.
The Mask Carvers and Their Work
Traditional pre–20th-century connoisseurship relating to mask carvers offers contradictory, sometimes completely unbelievable, dates for their periods of activity; faced with an extreme paucity of solid documentation, one must exercise great caution in attributing and dating surviving masks.
The earlier masks connected with No are those created for the theatrical form known as Okina, nowadays performed only on a few special occasions as the opening piece in a No-and-Kyogen program. The characters in Okina, a ceremonial, auspicious kind of play, are all benevolent old men who bless the audience. Okina probably arose in the Kamakura period (1186–1333), but has even older religious roots. Carvers credited with extant antique Okina masks include Miroku (Plate XIV) and Nikk (Plates XV and XVI), who are surely dated too early (see traditional dates in captions). Another mask type associated with Okina is credited to Bunz (Plate XVII).
An unusually large number of surviving No (or proto-No) masks are credited to two geniuses who may be considered as the true patriarchs of the art: Shakuzuru (Plates XVIII–XXX) and Tatsuemon (Plates XXXI–XXXVI). Both are said to have been active in the late 13th century, though it makes more sense to associate them with the beginnings of No in the 14th. Shakuzuru, who made masks for Dengaku-no-No, can be called the creator of the No mask. His specialty was demons. Tatsuemon, of a less grave temperament, was versatile, but specialized in masks depicting women, boys, and young men; the greatest of his (alleged) type-creations was the exquisite Koomote ("delicate face") young-woman mask (Plate XXXI).
The carver Himi (Plates XXXVII–XLII), of the 14th or early 15th century, whose masks are spare and austere, may have been an ascetic priest. He may be considered as the last of a great creative triad including Shakuzuru and Tatsuemon.
Perzynski devotes a single chapter to eight subsequent artists who worked around the year 1400. (1) Echi (Plates XLIII–XLV) may have lived in the last quarter of the 14th century. (2) Ko-ushi (Plates XLVI and XLVII) may have lived at about the same time; his name is a byword for old-men masks, and the Koushijo mask type is named after him. (3) Tokuwaka (Plates XLVIII–LIII) was prolific and versatile, though not always perfectly successful; his specialty was male demons and spirits, and he may have created certain types. (4) Zami (Plates LIV, LV, and VI), of the late 14th and early 15th centuries, had his name immortalized in the widely used Zo onna mask type. (5) Fukurai (Plates LVI–LXII), of approximately the same era though some writers place him before Tatsuemon, was the outstanding artist of this group, virtually the equal of Shakuzuru; he specialized in masks of men, in particular those of old men in N plays of great antiquity. (6) Hrai (Plates LXIII–LXV) was the son of Fukurai, and possibly a contemporary of the playwright Zeami. (7) Chikusa (Plate LXVI), of the early 15th century, is best remembered for the mask type named after him, the Chikusa ayakashi. (8) Shunwaka (Plates LXVII and LXVIII) was probably also a contemporary of Zeami; his life is shrouded in mystery. An anonymous mask (Plate LXIX) is probably also from this period.
From very roughly the Higashiyama era (late 15th century), though there are conflicting dates, Perzynski presents a scattering of masks: one by Hannyab (Plate LXX), one by Miyano (Plate LXXI), and one by Sankobo (Plate LXXII). Sankobo was the ancestor of the three great "schools" of No-mask carving that immediately followed him, each one founded by one of his pupils, who are said to have been the first professional No-mask carvers (earlier carvers having been primarily actors, priests, etc.). The Sank old-man mask is named after Sankobo. Perzynski now turns to the three great schools, the Echizen Deme, the Omi Iseki, and the Ono Deme.
Excerpted from Japanese No Masks by Friedrich Perzynski, STANLEY APPELBAUM. Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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