|"Remembering the vanished days
I dance, waving at the moon
My flowerlike sleeves,
As if begging it to restore the past.
A painstaking attempt to restore the past seems central to the major comprehensive exhibition, Miracles and Mischief: Noh and Kyógen Theater in Japan. From the moment the visitor walks through the gated entry and is caught up by the woodblock blow-up of a public noh performance, every detail suggests a far off time and place. Display cases floored with wooden planks imply that the costumes they hold have recently swept the cypress boards of a noh stage. Even impeccably researched information panels are crafted to stay in character.
A team lead by LACMA curator Sharon Sadako Takeda collaborated with the Agency for Cultural Affairs, Government of Japan for five years to amass this group of rare art objects from prestigious museum, shrine, temple, theater and family collections. The exquisite costumes, carved wooden masks, painted screens and lacquered musical instruments showcased in the exhibition date from as early as the 14th century.
By that time, noh had outgrown its humble origins in popular acrobatic and juggling acts to become an operatic production that merged elements of dance, drama, music and poetry into a highly aesthetic stage art. Under the leadership of dedicated performer-playwrights like Zeami, noh flourished. It grew into the official theater of the military government in the Edo period (1603-1868). After losing support in the societal reforms of the Meiji restoration (1868-1912), noh was performed less frequently. However, it left its mark on kabuki and newer types of Japanese theatre, including contemporary experimental fusion and butoh.
Time and space collide in noh to emphasize the essence of escape from attachment to the earthly world. Transitions between gods, warriors, beautiful women, demons, madmen and their ghosts are enhanced by flashbacks, costume changes and symbolic crossings over a wooden bridge. One small slow step taken by an actor may represent a full days journey. Every move is performed with the maximum of subtle restraint to imply yugen, what lies beneath the surface. Kyógen, by contrast, is a comic theater emphasizing cruder dialogue and coarser movements. Less musical than noh, it is traditionally performed alternately on the same program.
Folding screen, "Watching Noh" (detail),
Edo period, c. 1607, color/ink/gold
leaf on paper, 41 15/16 x 167 5/8".
"Omi-onna Mask," momoyama period,
mid-late 16th century, pigments
on cypress wood, 8 1/4 x 5 1/4".
Karaori with Snow-laden Camellias and
Genji Clouds," Edo period, 18th century,
multicolored silk and gold-leaf paper
supplementary weft patterning
on silk twill, 59 1/16 x 55 1/8".
Noh-Kyógen handscroll, "Sambaso"
(detail), Edo period, 18th century, colors
and ink on paper, 14 1/2 x 1321".
Noh theater masks from the installation of Miracles and Mischief: Noh and Kyógen Theater in Japan."