Contributed by Gary Mathews.
Well, just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, it got better. In the morning, the inestimable Monica Bethe took us to a whole new level. Actually, she had set this up already yesterday by giving us a homework assignment. “Take two plays tonight, Hyakuman and Aoinoue, read them, and design the costuming for the main character. Then tomorrow we’ll all compare notes.” Read two plays tonight?! If you know anything about noh play scripts, you know they aren’t all that long. Just a few minutes to skim, ten to give a close reading. (Noh plays take about an hour to an hour and a half to perform, but that’s because there’s a lot of musical interlude, and even when they speak and sing, they do it really, really slowly—but it builds on you, oh, does it build on you. But I’m getting off track.)
Okay, so, we come in with our assignments, and we go around explaining our costume choices, and why we made them. All of a sudden it dawned on me, we’re getting into the mind of how a noh actor creates a performance. Then Monica showed us a series of slides illustrating the costuming for the two plays over history, going as far back as we have visual evidence, to the late Muromachi and early Edo periods. We found that sometimes our choices agreed with what the actors had chosen, at others they had done different things. Most interesting was that sometimes they broke the rules. Rules, rules, rules, sometimes it seems that noh is all rules and no freedom. But that’s not true. It’s 99% rules, but then, when you break one, it’s deliberate and noticeable and it can create enormous dramatic effect.
In this case, the main character in Hyakuman is a madwoman, driven to distress over the loss of her son for whom she is searching. She is a mother and middle-aged woman, and therefore should not have red in her costume, as that is a color associated with young women and boys. But here we were, seeing loads of red in some of the costumes from the early periods. The point? To be mad is to break the rules, or just not to be aware of them any more. So in this case breaking the rules of costuming is to dramatize the condition of the character. Simple, direct, affecting—the essence of noh, after all.
In the afternoon we made two more stops at workshops of artisans associated with noh. First, the shop of Yano-san, who does conservation work on costumes with his wife and a small staff. Compared with what we say in other workshops, it was hard to know who was doing the more meticulous work, the weavers and embroiders who first made the costumes, or the conservators who were mending their broken threads.
Second, Koyo Kida, who does embroidery with his wife and an occasional assistant. The Kidas don’t do very much work on noh costumes, but they employ the techniques used on costumes for hundreds of years. Their detail and concentration are incredible. Just for example: when running a needle through the fabric, care must be taken not to run it through a thread, only between threads.
And because of the way the work is set up, they can’t see where the hand underneath the fabric is. They have to rely on what must by now be a sixth sense, and the precise feel of the touch when the needle comes up to the fabric. The work they do is amazing. And it is one small but essential part of all the precisely fitted components that come together to make a noh performance one of the most powerfully focused theatrical events in every regard.