Contributed by David Surtasky
(Editor’s Note: The below entry is one of a series of more abstract reflections on the craft of noh. Please see Jo-ha-kyu, Beyond the Agemaku and Fudō Myō-ō: The Immovable. Questions without answers; the intent is only to think about the connection between historic noh and our contemporary lives.)
What was it like, when the earliest noh was performed before Ashikaga Yoshimitsu? We can understand, to a certain extent, that the lives of the Samurai and the non-peasant class of medieval Japan were sufficiently different from our own – that we simply cannot know.
Swathed in faintly perfumed robes, sitting in relative comfort surrounded by ministers and warrior guards, did Yoshimitsu hear the early strains of an oshirabe with anticipation? With torches newly lit as the sun descended beyond the western mountains, what solace was brought to him while confronting the depiction of a ghost, a warrior, a maiden or a god? When he witnessed Zeami walk the stage, what stirred in his heart? Was the stage still fresh with the smell of cut hinoki wood, and the air resonant with the sound of a flock of passing geese obscured behind the pines?
If born, bred and trained to cleave the heads from other men and to kill without remorse – were the samurai mollified briefly by a moonlit cup of sake and wafting energy of the still forming hayashi? Did they confront themselves in these spectral images appearing from the darkness beyond the agemaku? Was the very austerity and spareness of the noh stage a stark relief from the orchestrated chaos of ruthlessly violent armed conflict?
Our value sets are reflected in our entertaining arts. Or at least, the value sets of those who’ve chosen to pay for them. Only in more recent times might the arts depict a world in contrast to the ruling class – and for the artist to reasonably expect to survive.
How is it then that noh might still speak to us? Carved with blades of steel from a value set so different from our own, alien in sonic form, lacking in most readily understandable Aristotlean values; still there are the kernels of mythos, catharsis and mimesis. It is the emotion that still has resonance. The increasingly distant memory of our connection to the earth and to the weather and the principle aspects of our lives as the face-to-face interaction with other human beings. Stories, after all, the stories of ourselves. In the silence of the night, or the quietness of the stage, we might be better able to hear our own voices within.
One chance, one meeting. Something that is still very much a part of our contemporary lives, but something perhaps that we’ve persisted in forgetting. With wilfulness, with dogged pursuit, we may yet persist in forgetting.