Wearing the Earth

Contributed by David Surtasky
Photographs by David Surtasky


Japanese Textiles and the Art of Sculpting Kimono,
Theatre Nohgaku’s Costume Workshop (Pt.1)

NOHGAKUFrom a distance the pattern isn’t clear, only on close examination is the detail apparent. This theme is resonant for me throughout the chain of human endeavor that constitutes the art of noh. In the beginning; classic noh is music played on bamboo and animal skin, words written by those long dead, an actor’s songs of anguish and joy, a wooden mask of inscrutable nature and clad throughout in bast fiber, cotton and silk. We’ve gathered here in Kyoto to examine as closely as we might be able to the latter of these details. Bast fiber, cotton and silk.

Monica Bethe

Monica Bethe

The Kyoto component of the third TN Costume Workshop is led again by Monica Bethe, hosted at the 中世日本研究所 [Chusei Nihon Kenkyujo, the Medieval Japanese Studies Institute.] Ms. Bethe’s knowledge and enthusiasm for her topic are evident. The first hour of the first day, with a smile, she encourages us to leap headfirst into the world of Momoyama Period Japan (late 16th/early 17th century.) She explains that much of what we might know or understand today is the result of the Shogonate’s penchant for putting order to its possessions. To the noh actors: provide the Shogonate with an inventory. So begins what will become the standardization of the types of costumes that one might wear with any given play, the template written down in each utaibon. The clothing of the court, and in a stylized way the common man, becomes what we might know as a costume today.

Practice on model looms. L-R: Monica Bethe, Aragorn Quinn, Gwen van den Eijnde

Practice on model looms.
L-R: Monica Bethe, Aragorn Quinn, Gwen van den Eijnde

By the end of the first hour we’ve begun to weave. Tabby or plain weave to begin. How better to grasp the lecture than to put hand to thread on the model looms Ms. Bethe has provided for us? A balanced weave, a displaced one (yore; an open treatment meant to emulate the fibrous hand-woven cloth of the poor) and the stiff alternating weave of thick and thin weft threads used in okuchi (the stiff oversized hakama used as a mainstay in many plays.)

We touch briefly on a new vocabulary of costume types defined by their cut, woven and surface patterns (surihaku: the application of metalic leaf, nurihaku: surface embroidery.) Our questions are bolstered by cogent answers, although it seems we barely have time to digest the wealth we’re being presented with. Then it is already time to meet the artisans still plying these centuries old crafts.

Gold thread

Gold thread

Our initial stop is at the studio of a gold leaf artisan. The process of taking paper, adding a lacquer coat, the gentle application of gold or silver leaf, the finishing process of polishing and steaming followed by a razor cut so precise that it leaves a cut as fine as a hair is explained. We observe, breathless, as an artisan applies gold leaf no greater than .2 microns thick to his lacquered paper. They must work swiftly and with precision, too early and the lacquer has not set, too late and the lacquer has become too dry for the gold to adhere. Gold bonded paper then wound round a core of silk to become the most precious of threads. In the dark courts and shuttered surroundings of medieval Japan the luster of gold might have brought a special warm brightness to their world.

At the Nomura studio, L-R: Yayoi Shinoda, John Oglevee, Aragorn Quinn

At the Nomura studio,
L-R: Yayoi Shinoda, John Oglevee, Aragorn Quinn

Next we visit the Nomura studio, where they weave the cloth and prepare traditional dress for those who might require it, including noh costumes, shinto priestly vestments and お守り(o-mamori; protective amulets.) We are privledged to view sacred items from the 下鴨神社 (Shimogamo Shrine) which is undergoing its 60 year restoration cycle. These items will be carefully examined, and re-created in great detail before being returned as part of the shinto cycle of purification and renewal.

We’re greeted by the drumming of jacquard looms on the weaving floor. The looms rest in earthen pits to maintain humidity, and the artisans here work with painstaking precision. The shuttles shoot from one side of the loom to the next, resting only while colorful dyed threads are laid to create elaborate ground patterns, suspended in the warp threads some 1800 wide. Taking the length of an entire wall, a machine feeds threads from a skein onto more manageable large spools, only to be wound again onto bobbins that fit the shuttles. The room is full of the smell of the earth.

An artisan of Nomura studio

An artisan of Nomura studio

On the surface, it is clothing. At first, it is a robe, an undergarment, some overly large pants. On closer examination, details become clear. Details like the single silk threads that tie together the internal logic of the world of noh, a reality derived, and yet standing apart, from our own world. Humans made these things. And with these tools, humans might work to touch the emotions within us as they have for some 600 years. It can be no surprise. Our goal is to pause for a moment, and to examine the what details we might be able to perceive, knowing full well we’ve only begun to know the details exist.

TN Costume Workshop 2014 participants at the Nomura studio. L-R: John Oglevee, Michio Katsura, Yayoi Shinoda, Aragorn Quinn, Yumiko Okada, Gwen van den Eijnda, Monica Bethe, (  ), Junichiro Nomura

TN Costume Workshop 2014 participants at the Nomura studio, June 11, 2014.
L-R: John Oglevee, Michio Katsura, Yayoi Shinoda, Aragorn Quinn, Yumiko Okada, Gwen van den Eijnda, Monica Bethe, ( ), Junichiro Nomura


About Theatre Nohgaku

Noh, one of the oldest continuing stage arts, combines highly stylized dance, chant, music, mask and costume with intense inner concentration and physical discipline, creating a uniquely powerful theatrical experience. Theatre Nohgaku’s mission is to share noh’s beauty and power with English speaking audiences and performers. We have found that this traditional form retains its dramatic effectiveness in languages other than Japanese. We believe noh techniques hold a powerful means of expression in the context of contemporary English language theatre.
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