Contributed by Jeffrey Dym
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Below is some welcome background on Jeffrey Dym’s new documentary, which you can view in it’s entirety in the link below. We’re grateful to Jeffrey for his work on this project, his considerable dedication, and for highlighting many of Theatre Nohgaku’s artistic collaborators. If you know little of the intricacies of traditional noh masks, you’ll find this to be a fascinating view into this world.]
When I began teaching Japanese history at Sacramento State I watched most every documentary I could find on Japan, and this was in the days before YouTube. I was frequently troubled by all of the historical inaccuracies I found in the films, such as Chinese music or gamelan music being used as background music, or woodblock prints of Edo period prostitutes being shown when discussing the demure housewife who walked three steps behind her husband. In 2007, I participated in an Association of Asian Studies workshop on turning one’s research into a documentary film and since that time I have making documentaries as part of my research agenda as a Professor of History.
My first films were on kamishibai (紙芝居; paper plays), the research I was working on when I attended the documentary workshop. Kamishibai was one of the most popular form of entertainment in Japan during the 1930s and 1950s and involved telling a story with picture-cards. I made three films on kamishibai (What is Kamishibai, Kamishibai in the Classroom, and Die for Japan: Japanese World War II Propaganda Kamishibai) check them out to find out more on this wonderful artform. My next film was a documentary I made with a colleague on French colonial architecture in Cambodia: Cambodia’s Other Lost City: French Colonial Phnom Penh. When I finished the documentary on French colonial architecture in 2014, I began looking for a new project.
One of the keys to a good documentary is access and using that as a key criteria, I reached out to Theatre Nohgaku’s Matthew Dubroff, a friend from graduate school who I believed had access to the world of noh. I e-mailed Matt and asked if he would be interested in trying to make a documentary on noh. He was very enthusiastic about the idea. In 2015 and 2017, we worked closely together writing two separate 100-page grant proposals to try to get funding to make a comprehensive film on noh. Unfortunately, both of our proposals were rejected. While writing the grants in Tokyo, we also filmed some test footage, unsure if or where it might be used. Amongst this footage were scenes of Matt interviewing the mask carver Hideta Kitazawa and trying on some of his masks. The scene of Matt discussing a shite’s limited vision came from this preliminary shooting session.
While I was working with Matt on the grants, Sacramento State had an exhibit of Bidou Yamaguchi’s masks. While he was on campus I filmed the exhibit and him carving. I figured I could use the footage for a yet to be determined film on noh. When the grants fell through, I decided to make a series of films on noh, starting with noh masks.
Several things made the making of the film possible. First, was the willingness of three mask carvers—Bidou Yamaguchi, Hideta Kitazawa, and Keiko Udaka—to participate in the project. I explained to all of them that I wanted to film as much of the mask making process as possible, so they all prepared masks in different states of completion for my filming visits, with Bidou and Kitazawa allowing me to come on two different days to film. Because of the three carvers generosity with their preparation time and filming time, I was able to show how masks are made from the first cuts with a saw to the final ultrafine brush painting.
In this film I wanted to try and show as many masks as possible. This isn’t an easy task, since so many masks are held in private collections and by noh troupes, both of whom are not always willing to show or share them. In doing the research to write the script for this film, I came across Stephen Marvin’s Heaven has a Face, so does Hell: The Art of Noh Masks. This is an incredible detailed book about the history of noh masks. It also has dozens of stunning photographs of masks of all types. I e-mailed Marvin and asked if he might be willing to let me use the pictures of his masks in my film. He readily agreed. He also agreed to allow me to interview him. Without his pictures I wouldn’t have been able to show the diversity and beauty of noh masks. His expertise and comments about my script and early rough cuts of the film were essential in trying to present the history of noh masks as accurately as possible.
I was also able to film several noh performances. With the help of Theatre Nohgaku’s John Oglevee, who earlier had allowed me to film him talking with Matthew Dubroff in general about masks, I was granted permission to film one of the Oshima Noh Theatre’s quarterly performances. Not only did the Oshima’s allow me film the walk through on the day before, but they also granted me permission to film behind the scenes. I am pretty much a one-man crew, so at times I left a camera running filming the stage as I ran to the dressing room to film the shite changing into their costumes, putting on their masks, and walking out onto the stage. I am ever grateful for the Oshima’s for allowing me to film their noh. I tried to stay out of the way as I filmed what I think is some of the most insightful footage about what goes on behind the scenes of putting on a noh. After the performance, Teruhisa Oshima asked if I would like him to lay out several of the Oshimas’ female masks. Of course, I said yes, but because his generous offer was so unexpected I didn’t shoot the footage as well as I would have liked. I still included the shot in the film because I think it provides a good sense of what types of masks are in a troupe’s collection.
As with all film production, there are dozens of other people who aided me in the production whom I am eternally grateful to. Thank you all.
One thing I tried to do in the film was provide an accurate view of noh. Thus, for example, I tried to stick to using the term shite instead of actor and to refer to noh as noh and not a play. Since I decided to break my work on noh into several projects, I have a couple of other noh films that I am currently working on. Next summer I plan to shoot the footage for two films: one on noh costumes, the other on noh music. With each film I make I strive to make a film better than my previous one, and I expect that to be true for these forthcoming documentaries. I hope that Noh Men: The Spirit of Noh provides viewers with an informative look at noh and noh masks, and that my future films will add even more to their understanding of this theatre tradition.