Japanese Noh theater in peril in the face of coronavirus

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Japanese Noh theater in peril in the face of coronavirus




Japanese artist Kennosuke Nakamori during a Noh rehearsal on July 29, 2020


© Philip FONG
Japanese artist Kennosuke Nakamori during a Noh rehearsal on July 29, 2020


Kennosuke Nakamori’s powerful voice echoes in the small hall where he is rehearsing a Noh play, a traditional genre of Japanese theater. But the pandemic, which has kept him from performing in public for months, is making him worried.


Kennosuke Nakamori and his father Kanta Nakamori during a Noh rehearsal in Kamakura on July 29, 2020


© Philip FONG
Kennosuke Nakamori and his father Kanta Nakamori during a Noh rehearsal in Kamakura on July 29, 2020


While other traditional Japanese artistic genres may rely on patronage and substantial public subsidies, Noh is highly dependent on its ticketing revenues. However, the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in the closure of many theaters across the country.


Noh artist Kennosuke Nakamori on July 29, 2020 during an interview with AFP in Kamakura, Japan


© Philip FONG
Noh artist Kennosuke Nakamori on July 29, 2020 during an interview with AFP in Kamakura, Japan


In the profession, some fear that the virus will give the final blow to this art.

“There are a lot of actors who have stopped performing” because of the Covid-19, says Mr. Nakamori, met by AFP in the theater run by his family in Kamakura, a coastal town with an important cultural heritage and historic location near Tokyo.

“How many shows can we give during the pandemic (…), how to earn a living? It’s a big problem,” adds the 33-year-old actor.

There are certainly public subsidies for Noh performances. But current physical distancing measures mean theaters can only be half full, so plays are played at a loss anyway, according to Nakamori.


Noh artist Kennosuke Nakamori poses with a costume in Kamakura, Japan on July 29, 2020


© Philip FONG
Noh artist Kennosuke Nakamori poses with a costume in Kamakura, Japan on July 29, 2020


“The more you play on stage, the more money you lose,” he says. “We would need subsidies that would compensate for the shortfall when we cannot play.”

– Already declining popularity –

The origins of Noh go back to the 8th century AD. But the pieces performed today mostly date from the Muromachi period (1336-1573).

Registered since 2008 on the Unesco list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity, Noh combines theater, dance and music in a style much more minimalist than the epic and colorful kabuki.

The actors, almost exclusively men, wear wooden masks and kimonos. They move on stage in “tabi”, Japanese socks isolating the big toe from the other toes.

The texts, delivered in a low voice and in a drawling tone, can be difficult for modern audiences to grasp. Drummers and flute players are also present at the back of the stage, which is usually made of cypress wood. The decor is very refined, often simply consisting of a representation of a Japanese pine in the background.

Even before the pandemic, Noh was in crisis: attendance at plays was declining and the demanding learning process to become an actor of the genre is attracting fewer and fewer young people.

Kabuki can count on the support of Shochiku, a large Japanese film production company, which has also produced all the main kabuki shows for almost a century. And other national traditional arts, such as bunraku puppet theater, are heavily subsidized by the state.

– “Do not give up” –

Genjiro Okura, a kotsuzumi player, a small drum used in Noh, has been recognized by the state as a “living national treasure” for his exceptional skills. But this status does not prevent it from also suffering from the current crisis.

“We are in a difficult situation,” the 62-year-old musician, who had to interrupt his activity for four months because of the coronavirus, told AFP.

Noh artists often supplement their income by providing training for amateurs, but this source has also dried up. “There are old people who want to learn Noh as a hobby, but many have given up because of the virus,” said Mr. Okura.

Some are trying to adapt to the health crisis by offering performances online, even if according to Mr. Nakamori, Noh should ideally be experienced in a theater, its stripped-down style lending itself poorly to a video experience.

He and his father Kanta, 59, also an actor, are still considering offering a paid streaming service. They have also launched a crowdfunding campaign to cover expected losses of coins they hope to play this fall, and increased ticket prices.

“We must not give up,” insists Kanta Nakamori, saying he is optimistic that “the noh charm will not fade so easily”.

nf-etb/mac/dth

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