On March 14th, 2021, I went to see Japan cultural expo special performance at the Kokyo Gaien National Garden. It was the performance at the outdoor stage in the Kokyo Gaien Nattional Garden. It was rainy the day before but luckly, it was sunny on the 14th although it was pretty windy.
For the first time, the traditional performing arts event was held at a special venue with the Imperial Palace’s Nijubashi Bridge in the background. The event primarily featured works of Noh and Kyogen, along with performances of folk performing arts from the disaster-hit Tohoku area as a prayer for recovery from the Great East Japan Earthquake (it has been 10 years since the earthquake occured), and performances of Ryukyu perfoming arts as a prayer for reconstruction of Shuri Castle which was burnt down about two years ago. The Noh performance was held as the government’s official event in the Edo era but it has been very rare for people to see such performance in the Imperial Palace since the Meiji era.
The performance on March 14th started with Ryukyu Dance, followed by Maibayashi – Iwafune (The Stone Ship), Kyogen – Kusabira (Mashrooms), and Noh – Shakkyo (The Stone Bridge).
Synopsis and Highlights of the perforamance:
Ryukyu Dance – Ryukyu dance is composed of five categories based on the gender and age of the characters: dance of old people with white hair, dance of young boys, dance of male adults, dance of women, and finally dance of a combination of several people. The performance on the 14th was extracts of three of the pieces that were shown in Edo (current Tokyo) at the time fo the Ryukyu kingdom as well as pieces of Kumi Odori, a style unique to Okinawa.
Maibayashi – Iwafune – Iwafune (literally stone ship) usually means a ship flying in the sky with a god inside but the play suggests that it is used to designate one of the robust vessels supporting the trade between Japan and China during the Muromachi period (14th to 16th century). This dance depicts the reality of a period that brought high profits and cultural benefits from the trade between Japan and China in the context of celebrations of an abundance of riches. This plays shows clearly that the Noh was also a type of performance that expressed the thoughts of people of power and common people of a period.
Kyogen – Kusabira – A man, who is troubled by the strange mushrooms growing in his house, asks a strolling monk to get rid of them. The strolloing monk seems confident about this task but it does not go as he thought…. The choice of the strange masks and the colorful has that represent the characteristics of the mushrooms are worht notice.
Noh – Shakkyo – A monk who seeks to reach enlightenment, crosses the sea and arrives at a natural stonce bridge. It is said that only high priests can cross the bridge. As he tries to advance on the bridge, guardian lions appear with great energy. On the other side of the ravine is located the pure land of Monju Bosatsu. The lions, playing among the peonies, end thier dance as if they celebrate the eternity of heaven and earth. The lion is an imaginary mystical creature and the carrier of Monju Bosatsu, the bodhisattva of wisdon. The wood platform of the size of one tatami with the red and white peonies has been brought on the stage to symbolize the stone bridge. Two lions, the parent lion with a white wig and the child lion with a red wig, are dancing to put happily an end to three days of festivities.
One thing I highly recommend to do when watching Noh or Kyogen is to download one app on your phone. Please see a link below.
What is amazing about this app is that subtitles are displyaed on your phone during the performance. It is difficult to comprehend the lines and songs of Noh and Kyogen even for Japanese people so the app helped a lot to really understand what was going on during the performance. The subtiltes are also available in English.