To follow my post on Noh drama, on a lighter, nay meretricious (and a Happy New Year) note—in lieu of my fantasy article “There’s no business like Noh business: stagecraft in Japanese drama”:
While Clive James (R.I.P.) was generally admirable as well as entertaining, in chapter 12 of The blaze of obscurity he candidly describes his inability to represent traditional Japanese culture on popular TV. Coming to the topic via the unpromising genre of game shows, he concludes a passage describing the rationale behind the filming of his own discomfort (not merely physical) at a session with a samisen-playing geisha by proclaiming:
To let myself in for ridicule might mitigate any impression that I was setting out to ridicule the culture, which in fact I revered, even for its way of becoming even more incomprehensible as you focused your attention on it.
But he gave up far too easily. That comment follows a paragraph that includes a reference to Noh:
A Japanese classical sword-smith takes a long time to make a sword, you need a degree in metallurgy to appreciate what he does, and the finished product looks exactly like a stage prop from an amateur production of The Mikado. In a Noh play an actor takes half an hour to cross the stage. The special walk he is using takes a lifetime’s training, but he looks exactly like an old man with arthritis setting out to buy a newspaper. You can fall asleep while he is making his entrance and when you wake up again he is still making his entrance.
Sure, there’s no denying that Noh is short on hectic car chases and steamy love scenes. This passage is distinguished by its lazy cultural chauvinism:
In Kyoto, at the Geisha training school, the top lady was one of the greatest living players of the shami-sen, the single-stringed guitar [HEY] that has come down through the ages without acquiring any extra strings to compromise its purity by providing it with, say, the capacity to produce a chord. It goes plunk. It goes plink.
So much for ethnomusicology, and James’s proclaimed reverence for Japanese culture. At least he or his team of researchers might have counted the strings, FFS. At least the Serbian gusle really does only have one string, though the review featured here is no more enamoured with it.
To return to my orchestral tours, while I really shouldn’t emulate the way that James plays for laughs the culture that he professes to revere, Noh goes quite well with jet-lag—you can indeed nod off, or pop out to do a bit of shopping, and by the time you get back to the action the waki will still only have shimmied halfway across the stage. But enchantment soon takes over.
Further irreverent ideas might include a feature-length Family guy—Oh Noh!, with Brian and Stewie as an original waki–shite duo; not an entirely silly idea, as redemption (e.g. here) and time travel are common themes of the series.
And along with reading Miles Davis’s autobiography in the voice of the Queen (“Man, that cat was badder than ten bad motherfuckers”), how about a party game reciting my script for the wacky (waki) phrases from Teach yourself Japanese (a MUST READ!) in Noh style?
But enough of such levity—do follow up the wonders of Noh via my previous post, and with this post on tradition and change!
For a sequel in which Clive James extends his incomprehension to Chicago blues, see here. And for a limerick suggesting Portuguese–Japanese musical fusion, click here.
7 thoughts on “Oh Noh!”
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Nice post Steve. I’ll keep an eye out for the one string shamisen, though its name 三味線 does rather give it way. Can’t expect Clive to have known Japanese, but as you say he should have been able to count. And I can recommend your Teach Yourself Japanese post to anyone looking for a good belly laugh.
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