Noh actors wear a mask and therefore use formalized movements to express emotions such as joy or sorrow. This richly embroidered woman’s kimono (karaori) – which is red to show the character is young – is part of a costume that can weigh over 20kg.
Osaka – Fact Check

This is Japan's oldest theater art

Photo by Ton Koene

Osaka – Fact Check This is Japan's oldest theater art

Noh theatre is a major form of classical Japanese musical drama that has been performed since the 14th century. At Yamamoto Theater in Osaka, I enjoy a demonstration of the complicated process involved on putting on one of the costumes.

Kieran Meeke
Kieran Meeke Travel Writer

Central is a heavy, elaborately embroidered kimono that weighs many kilos. But first there is the matter of covering the hair in a cotton cap, then a heavy horsehair wig of long black tresses. A skilled dresser – in this case actor Maeda Kazuko – is essential to sort out details such as the exact way the kimono falls open at the front, one of the many clues to the social status of the character portrayed. The red kimono itself is a color that would only be worn by a young woman – although Noh actors are traditionally all men. Hidden behind masks, the actors have to rely on such visual cues and formalized movements to help carry the story.

Maeda talks me through some of the Noh gestures. “Bow your head and look at the raised palm of your right hand,” she says. “This shows you are sad. Lowering your head also creates shadows on the mask, showing a darker mood. Noh has a reputation for being non-expressive but you can understand a lot from the tone of voice, the angle of the mask, and the use of the fan – even if you do not understand the language.”

Yosie Yamamoto’s grandfather on her husband’s side started the Osaka theater in 1927 and she now manages it. It has just been refurbished, and the cypresswood walls and stage give off a lovely aroma. “Everything, from the mask to the kimono and the theatre itself, is made of the very finest materials and that is part of the aesthetic,” she says. “Noh was originally an aristocratic art but as time passed it became more democratic. I want to be open to the public and even attract foreigners, as I really believe Noh’s survival depends on having more people understand its beauty. It is the eldest masked theater in the world but it has not changed in 700 years. Noh is an encounter between the present and the past and it reveals the universality of the human condition.”

Mrs Yamamoto wears a kimono on alternate days and I ask her the good and bad about this traditional form of dress. “The good is when foreigner visitors stop me in the street to ask for a photograph,” she says, laughing. “The bad is if I have to try and work at the computer while I am wearing it. But it is an important part of Japanese culture and I really enjoy it. For example, now it is autumn, I am wearing an autumn fabric and an autumn pattern. I like being able to live in touch with the four seasons.”

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