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The Oldest Surviving Form of Theater

Dec 06, 2018 | 831 videos
Video by Edwin Lee

The Japanese art of Noh is the oldest surviving theater tradition in practice. Dating back to the 14th century, the classical musical drama is derived from the Sino-Japanese word for "skill" or “talent.” When combined with the theater art of kyogen, Noh is known as nogaku. It was named an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.

In Noh theater, there is little plot. Many performances are allegorical and metaphorical; historically, spectators were educated, thus they were familiar with the stories being represented and were able to appreciate the subtle references within the words and movements. Noh actors wear intricately carved masks to which they have a deep spiritual connection; some are handed down through generations and believed to contain energies from past performers. Many masks are deliberately asymmetrical so that they evoke different emotions when viewed from the right side, left side, top, and bottom.

Michishige Udaka is the only living Noh theater actor who also crafts his masks. He has dedicated his life to the practice of Noh and believes in its cultural significance. In Edwin Lee’s short documentary The Spirit of Noh (produced with the support of Japan Curator), Udaka describes his practice.

“The actor wearing the Noh mask is not acting as a modern-day person, but as a spirit or wraith,” he explains. “When you can perform without thinking and it just surfaces naturally, then you will be able to experience a shining instance of serendipity … that is the beauty of Noh.”

“When I saw a Noh demon mask for the first time, I was immediately fascinated by it,” Lee told The Atlantic. “Noh theatre is so esoteric, even to most Japanese people. For me, it was like watching opera without the pomp and cacophony of an orchestra … but in slow motion.”

Describing Noh as an “austere and meditative experience,” Lee said that the singing reminded him of Buddhist prayers he’d seen a monastery. In fact, many themes of Noh plays are rooted in spirits and reincarnation.

“The fact that Noh has lasted for so long means that there must be a purpose to it,” Udaka says in the film. “That’s why I feel responsible to pass it on."

The actor feels strongly that Japan should place an emphasis on protecting traditions—or else, he says, it will “become a robotic country driven solely by pure economics.”

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.