The Noh Robe As Perfection

John Brzostoski
© 1981

The subject of the Noh drama is timeless. The Noh drama itself is only centuries old. Kwannami Kiyosugu (1333 - 83) and his son Zeami Motokiyo (1363 - 1443) are given the credit for its invention. Aside from the writing of plays, Zeami also wrote important words explaining what was necessary for a Noh drama to exist. The plays are not easy to view; the explanation sometimes are just as hard. Both are equally important for anyone interested in the human condition and creativity. Neither one is easy. When Zeami is obscure, it is only because of his extreme wish to be accurate. He puts a great emphasis upon the importance of mime, with no movements of the actors left to chance -- position on stage, each posture, the tilt of the masked face. He wove actor, costume, music, and mask together -- back and forth, into and out of the mind of the audience -- aiming for that primary ingredient that he felt was the essence of the Noh drama. That was yugen.

It is easier to talk of other things first. The Noh drama takes place today on a roofed stage patterned after those that were first used out of doors. It has a covered entrance bridge leading from the preparation rooms. There is no scenery but for a large painting of a pine; the musicians and chorus sit in full view. Any needed props -- boats, gateways, et cetera -- are indicated by the briefest of constructions or exist only in the words of the chorus. The plays have little resemblance to the series of tensions we call theater. Frequently the main actor is a dead person or a god, at first unrecognized and then revealed. Whatever else happens, the appearance and progress of this personage are the core of the play. He, she, ghost, god, or goddess is the pivot about which everything revolves. He is the most actual of everything on stage. Much of the rest exists in the minds of the viewers. His costumes are the central point, the concentration of attention in that open area the audience sees from three sides. The actor glides, hardly moves, sings or seems to speak the words the chorus says for him. The mask, awesome, beautiful, or fearful, which only partially covers his full face, comes to life as the figure stops, leans, or gestures. All of this happens to a "story line" contributed by other actors and the chorus. He moves slowly or, more accurately, at a pace we do not normally follow. It is not slow motion, since it changes. It is normal if we can step into the flute notes and drumbeats. To maintain this attention we have to breathe a different way. Focusing on that bundle of sleeves, with inner garments peeking out, or collars hinting at edges, that mass of colors woven, embroidered, and brocaded beyond normal usage should let us catch the essence unfolding before us. Zeami had a hard time naming it. We might call it one mood building up, a distillation of an emotion or a mood. It had to come from the actor, who was more than a mimic. It is said that he did not put on a mask, that he was pulled into it. The same should be said of the costumes. The actor spends a great deal of time selecting the particular costumes for the part he is to play. The costume pulls upon the actor, doing away with him, causing him to assume the identity of the colors, the weaving, the stitches. This parallels the mask. The cloth selects and he is temporarily absorbed. If this sounds slightly shamanistic or religious, it is. When the play is done, his fellow actors bring him "back." Here, embroidery and brocade pursue a goal wrapped in the history of a people. In history, "dead" people are bound by past experiences, a transient consciousness that moves in a karmic (circumstantial) flux. The Noh is a memory, an invocation of these, as if a calm contemplation of such intensities can disarm them. "Life will end, but Noh will never end."

The word "Noh" means the "accomplishment." The actors do this. For Zeami, this accomplishment meant something called hana (flower) for a flowering. He said that this was the supreme thing to gain and that it should only be passed down from one person to another in each generation. In his later years he called it a ripeness (yugen) and tried to instruct everyone in his acting school toward its attainment. But what is this yugen to be sought? Something that moves back and forth. Slipping out of reach. It is no state of mind or consciousness. It weaves in and out of the silence of Noh, almost boring us with the intense concentration necessary. The chorus speaks descriptions, while the actor in colors moves them. It is "elegant imitation," but of nothing seen or heard. The sound of Noh builds on previous time, but up and down. The sight of Noh builds on continuance from right to left, left to right, building the colors of yugen. But yugen is colorless, dark and impenetrable. Yugen is wet, difficult, dark again, and intuitive. Attention must be paid. The colors of yugen are on an empty stage. Everything leaves. What is left is imagination, illusion. the shite (main actor) is all we have in a density of woven color. He is the only reality found before us, seen as if in a dream.

The size of the figures in the kimonos, if we call them by their family name, are varied; but discussion of feet and inches is not the point. They are as large as Mt. Fuji and present a monumental vision. The music coupled with this comes from somewhere else, taking air and space, enlarging it thousands of miles. Thus time also enlarges. The sounds and rhythms are miming the process of the silence of nature. There is no realism in these tremendous mountains of living fabric, thus all the more real. The music had to match the colors of the costumes. The colors have rank, but they are not the signs of rank. The emotions have colors. The states of mind -- the intensified states of consciousness -- have colors. As these change, so do the colors. Nothing changes by chance; a geological time seems necessary to willingly implement a shift in "hue" or "texture." It appears upon the blank stage almost as if in a cinema, in allow motion, at the wrong speed of a recording, a stretched tape about to snap, pulled into intolerable pauses of holding breath, lack of breathing, lack of thought, the complete comprehension of all movements. You know where everyone has been and where everyone is going. The costumes have been put on carefully, folded with prescribed touches, frozen through decades of adjustments and generations of decisions. Some are held fast by being sewn in position with the actor inside. They are the actor, he their instrument. Nothing hangs by chance; there is nothing random about the place of peonies, or the pine trees, or polygons, or eight-wheeled emblems, half showing or half submerged. It is not by chance that these colors pause at as pillar, that a thunderbolt faces left, or a bell right. It has been verified by generations of wearers of a costume, assumers of that mixed emotion that slowly enlarges and clarifies. It is by the Edo period that patterns and colors are fixed for certain parts. Henceforth for that "character" (who resembles no real person, even if the name is of some long-dead hero) those colors are that "person." Such a pattern was considered found, not arbitrarily assigned. Those ingredients of color and shape equal that "person," that "emotion," that consciousness," that flowering hana, that ripening yugen.

The patronage of the Edo period, the season of the Tokugawa family, caused the Noh costumes that we know. A mark was set upon them, through those unique discovering of distinctive colors of the delicate and subtle, which permeates everything, which brought together, yet kept forever apart. This is a significant form. Attention is paid to attention. Within calm dignity, watch and see in plain forms that simplicity is patterned. The form itself creates other form. Watch this with a perception as if of life-and-death importance.

Zeami said that Noh (and therefore yugen) "enlarges blessings and promotes long life." Noh preserves the nation. Noh preserves the world. Energy went into the costumes from the minds of the designers and weavers. They brought forth equivalent imitations of the energy process through which they lived. This reveals the importance of creative minds. Put it into fabrics, into costumes, onto the stage, and into the people. Preserve the nation and preserve the world. A simple act was compounded by the simple acts of previous generations, acting in unison and acting alone. A source of energy gives a source of energy, flowering and ripening. Understandable but unknown. Intuitive and rational. Dark and light. Wet and crisp. Whispers and ejaculations.

Attention must be paid for sharp realizations.

Yugen is all colors, still light, and permeates everything. Yugen is no particular state of mind, thus Noh unravels thoughts strand by strand, leaving less defilement, with clarity resulting. Yugen is changeless and permanent. It is wonderful and mysterious. It is the aesthetic suggestion of unexpressed sentiments beyond the conceptual. Yugen -- thus Noh, thus the costumes -- is internal ice and lonely with resignation.

The stage is not empty. The audience fills it. they are accomplished at doing this in concentration. It is all real and the reality of the costumed actors transcends and stretches that reality to dimensions otherwise ignored, as if in a dream.

There is no avoiding it. Everything had to be discussed at the same time. There is no avoiding it. Only one thing can be said at a time. The costumes become this one thing, including: acting, masks, dance, chorus, words, songs, drummers, and flutists. Put these together to understand "outside yourself" (Zeami's instructions) what the audience will gain. That is correct. That is a fine flower indeed! Noh means the accomplishment of the audience. The accomplishing of actors, music, chorus, masks, and costumes. All contribute.

The Tokugawa family, which commissioned so many costumes and supported the Noh drama, ruled Japan for centuries. There was prosperity and life in the Tokugawa period of Japanese history. If you maintain Noh, you maintain that diamond "mood," crystalline "mind," and intense "emotion" that rules history, rather than yielding to chaos.

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