Japan is among the few states that have a rich civilizational history with diverse art forms spanning back centuries. Noh theatre, one of the oldest survival art forms of Japanese culture dates back to the 14th century. The pandemic has shut theatres around the world, compromising the art of traditional cultures and the lives of performance artists.
Belonging to an era of Japan’s Muromachi period (1336-1573), Noh found patronage under Shoguns and spread among the local populace during the civil war years (1467-1568). The father-son duo, Kanami and Zeami popularized Noh art, taking influence from the Chinese-origin sarugaku. Modern Noh has emerged during the Meiji period (1868-1912) after the fall of Shogun and comprises a dance-drama theatre along with a comic play in between called kyogen. This merged form of noh and kyogen is commonly called nohgaku and has been designated an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.
A traditionally male-dominated art form, Izumi Junko became the first female performer of Noh theatre in Japan in 1989. Each story has central characters whose places are fixed on the stage. The story revolves around them and their movement along the stage. Major themes of the play draw from ancient literature, legends, history, spirits and dreams. Most of them depict scenes that are central to Buddhist philosophy. Mask is an essential component of the stage performance that is worn by the shite (the main character). Essentially made of wooden material, a shite often uses a combination of masks to depict a change in emotions and scene-setting. The performance is accompanied by live music using traditional instruments like suzumi drum and shamisen. A chorus also finds a place on the stage and at times echoes the dialogues of characters or recites a hymn in the background.
The pandemic has hit hard traditional art forms around the world, endangering livelihoods of millions of performance artists. Lockdowns and social distancing measures have brought a cultural crisis along with the dwindling financial resources of individuals that have invested a lifetime in perfecting the technique of the art form.
Traditional art forms in Japan are usually sponsored by elites and upper-class similar to the royal patronage given in earlier times. However, as compared to other traditional art forms Noh relies more on staging shows than private sponsors. The Japanese Government established the Japan Arts Council that looks over the activities of National Theater and the New National Theater and organizes public performances of Kabuki, Noh and Bunraku. The Government also provides subsidies for performances but a half-empty theatre is not economically profitable for Noh artists. They demand subsidies that compensate them when artists are unable to stage shows.
The theatre has been struggling with audiences and shows in pre-covid times. Traditional art forms usually pass down to younger generations within the existing family performing artists. Noh is attracting fewer young people to undergo training in an extensive and detailed technique.
Most of the government funding goes to other classical art forms like Kabuki or Bunraku forcing Noh artists to work as freelancers. Freelancing reduces the extent of safety net that is needed in times of crisis such as the pandemic. Streaming live virtual performances doesn’t suit Noh theatre due to its nature of performance that involves live music and chorus, to get the audience involved in the play.
Many of them fear that the pandemic will be the last nail in the coffin for one of the oldest theatre forms in the world. Given the historical significance of the ancient Japanese arts, the hope for its revival lingers on.