I’ve always wanted to watch some traditional Japanese plays and indulge in very deep Japanese traditions and culture, so I was pretty excited at the thought of finally being able to watch Noh (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noh), a Japanese mask play. The chance came when a teacher at Global Program (a part-time job where I was supposed to role-play and engage Japanese students in English conversations – see story here: https://miragesdreamylife.wordpress.com/2013/09/28/a-heartwarming-part-time-job/) told me and my colleagues that there was a Noh theatre right next to our school and it was having shows for the whole day FREE OF CHARGE (on that day only, of course). It’s Japanese tradition and plus it’s FREE! I can’t resist a good deal. She was willing to take us to the theatre if we were interested, and we thought to ourselves why not? We would probably never go to a Noh play if we had to pay out of our own pockets, because of the language barrier and that it would be a waste of money if we couldn’t enjoy it. But since it’s free, well… why not?
When we first arrived at the theatre, we were greeted by a shy but friendly staff and subsequently we were also offered sponge cakes! Wow! Free entry and free food! What’s there not to be happy about?
Free show and free sponge cakes! Whee!
And when I first entered the theatre hall, my breath had been taken away by the beautifully polished wooden stage and the bamboo roof over it. It’s SOOO Japanese! It feels good to indulge in some culture and tradition after spending too much time in concrete jungles. Even a city girl like me needs time away from cities and buildings! Well, it certainly felt like I had gone back in time! So even though I was technically STILL in the city, it felt like I had already escaped from this concrete mess.
A typical Noh stage looks like this. The main stage would be the huge platform on the right and the narrow walkway on the left leads to the backstage. It looks like a typical house of rich people in medieval Japan to me.
We proceeded to sit ourselves down as quietly as possible on the seats on the left and started enjoying the show. Since the theatre was open to the public for the whole day, people can come in and out as and when they want to. We came in in the middle of the show, so my colleagues and I had no idea what was going on but we kept on watching anyway and I loved the atmosphere… at first.
The play was called Yoroboushi (弱法師、よろぼうし), which translates into “weak monk”. Since we were in the theatre, the teacher couldn’t explain to us much about the show, but she did scribble down a very, very brief outline of the play for us.
Since we were not allowed to take photos (I think) and we were seated at the side of the stage, the picture above is obviously not mine but it’s the same play and plot nonetheless. The teacher only wrote that the masked guy is the main character (duh) and that he’s blind. That’s why the play is called Weak Monk, because he’s a blind, weak monk. So sad right?
The information that the teacher provided was precious little, and I couldn’t understand at all what was happening. There were no change of scenes and the actors’ movements and speeches were all very, very, VERY slow. EXTREMELY SLOW. I think even snails can be faster. And when they have dialogues… they weren’t exactly talking, they were like, singing? Not the Disney movie kinda singing but the traditional Japanese kinda singing where it sounds like somewhere in between singing and shouting at someone, you know?
As a result, due to their distorted speeches and lack of drastic movements and scene change, I couldn’t grasp the plot at all. The only thing I knew about the show at that time was that the masked guy is the main character and that he’s blind. Pretty much the information that I had received from the teacher.
So it goes without saying that I couldn’t enjoy the show at all (not out of disdain for the way the story had been expressed, but rather for the simple reason of language barrier and inability to understand the dialogues) and that I realised again that this is the reason why I didn’t attempt to go to any traditional Japanese shows, even though I had wanted to try to watch a play (any one, Noh, Kabuki etc) at least once in Japan. It’s like being in London and not going to any musicals, or being in New York without going to Broadway, you know? But I already have a hard time understanding Japanese period dramas with Japanese subtitles. Noh was way beyond my level.
But I wanted to know the plot behind Yoroboushi, so I goggled it today and found out that the plot is actually pretty damn awesome. If you can read Japanese, feel free to read about it here if you’re interested: http://www.syuneikai.net/yorobooshi.htm
But if you can’t read Japanese or too lazy to read Japanese (like me), then I’ll do you a favour and explain it for you here.
Basically, some joker told a man that his son will become a very wicked man and so advised him to get rid of him. The man gullibly believed in his words and did as he was told, and chased his own son out of his home. But after a while, he regretted doing so, as he had come to believe that he had been tricked into throwing his son out, and that his son was actually a very good boy. But what’s done cannot be undone so out of guilt, the man shut himself out of the world and withdrew into a temple to punish himself and make up for his wrongdoings.
Then one day, a young monk who was poor and blind showed up at the temple. He was travelling around the whole country in an attempt to spread the teachings of Buddhism. Despite being poor and blind, the young monk had a very kind heart. The man (who chased his son out) came into contact with him, and was very moved by his purity and innocence. However, the more he looked at the young monk, the more he came to realise how much he resembled his lost son. He couldn’t believe that he would be reunited with his son in this manner.
Of course, the young monk, being blind, wasn’t aware that he was talking to his father. The father, overwhelmed by his emotions and unable to contain himself, told the young monk that he will reveal his true identity to him when the night fell.
And then, when night time arrived, he probably told the young monk “I am your father!” (not in the Darth Vader way but in the Japanese Noh way of course).
When the young monk knew the truth, he was too embarrassed to face the man anymore and tried to run away. His father grabbed him and told him, “Let’s go home!”
Touching, isn’t it?
Sadly, none of the above had been obvious at all during the play.