The 600-year-old Japanese tradition called Noh is virtually unknown stateside. In fact, until recently, the classical theatrical form was practically extinct in its native land. But thanks to the tireless energy of some dedicated artists, Noh is making a comeback.
This Friday and Saturday, the Japan Expo Foundation will present "Noh: the Art Festival of Japan" to celebrate 60 years of peace between Japan and the United States. The event is largely financed by the Japanese government. "We are here to celebrate peace," says event producer Koji Mizukami, "because, you know, we had a dark history."
Yes, we Noh, Koji.
Noh utilizes spectacular costumes and masks, Taiko drums, the flute and a deliberate, dancelike choreography to tell traditional Japanese myths. It's a focused, usually very slow affair that requires dedication from its audiences. It's the Japanese equivalent of an opera performance.
"Noh was historically cherished by the emperor and high society," Koji explains. "It was considered more sophisticated and protected by the wealthy." When the more mainstream, common-minded Kabuki theater came along, Noh faded into obscurity.
During a period from 1629 to the 1890s, women were banned from performing in Noh theater, allegedly because many actresses were prostitutes. In a bizarre twist of fate, many of the men who took over the female roles became prostitutes themselves. As Japanese culture opened up to Western influences, women were allowed back on the boards.
Today, Noh is being embraced again as new generations of Japanese, honoring their history, are seeking to preserve the art form.
"Currently in Japan," says Koji, "there are five families, or 'schools,' that perform Noh. Komparu" -- the family featured in the Houston performance -- "is 79 generations old, the oldest ever." And as a genealogically traceable art form, Noh is the oldest and rarest.
Japan Expo will drive home its cultural message by offering patrons Japanese tea (to stay awake through the performance) and Taiko drum demonstrations in the George R. Brown lobby.