Hanjo: A Director’s Diary, Part One

Sep 15, 2017

Hanjo is a project that is very close to both my heart and my brain. It is an exciting production to me on so many levels that it is hard to know how to start expressing myself about it. And although it seems like a cop out, ultimately I really do agree with Robert Wilson that it is not the artist’s job to explain their work: that’s up to others. But I do want to share my excitement about this show because it’s not a play with a lot of immediate name-recognition for a lot of people in the United States.

So over the next few weeks I’m going to post a series of blogs about the show. This post is the first of that series.

I was living in Japan and not quite six years old when an internationally acclaimed Japanese author led an attempted coup at a Japanese Self Defense Force base in Tokyo that culminated with his ritual suicide. I remember news stories about it. I didn’t understand it, but that was probably the first time I heard the name Yukio Mishima.

To say that Mishima is a difficult figure to pigeonhole is a profound understatement. Type “Yukio Mishima” into your favorite search engine and you’ll find all kinds of material. Decades later I don’t claim to understand him thoroughly. But there is one artistic impulse of Mishima’s that hits me very close to the heart. It is the impulse that led to his writing the five short plays that constitute his Kindai Nohgakushu, or, the “Modern Noh Plays.” It is an impulse to make the mysterious, otherworldly poetry of Noh more accessible to contemporary audiences.

I first encountered these plays in my teens when my brother was cast in a high-school production of Kantan, which made a surprisingly strong impression on me. I knew almost nothing about Noh at the time, a situation that didn’t change until I was in my early twenties, and I had my first substantive contact with Noh through the actor Akira Matsui of the Kita school. I was very frustrated with what I was experiencing in the American theater and it quickly became clear to me that Noh had cut through some of the Gordian knots I was seeing. I became fascinated with the question of how Noh theater could be relevant to the contemporary world and cultures outside of aristocratic Japanese society. Although I hadn’t seen a lot of Noh, as I began to study it, I saw in Noh many of the values that I hold most dear in the theater: the otherworldly elegance and elevated sense of time and space; the way that actors are striving to convey the maximum amount with minimal expression; the way in which the world of Noh is an aesthetically coherent world of the stage that is not a simulacrum of the quotidian world we live our daily lives in. This list goes on and on.

It is also interesting to me that the person who is arguably the progenitor of Noh, Motohiko Zeami, wrote treatises that serve as something akin to Aristotle’s Poetics. Distinct from the Poetics, however, is the fact that unlike Aristotle, Zeami was a practicing actor and playwright. He was speaking from a place of practical expertise, and therefore his philosophy is infused with practical consideration.

But the problem is that, for many reasons, Noh is almost inaccessibly obscure for most American audiences. This is not just because it is Japanese – truth be told it is profoundly obscure for most Japanese people. One of the reasons for this is that just as the Noh performers are specifically trained in the art of Noh acting, the Noh audience is also trained in the art of appreciating Noh. Few people outside of the true Noh audience have seen more than a handful of Noh performances, and very very few have seen multiple performances of the same play. Seeing your first Noh play is like drinking your first glass of wine: you are not going to have the depth of reaction that is necessary to actually appreciate it.

When I began working with Tadashi Suzuki in the late 80s, he would often tease me for my nerdy interest in Noh. This was not because he didn’t see the value in it – he was deeply and fundamentally influenced by Noh and Zeami’s ideas. But for Suzuki, as a Japanese artist of the post-war era, it was vital that his work be seen as a part of world theater and that it had a validity as something other than just an updating of Japanese traditional theater. Also, he would sometimes say that if he had liked Noh (or for that matter Kabuki) so much, he would just do it. Despite his not being in one of the hereditary lines of Japanese traditional theater, this was actually plausible for him. I understand and deeply respect Suzuki’s point of view about this and how it relates to his work. I have always seen in Suzuki’s best works a deeply rooted manifestation of those values I see in Noh. But in an odd way as an American artist, I am freer to draw the connection to Noh more directly. My alienation from it, as an American, allows me to approach it in a different way.

Part two> Part three>