Noh Theater, and Missed Opportunities
the scrumptious visual delight of Noh Theater -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 200 mm — 1/80 sec, f/2.8, ISO 800 — map & image datanearby photos
the scrumptious visual delight of
Noh Theater

I had an amazing photographic and cultural opportunity fall into my lap this weekend.

Unfortunately, I didn't realize it until after I got home and did a bit of after-the-fact research.

One of the mommies at Anthony's preschool has three daughters. One is four years old and in the preschool year below Anthony's, and another is a year older than Anthony, having graduated from the kindergarten in March. (Like the Japanese fiscal year, the Japanese school year ends in March.) The third is older, perhaps around 13 or so. These children are absolutely exquisite. They're cute and beautiful as can be, and have a presence... a maturity... well beyond their age. Plus, even though they don't know me (other than as “Anthony's papa”), they wave and smile pleasantly at me whenever they see me.

These children just exude photogenicity, so when I had a chance to snap some shots of the middle girl at preschool graduation in March, I did. They were just unplanned snapshots hastily taken during the hubbub after the graduation ceremony, but some came out nicely (some can be seen here, here, and here), and I later gave the mom a few 8×10s.

So, the mom, knowing that I have an interest in photography, told me about and all-day event that was to be held on Saturday (yesterday) at the Noh theater next to my place, mentioning that her oldest daughter would be performing something at 1pm. That last bit didn't surprise me, because I know that the family is some relation to a famous noh performer, or something like that.

I don't know anything about noh except that it might be called “Japanese Opera”, but I've been living right next to a noh theater for the last few years, and thought it'd be a great chance to see inside, and to photograph in a setting that I'm sure is normally “no cameras allowed.” Plus, there'd be one of the exquisite, photogenic children there.

So, I head over a bit before 1:00, and peruse the program. Even the most deeply “Japanese” writing tends to have some “English” (roman letters, or Arabic numerals, such as in page numbers, times, dates, etc.), but the inside of this eight-page program was entirely devoid of anything modern. I thought it was really interesting. (The back cover did use roman letters for a website address, and the front cover inexplicably used “TEL” before a phone number, even though the phone number itself was given in Chinese characters.)

Sample Page from the Program -- http://regex.info/blog/
Sample Page from the Program

It turns out that it's a two-day event, so I find the section for 1pm on the second day, and scan for the last name of the girl. I see that it's after a break after something that starts at 1:00, so I have plenty of time to get settled in and do some test shots.

While sitting in the lobby, I see the two younger girls, and chat with them a bit. I ask the one how she likes first grade. “It's fun.” The youngest one — four years old — looked cute enough to eat.

Noh-Theater Stage -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 17 mm — 1/30 sec, f/2.8, ISO 800 — map & image datanearby photos
Noh-Theater Stage

The atmosphere seems pretty easy-going, with people stepping in and out of the small theater, but I didn't want to be a distraction with my 6'4" of clumsiness and all my camera stuff, so I waited for a break in the program, and headed in about 10 minutes before 1:00.

As I'm stepping in, I'm shocked to hear the eldest daughter's name being announced, and seeing her walk out on stage! Doh, they're half an hour ahead of schedule!!!

I rush to a seat and get my camera stuff set up as quickly as doing it silently would allow. It doesn't feel all that dark inside, but the camera was not liking my lack of a tripod. I bump up the ISO (camera sensor light sensitivity) and quickly switch to my fastest lens – a Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 – and snap off one fuzzy shot...

Riko-chan and Accompanist -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 — 1/125 sec, f/1.4, ISO 640 — map & image datanearby photos
Riko-chan and Accompanist

I stuck around for a few more short musical performances, and for what turned out to be one somewhat longer noh play. Noh has been around for about 700 years, and even early on, I'm sure it incorporated the richness of a culture that was already over a thousand years old. That's a lot of cultural heritage, all of which is totally lost on me. I didn't understand a thing, perhaps, if at all possible, even less than I would understand western opera.

Only after I got home and looked at my pictures and did a little research did I understand more about the situation I had been in.

It turns out that the “accompanist” above is Riko-chan's dad!

It turns out that his dad turns 60 this year, and this entire two-day event is in honor of that.

And it turns out that his dad has been bestowed the incomprehensibly high honor of being named a Japanese Living National Treasure. The list of noh performers ever so named is very short, even shorter when you consider those remaining footnoted as “still living”.

And it turns out that the later performance that I thought was going to be Riko-chan – that I didn't stay for because I thought they were running ahead of schedule – was really her grandfather's (the one turning 60, for which the entire two-day event was to commemorate). Sure enough, I look back into the program now and see Riko-chan listed toward the end of the noon hour. Sigh, I should have paid more attention.

Of course, I didn't understand any of that at the time, but I was happy to be able to photograph what I did see. After Riko-chan left the stage, I pulled out my Nikkor 70-200/2.8 VR Zoom and monopod, and with the combination (VR and monopod) am able to get a few shots at very slow shutter speeds that look okay when shrunk for the web...

— 1 / 10 sec , f/5, ISO 800 — map & image data — nearby photos Chanter -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 200 mm1/10 sec, f/5, ISO 800 — map & image datanearby photos
Chanter

When the noh play thing started, after a while this guy came out and was clearly a man of importance in the context of a story I couldn't possibly understand....

Big Man Makes an Entrance -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 70 mm — 1/60 sec, f/2.8, ISO 800 — map & image datanearby photos
Big Man Makes an Entrance

Noh is extremely formal, with every slight movement (by any performer, for any reason) strictly regimented. As I said, I'm sure that there's a lot of meaning behind it all. I was proud that I could understand a few words of the chanting-like speech of the Big Man above. Mostly, I believe, it's archaic Japanese, so most native Japanese wouldn't understand it either.

During the performance, I noticed the man sitting directly behind the woman at right in the photo above....

— 1 / 30 sec , f/2.8, ISO 800 — map & image data — nearby photos “Small Drum” Performer and Sensei -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 200 mm1/30 sec, f/2.8, ISO 800 — map & image datanearby photos
“Small Drum” Performer and Sensei

It was clear that he was her teacher, as every so often he would gently touch her shoulder in a way that clearly indicated “you leave off here” or “you start soon”. This in itself is not particularly interesting, but the way he did it was almost moving in a way I can't really describe. His action in helping her was minimal, as if his mere presence was sufficient to guide her.

Mind you, I noticed this and felt this way while I was there, before getting home and realizing that it was Riko-chan's dad, and all the other stuff I mentioned earlier. Clearly, the guy's got something going for him besides a good pedigree.

Meanwhile, I had low light and low skill, so I tried some static “mood” shots...

, f/2.8, ISO 800 — map & image data — nearby photos -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 125 mm — 1/30 sec, f/2.8, ISO 800 — map & image datanearby photos
— 1 / 20 sec , f/2.8, ISO 800 — map & image data — nearby photos Chanters Waiting -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 200 mm1/20 sec, f/2.8, ISO 800 — map & image datanearby photos
Chanters Waiting
, f/2.8, ISO 800 — map & image data — nearby photos Medium Drum, two Small Drum, and a Flutist under the gaze of the Big Man, who was now sitting in the corner of the stage -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 70 mm — 1/40 sec, f/2.8, ISO 800 — map & image datanearby photos
Medium Drum, two Small Drum, and a Flutist
under the gaze of the Big Man, who was now sitting in the corner of the stage
— 1 / 15 sec , f/2.8, ISO 800 — map & image data — nearby photos Fans, Between Rows of Chanters I had high hopes for this shot, but it really needs a smaller aperture -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 200 mm1/15 sec, f/2.8, ISO 800 — map & image datanearby photos
Fans, Between Rows of Chanters
I had high hopes for this shot, but it really needs a smaller aperture

So, it turns out that the Big Man really wasn't, because out came someone whose costume was much more ornate.

Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 40 mm — 1/50 sec, f/2.8, ISO 800 — map & image datanearby photos

“More ornate” also means “more photogenic”, but it was difficult with a moving target...

Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 120 mm — 1/60 sec, f/2.8, ISO 800 — map & image datanearby photos
Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 200 mm — 1/90 sec, f/3.2, ISO 800 — map & image datanearby photos

And then its twin came out...

(I say “it” because I think it was a spirit of ghost of some kind, but I really have no clue.)

Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 55 mm — 1/80 sec, f/2.8, ISO 800 — map & image datanearby photos
Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 17 mm — 1/30 sec, f/3.5, ISO 800 — map & image datanearby photos
Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 200 mm — 1/60 sec, f/2.8, ISO 800 — map & image datanearby photos

I don't think I'll ever understand the noh itself, but if I ever get another chance to photograph it, I'll come more prepared, with a tripod and more fast lenses, and now maybe just a bit of experience.


All 5 comments so far, oldest first...

I’ve only been to a Noh performance once, but I studied some original Noh texts in college when I was learning classical Japanese (now 99% forgotten, of course). The texts are actually full of ingenious puns and other forms of wordplay, and were a joy to read. I can see how understanding the language would make it a vital, fun artform, kind of like Shakespeare to us moderns.

— comment by Zak on May 19th, 2008 at 9:40am JST (9 years, 1 month ago) comment permalink

Wow. It looks like Cyndi Lauper’s 1980’s hairstyle had a big impact on Japanese culture.

— comment by Marcina on May 19th, 2008 at 11:35am JST (9 years, 1 month ago) comment permalink

Wow, cool set of photos! It feels like I was there for the show.
Composition is excellent, and technically they’re great–I don’t think they’d be much improved by a tripod or faster lenses.

I went to a half-day long kabuki performance a few years ago and slept through about 2/3 of it.

— comment by Andrew S on May 22nd, 2008 at 12:53pm JST (9 years, 1 month ago) comment permalink

I’m glad you got to see these performances. Please check out my companies website to learn more about noh. I’ve been studying since 1996 and it just gets more interesting as the years go on. It’s a beautiful form and you’ve taken some lovely shots.

— comment by John on November 16th, 2008 at 1:56pm JST (8 years, 7 months ago) comment permalink

I’m writing from Germany. Your fotos are really extraordinary, they capture perfectly the spirit and the beauty of no.
I especially enjoyed the close-ups since they reveal the wonderful and precious material of the costumes which you normally get to see only from afar. Thank you for sharing your experience with other people.

— comment by Heike on October 17th, 2009 at 4:22pm JST (7 years, 8 months ago) comment permalink
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