The old nô scenes of Sado, the island of exile

- through Francois Leclercq

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The Noh scene at Kusakari Shinto shrine on Sado Island. Built in the XNUMXth century, the stage is topped with a hipped and gabled thatched roof. Image courtesy of Sado Island Tourism Exchange Organization

Japanese Noh is one of the best forms of performance in the world. In Japan, Noh theater has continued since the XNUMXth century as a living distillation of Japanese aesthetic sensibilities and samurai-era Zen Buddhist reflection on the afterlife. The founder of Noh, Zeami (pronounced zay-ah-mee) rose from the humble ranks of itinerant artists in the 14th century to become the favorite of shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, who educated him and provided him with opportunities for artistic elevation. In return, Zeami created Noh from the earlier art form sarugaku. Noh has reached a kind of artistic eternity thanks to the genius of Zeami, who brought Noh to embody classical artistic expression.

Musicians prepare to begin a torchlight Noh performance on the Kasukari Shrine Noh stage. The Homochi Festival, on June 15 each year, features a torchlight Noh performance, as well as dances by Shinto priestesses called Miko. Their dance style is called Kagura, and the dance specific to this place is Onimai Tsubutosashi. Image courtesy of Sado Island Tourism Exchange Organization

But Shogun Yoshimitsu's son, Yoshimochi, who became the successor shogun, did not favor Zeami. New shogun was not artistically inclined and was accused of being unable to understand Zeami's sophistication, even by his own father. After Yoshimitsu's death in 1408, Yoshimochi placed Zeami's nephew as headmaster of the Kanze school of Noh, against Zeami's wishes. In 1434, Zeami, the most famous performer and playwright in the capital, Kyoto, and the favorite of shogun Yoshimitsu, was exiled by Yoshimochi to the island of Sado, known as the island of exile. Two years later, still in exile, Zeami completed his last work, detailing his desolation with a spirit of acquiescence, fatal karma, and gratitude for his father who gave him his art; and for Shogun Yoshimitsu, who fostered and educated him. The end of Zeami's life is shrouded in mystery. It is believed that he was pardoned after a few years and lived out his life as a Buddhist renunciant. Although Zeami was contemplative by nature, he was admired for his physical beauty as well as his artistic achievements. This exile is a tragic end for the devoted artist who gave the world one of his most noble arts.

The Noh scene at Kasuga Shrine on Sado Island. The sanctuary was built in 1605; the Noh stage in 1645. The open-air stage has protective side panels when not in use. Image courtesy of Sado Island Tourism Exchange Organization

Sado, where Zeami was exiled, has since his unjust punishment celebrated Zeami's life like few other places have. The island was known as the Island of Exile; and Zeami was not the first to be banished there. Sado, far north of Kyoto off the west coast of Japan, was a lonely displacement from the bustling capital. Despite the island's notoriety, Noh has become a sacred reference on Sado, which once had 200 Noh scenes at its peak in the 30th century. Today, more than 30 old Noh scenes still exist. It is an architectural feast that sheds light on past performance history that is hard to find and hard to share. This article presents six of these XNUMX existing steps.

The Noh stage at Kasuga Shrine on Sado Island, revealing its pine mural and entrance walkway, ready for a torchlight Noh performance, held several times a year as part of Shinto festivals. Image courtesy of Sado Island Tourism Exchange Organization

The background of the stage is a fixed panel on which is always painted a pine tree – the eternal backdrop of Noh, evoking the Yōgō pine tree at Kasuga Shrine in Nara, where Noh has been played since its first manifestation as a sarugaku in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The pine panel is called a "mirror wall", as if the representation were facing the god (kami) who dwells in the sacred pine. Noh evolved from traveling performances to dance dramas on specific outdoor stages, both temporary and permanent. It was not performed indoors until the late 19th century. Living pines are arranged along the entrance walkway, along which the characters move from one world to another.

The Noh scene at Shiizaki Suwa Shrine on Sado Island. The shrine dates back to 1376. The Noh stage was added in 1902. This shrine features the most Noh plays on Sado, once a week from April to October there is a Noh bonfire play every Saturday evenings. Image courtesy of Sado Island Tourism Exchange Organization

Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples supported Noh by sponsoring performances on their grounds as early as the sixth century. Until the Meiji era (1868-1912), it was common for temples and shrines to share the same land as a shrine and a temple, both Shinto and Buddhist. Buddhist architecture, having Chinese influences, had an impact on the architecture of Shinto shrines, which had until then delineated sacred places, places and natural entities, such as waterfalls, rocks and trees, but not always with a permanent structure for ritual practice. Noh itself is inspired by Shinto ritual dances for priestesses (Jp: miko), which had no narrative content and were “all space” – a sort of danced void, a ceremonial ritual movement designed to suit higher beings. Noh has also been transformed by Buddhism, adopting a Buddhist structure of the afterlife, as souls seek to escape the wheel of life and death and achieve enlightenment. Shinto did not have such developed concepts of the afterlife.

The Noh scene at Ushio Shrine on Sado Island. The shrine was established in 792. The Noh stage, with its hipped and gabled tiled roof, probably dates from the 1901th or XNUMXth century. It was rebuilt in XNUMX. Ushio Shrine has always maintained regular Noh performances throughout its long history, and it continues today. Image courtesy of Sado Island Tourism Exchange Organization

Sado's Noh scenes were historically on both Shinto and Buddhist grounds: it was common to see a Buddhist temple added to a Shinto shrine; a Shinto shrine added to the grounds of a Buddhist temple. Noh stages were constructed on both grounds, reflecting the spiritual practices of both. Coming from an itinerant form, the nô was played in the open air, on open-air stages until the 30th century. The open sides of the stage could be barricaded when the stage was not in use. Outdoor performances characterized Noh, whether for samurai on the eve of battle, for farmers making an offering for a good harvest, or for nobility enjoying the artistic sophistication of Noh. The XNUMX extant stages of Sado bear witness to a time when Shintoism and Buddhism influenced Noh, where all members of society attended and enjoyed Noh plays, and where Noh was performed on open-air stages. Modern theaters are usually a traditional Noh stage with a roof, inside a larger modern building that also serves as an auditorium.

The over 400-year-old Ushio Shrine Noh Stage, showing the pine back panel, with protective side panels surrounding the open-air stage. Image courtesy of Sado Island Tourism Exchange Organization

As part of Sado's legacy, Noh is a contemporary practice – not a lost historical practice – as a ritual offering for a good harvest. The farmers of Sado perpetuate this tradition. As was the case in the past, many government officials today and well-known people who live in Sado can perform at least a few lines of a Noh piece, often more, and also study chanting and movement . Sado plays are performed in a more relaxed atmosphere than in other parts of Japan. There is a familiarity, a sense of cultural stewardship and a sense of ease, with audience members eating packed lunches during performances. Some shrines even allow photography, within the limits of common sense, courtesy and respect for representation.

The Noh stage at Daizen Shrine on Sado Island is the oldest in Sado, dating back to the XNUMXth century. Notice the angled entrance walkway (hashi gakari). Image courtesy of Sado Island Tourism Exchange Organization

Sado Island is fortunate to have a local group, the Sado Noh Awareness Club (Jp: Sado no no wo Shiru Kai) led by the tireless Kondo Toshihiro. They are always looking for new ways to share the rich history of Sado's Noh. It is a testimony to the excellent cultural management of the Japanese that the place of exile of Zeami remains for the world a bastion of Noh.

In modern times, every summer, “Motorcycle Noh” performs on the mainland. Over the course of two weeks, artists and Noh fans travel together through the countryside on motorbikes, visiting sites of great beauty and historical interest, and Noh scenes of a dignified and ancient individuals. A Noh play is performed at each site along the way. It is remarkable that an art form from the Muromachi era enjoys such popularity in the 21st century. And as such, Sado is one of Motorcyle Noh's main destinations.

The Noh scene at Diazen Shrine on Sado Island. Detail of pine panel and interior roof construction. Image courtesy of Sado Island Tourism Exchange Organization

It is moving to see the respect Zeami gives to the people of Sado, the site of his exile. The whole island is a tribute to his heritage. It is a cultural wonder that 30, out of a peak of 200, historic Noh scenes remain to be seen, where they can experience a Noh play as a much-loved aspect of local life and culture.

A performance of the Noh play Shojo, the spirit of wine, on the Noh stage of the Honma family on the island of Sado. This private scene belongs to the current Grand Master of the Noh school Sado Hosho, making him the 18th leader in unbroken succession. It's a proud local tradition. Image courtesy of Sado Island Tourism Exchange Organization
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Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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