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Naohiko Umewaka wears a mask for the play “Yashima.”

Naohiko Umewaka wears a mask for the play “Yorimasa.”

“I’ve been in Noh theater for more than half a century now, but I still don’t know what it is,” says Naohiko Umewaka, a Noh theater master and professor at Shizuoka University of Art and Culture.

For Umewaka, Noh has a magic to it that can only be seen via the actor, musicians, or, even the audience’s state of mind, without relying on any lighting or stage props.

It can be enjoyed just as it is. “This is something very special in Noh,” Umewaka says.

Noh has been called the oldest living theatrical tradition in the world. While Greek tragedies predate Noh, there has not been a continuous lineage of performers of that art form since its inception.

Beginning in the 1340s, the art gained favor among the elite. That upper echelon of society includes the Umewaka family, whose Noh tradition began over 500 years ago. “I think Noh is very natural to me; it’s within me,” the actor says.

But that does not mean Umewaka has never entertained the idea of giving it up—after all, it is an awesome responsibility to follow his father and teacher, the legendary Noh master Naoyoshi Umewaka.

With guidance from his father, Umewaka began his study of Noh when he was 3 years old, a typical age to begin training.

Does one need to start the art so young to be considered a true master later on? No, says Umewaka.

One can achieve the status of semi-professional at any age, even as an elderly novice.

To become an independent performer, however, a disciple must undergo more than another 10 years of training from a master, before they can become an independent performer.

Many people wonder what they can expect to see at a Noh performance.

Rehearsal of “Yashima” at Shizuoka University of Art and Culture.

Rehearsal of “Yorimasa” at Shizuoka University of Art and Culture.

“Perhaps I can explain it in two ways. First, if you read the medieval Japanese literature Tale of Heike, an epic story about warriors, you’ll notice a lot of violence: seppuku (suicides), wars, and so on. Needless to say, when the main character dies in each tale, the story usually ends.

“But in Noh theater, the death of the main character is usually the starting point. So it’s usual that when the main character appears, a priest, who is usually anonymous, begins an oration about someone who has died, and then this orator goes to sleep.”

It is in the priest’s dream that the dead main character appears, usually in the form of a ghost. And when the priest awakes, he remains unsure as to whether he is awake or still asleep, because the aura of the ghost still hangs in the air.

“Are we in the real or dream world? This is one of the themes from the Heian period (794‑1185) of Japanese poetry. And Noh framed this theme—the “dream theory”—in the context of drama.”

But Noh is not just about ghosts—it deals with celestial maidens, angels, the “crazy woman,” Shintoism, tengu (a super natural being), and so on.

Naohiko Umewaka performs a contemporary Noh play “Ondine” at Kencho-ji in Kamakura.

Naohiko Umewaka performs a contemporary Noh play “Ondine” at Kencho-ji in Kamakura.

Noh has five types of plays, Umewaka explains. The first category usually deals with the gods and goddesses of Shintoism, including those of pine trees and waterfalls.

There is no bloodshed in this type. It is usually a happy, often quick and uncomplicated literary format.

The second type is of warriors, and is more in line with the themes found in the Tale of Heike.

The third category is of a “woman’s play.” It’s a slow piece in its outward appearance, but with fast movement internally.

“There are many things happening inside of the actor,” Umewaka says.

But it’s not just the actor; the musicians and the chorus as well undergo an internal fluster.

Based on the theme of a woman’s ghost, it is “a beautiful piece; nobody is killed; there is no retaliation; there is no bloodshed.”

Rather, the third category is full of love stories—ghosts that loved in loneliness—from the Tales of Ise (poems from the Heian period), or Japanese medieval diaries.

The fourth category features a “crazy woman,” who is usually found traveling with her child. At some point, the child is kidnapped.

The fifth category typically includes a supernatural being such as a fox.

And what of music, sound, and movement? “You may think that the music in Noh is background only. In fact, it is not. Noh theater music is one of the oldest Japanese music theories that we have.

“It is not based on harmonic chords. We don’t have harmony, but it is based on a strict theory.”

Noh music centers on a flute and percussion instruments. And the jiutai (Noh chorus) plays a very important role in a play.

And then, of course, there is the main actor, who can dance or move to the tunes of the instruments, the songs of the chorus, or both.

The choreography is always pre-determined, Umewaka adds; there is usually no room for individual alteration of choreography.

Umewaka holds a PhD in Theater and Arts from the University of London and has written contemporary plays that have been performed around the world.

Still, he points to his great-grandfather, Noh master Umewaka Minoru I (1828–1909), for having saved Noh and introducing it to the world. A prolific teacher, his students include US historian Ernest Fenollosa.

Umewaka sees the art through its ethereal ability to move people. “The magic of Noh needs to be maintained.

For instance, when a Noh actor appears and turns himself to the front, the whole scenery or situation changes, and this happens without lighting, but due to his internal control.

“Witnessing this in a Noh play is a very rare thing. So things like lighting changes are not actually necessary, as the actor can cause the same effect just by his stance or movements—but it is a rare ability.”

His comments suggest that Umewaka would prefer the art form stay within the Noh family of performers, but this is not the case.

“Noh should be freed from the family. It should be shared as theatrical wisdom.”

Umewaka’s own efforts to internationalize Noh and make it relevant in the 21st century are reflected in his own family: both of his children with his Lebanese wife gave their first Noh performance at the age of 3.