A Forum for and the Background of the Mediation of Dialogue in Ancient and Modern Academies

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

In Search of Japanese Otherness: Cultural Moments in Tokyo

I did not want to experience Tokyo as a mere tourist but I had unfortunately not plenty of time at my disposal to initiate myself into Japanese culture. I purchased a ticket for Noh theater, the oldest among the four famous forms of Japanese theater, beside Kyogen (the slapsticks that take place between Noh acts), Kabuki and Buncaru or puppet theater.
It was difficult to decipher at what time the play should begin. I was pleased to be informed that there was some time before the performance, which I could spend in the National Museum. In my first visit I could cherry-pick some Japanese old paintings I thought. I had visited a very impressive exhibition of Japanese paintings in Zurich in 2003. What struck me above all, were the many uncovered surfaces on the canvas or the sliding doors, although the painting was not non-finito: this is another treatment and approach of the vacuum, if I am allowed to characterize those clean surfaces as „vacuum“. As if the Japanese painters did not bother to cover all surfaces but did want to invite empty surfaces as well and just let them be there, surrounded and respected by the painted areas. The first brief encounter with Japanese painting had prompted me to long for further encounters. I did not expect to find the same paintings I had encountered in Zurich. But there they were in the rooms of the National Museum in Tokyo. In Zurich the exhibition was small and the atmosphere was almost catanyctic. As if the cultural fragments need to leave the country of their origin time and again, and be presented somewhere else.
After the museum I bumped into Rodin’s Gates of Hell! I had forgotten there is a copy in Tokyo. Thanks to very polite, or Japanese, passengers, I could afterwards find my way to the subway station and finally reach the Noh theater.

The Noh play I attended had the title „Kasumikai“. I was the only non-Japanese among the audience. I encountered enough of the otherness I had eagerly anticipated to receive as far as this is possible. Not a single English word, no introduction for „beginners“ like myself was provided. Noh acts have often a comical intermezzo. I was unable to understand what was going on in the dramatic three parts but at least I could laugh at some moments of this comical scene. Extremely slow movements, psalmodic singing and dancing, and a lot of silence. I was alienated, but that was exactly what I wanted: an unmediated encounter of otherness in Japanese culture. Could someone of our Japanese friends give me some clue for the second and third acts of this play? Ms Maki Kajiyama (the IPS travel agent in Tokyo) kindly informed me of the story that takes place in the first act, which is called "The Wooden Cradle" (Izutsu), a classic Noh play written by Zeami, the dominant figure in the early history of Noh theatre. I recalled the three different narrations in Kurosawa’s „Rasomon“ as I read the Noh plot. In this Noh act, we observe a similar interest in different narrative perspectives. The same story (in the case of this Noh play a love story) is narrated twice by the ghost of the dead woman. For the ones who would have the leisure to delve into the Japanese Theater: Karen Brazell (ed.), Traditional Japanese Theater: An Anthology of Plays, New York 1998.

My brief cultural report ends with a tip for theater lovers: If you wish to contemplate peacefully a Noh experience, do avoid Shibuya Square afterwards: It must have been the Sunday rush hour; I haven’t been among such crowds in my entire life.



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