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Noh and the Natural World

Feature

As Noh Reimagined returns to Kings Place in June 2020, curator Akiko Yanagisawa reflects on the centrality of nature to Japanese culture.

Since ancient times, Japanese people have lived with natural phenomena, such as earthquakes and tsunamis, that could destroy them at any time. Despite, or perhaps because of this, the Japanese have long worshipped the natural world, believing that kami (deity spirits) reside in every aspect of nature. The natural world is something to celebrate and admire, a part of everyday life. Nature is central to culture in Japan, including folk festivals, food, music, poetry, design and gardening. In Japanese Noh theatre, there are many stories in which humans live in harmony with nature. In Takasago, an old couple confess that they are an incarnation of two pine trees. In Saigyo-Zakura (highlights of which will be performed at this year’s Noh Reimagined), the renowned 12th-century monk and poet Saigyo converses with the spirit of an old cherry tree. In a famous poem, he even dreams of dying surrounded by blossoms: ‘Let me die in spring under the blossoming trees; let it be around that full moon of Kisaragi month.’

‘The Japanese have long worshipped the natural world, believing that kami (deity spirits) reside in every aspect of nature’

Older people are respected figures in Noh, probably because ageing is regarded as a sublime work of nature. The transience of nature, knowing that life leads to death and we are part of this natural process, lies deep in the hearts and minds of Japanese people, as reflected in the concept of mujo, meaning impermanence, transience or mutability.

For me, Noh is the art of mujo. Noh often features ghosts telling stories of their past lives. These stories do not have conventional happy endings; instead, the characters succumb to and accept their fates, reminding us that we human beings are part of a natural cycle of life and death. This afternoon, I felt a sense of mujo as I walked under a row of cherry trees, hearing a chorus of cicadas. Looking down at the pavement, I saw several cicadas whose short lives were over. Noh – the oldest performing art in the world – quietly tells us how to perceive our relationship to nature by drawing our attention to this same idea: that we are part of the natural world, subject to the same cycles, the same powers of nature, as every living thing.

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