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Review: In Noh drama, forgiveness occurs beyond the grave

February 9, 2009 | 11:00 am

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The chance to kill one’s murderer -- how sweet it is and how astonishing to give it up and reconcile with the enemy. That is the climactic moment of Zeami’s 14th century Noh drama “Atsumori,” presented Friday at the Aratani/Japan America Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. The performance was by principal actor Shizuka Mikata and four other members of the Kanze School of Noh in Kyoto, Japan, in the company’s first U.S. tour.

Immediately, the mind objects: How can a man kill his murderer? Numerous short stories, not to mention Hollywood and European films, however, have readily accustomed us to accept such impossibilities, although virtually none with the moral depth found in Japan’s oldest, most intricate theater-art form.

The story derives from an account of an epic battle between two clans to control Japan at the end of the 12th century. Atsumori, a cultured but naive 17-year-old, is killed by the older general Kumagai. Overcome with guilt at killing someone so young and inexperienced, Kumagai abandons his warrior life to become the priest Rensei.

Years later, on a pilgrimage, Kumagai encounters Atsumori’s ghost, who recounts the story of their battle and rushes to behead him. Realizing, however, that his opponent has spent years praying for him, Atsumori drops his sword. “No, Rensei is not my enemy,” he says. “Pray for me again, oh pray for me again.” The two achieve salvation together.

Noh is an art of deliberate slowness in which any fast gesture or movement takes on particular resonance. It also does not extol the actor-dancer in a self-aggrandizing manner. His skill is in disappearing in the role and through inner intensity engaging the viewer’s imagination to fill out scenic and emotional details and generate a shared dramatic experience. The musicians, too, are self-effacing, entering, playing and exiting with seemingly ego-less meditative concentration.

In his resplendent robes, Mikata, the shiti or main character, traversed the stages of Atsumori’s transformation from vindictive ghost to released, enlightened figure with sensitive expertise. When he extended his arm and turned, it was easy to imagine the vast ocean he and his fellow soldiers faced when attacked from behind by the enemy.

Unable to reach the departing ships that saved members of his clan, Mikata showed Atsumori’s grievous desperation and deep, newly resolved determination to fight against Kumagai. But dropping the sword at the end of the scene when he has a chance to extract vengeance was so powerful a moment that one’s breath stopped.

Michiharu Wakebayashi, who remained seated throughout this part of the drama, was Rensei, the waki or “foil” figure. The two actors so fluently intoned their parts that it was difficult at times to distinguish one from the other.

The musicians were flutist Manabu Takeichi, Ichiro Kichisaka (small drum) and Masaru Kawamura (large drum).

The scene, about half an hour long, was adapted for budgetary reasons from the longer, more fully cast original production, according to remarks Mikata prepared for an introductory lecture-demonstration. (Although the tour continues to San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Denver, only Los Angeles was slated to get this introductory presentation.)

His remarks were translated into English by Robert Garfias, a professor of anthropology at UC Irvine. Mikata talked about how an actor uses his mask to express different emotions. He discussed the relationship between the costumes and the theme of the drama. He explained how the drummers coordinate their beats with vocal cues and how the flute produces its unusual sounds because of a bamboo insert that modifies the natural overtone series.

These are just a few key ideas about this complex art, but they were enlightening. And the drama’s theme of reconciliation between enemies could not be more timely.

-- Chris Pasles

Photo: Shizuka Mikata enacts the vengeful ghost Atsumori at the Aratani/Japan America Theatre. Credit: Stefano Paltera / For The Times

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