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November 6, 2002 - February 2, 2003 at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, West Hollywood

by Diane Calder

"Remembering the vanished days
I dance, waving at the moon
My flowerlike sleeves,
As if begging it to restore the past.”


A painstaking attempt to restore the past seems central to the major comprehensive exhibition, Miracles and Mischief: Noh and Kyógen Theater in Japan. From the moment the visitor walks through the gated entry and is caught up by the woodblock blow-up of a public noh performance, every detail suggests a far off time and place. Display cases floored with wooden planks imply that the costumes they hold have recently swept the cypress boards of a noh stage. Even impeccably researched information panels are crafted to stay in character.

A team lead by LACMA curator Sharon Sadako Takeda collaborated with the Agency for Cultural Affairs, Government of Japan for five years to amass this group of rare art objects from prestigious museum, shrine, temple, theater and family collections. The exquisite costumes, carved wooden masks, painted screens and lacquered musical instruments showcased in the exhibition date from as early as the 14th century.

By that time, noh had outgrown its humble origins in popular acrobatic and juggling acts to become an operatic production that merged elements of dance, drama, music and poetry into a highly aesthetic stage art. Under the leadership of dedicated performer-playwrights like Zeami, noh flourished. It grew into the official theater of the military government in the Edo period (1603-1868). After losing support in the societal reforms of the Meiji restoration (1868-1912), noh was performed less frequently. However, it left its mark on kabuki and newer types of Japanese theatre, including contemporary experimental fusion and butoh.

Time and space collide in noh to emphasize the essence of escape from attachment to the earthly world. Transitions between gods, warriors, beautiful women, demons, madmen and their ghosts are enhanced by flashbacks, costume changes and symbolic crossings over a wooden bridge. One small slow step taken by an actor may represent a full day’s journey. Every move is performed with the maximum of subtle restraint to imply yugen, “what lies beneath the surface.” Kyógen, by contrast, is a comic theater emphasizing cruder dialogue and coarser movements. Less musical than noh, it is traditionally performed alternately on the same program.

Folding screen, "Watching Noh" (detail),
Edo period, c. 1607, color/ink/gold
leaf on paper, 41 15/16 x 167 5/8".

"Omi-onna Mask," momoyama period,
mid-late 16th century, pigments
on cypress wood, 8 1/4 x 5 1/4".

“Karaori with Snow-laden Camellias and
Genji Clouds," Edo period, 18th century,
multicolored silk and gold-leaf paper
supplementary weft patterning
on silk twill, 59 1/16 x 55 1/8".

Noh-Kyógen handscroll, "Sambaso"
(detail), Edo period, 18th century, colors
and ink on paper, 14 1/2 x 1321".

Noh theater masks from the installation of “Miracles and Mischief: Noh and Kyógen Theater in Japan."

Noh and kyógen performances screen from discreetly positioned videos at various points in this exhibition, revealing the importance of the skill of mask makers and the actor’s posturing to enliven costumes and characters. Well-designed masks exaggerate the depth of the contours of the mouth, eye and brow, allowing for a variety of perceived expressions with changes in head orientation. Tilted up, they seem to smile faintly, but tilted down they become profoundly sad.

The more than thirty masks in the exhibition are categorized by type, age and purpose. Background information is offered on character types ranging from the smooth, white-faced Ómi-onna, (whose shaved eyebrows beg comparison with those of Mona Lisa), to the oldest known demon mask. An informative display documents the step-by-step transformation of a lightweight chunk of cypress into a delicately painted, life-like mask.

The masks will be on display through the duration of the exhibit, but the more light sensitive textiles will be shown in two rotations. This is a common practice in Japan, where the tradition of keying displays of art to seasonal change is tied to the presumed enhancement in value of precious objects on view only for restricted periods of time and/or designated as Important Cultural Properties (an honor bestowed on several of the works of art in this exhibition).

The costumes are classified and labeled to enable detailed study of their design, tailoring, weave structure, sleeve type, use, etc. However, many of them are so breathtakingly beautiful that any rational approach to viewing may initially give way to passion. Later, the realization that each garment was worn in accordance with the age, sex and social status of the character it helped portray can lead to questions about social, political, and gender defining considerations. Could there be a stronger contrast between the soft lined, silk embroidered, gold stenciled Nuihaku garments worn by male actors playing aristocratic female roles and the plain weave hemp Kataginu vests sporting brash paste resist patterns designated for commoners?

Don’t miss the section of the show featuring the dramatic story of Dójóji. It comes complete with a woman determined to marry a priest, her mutation into a snake with triangular scale-like patterns, and a temple bell that comes crashing down on her. There’s more. But after enjoying the accompanying video, resist the temptation to do what enthusiastic noh audience members purportedly did: express their appreciation for remarkable performances by stripping off articles of clothing and tossing them onstage.