Found in translation: communicating through Noh

By Elliot Greenberger

For the month of June 2003, I rang up New Yorkers at the non-air-conditioned Astor Place Kmart next to a girl whose name was Unique. The following months offered a change of venue as I found myself surrounded by millions of people whose names were also unique — but that was because I went to Japan, where none of the names sounded like mine. While Kmart provided some last-minute cash, Japan provided an opportunity to study the ancient art of Noh-drama, a highly stylized, highly poetic, dance-based performance that thrived in the medieval era and continues to this day.

So when I returned to campus last August, everyone I vaguely knew asked me the same question: “How was Japan?” I wished I had the courage to lie and say that my plans had fallen through and that I spent my fellowship money constructing a shrine to Ally Hilfiger and Jaime Gleicher of the MTV summer hit, “Rich Girls.” It wasn’t that I had a horrible experience — for quite the opposite was true — but rather, like many other students, I didn’t have the time or the words to convey five weeks of my summer in two minutes.

Now, however, thanks to the genius of Sophia Coppola, I’m loaded with a 10-second answer that would start my interrogators on their way, and start me on mine: “Have you ever seen ‘Lost in Translation’?” I’d ask. “Yeah, well, you know Bob Harris, the guy Bill Murray plays? I really identify with what he went through.”

To some extent I wouldn’t be entirely lying. Remove Harris’ thinning hair, his faded celebrity, his troubled marriage and his stint as spokesman for Suntory whiskey, and there stands a portrait of me: a stranger in a foreign land, searching for something that feels like home. And while Bob Harris eventually found comfort in the arms of a fellow American, he never quite connected with the Japanese and their seemingly alien way of life.

I have to admit, though, that my Japanese language skills could knock his out of the ballpark faster than you can say “Matsui.” Not only was I able to astound the Japanese with my ability to count from one to 99, but I could also garner looks of incredulity after reciting the other two Japanese words in my vocabulary: “kitchen princess.” (Only in retrospect do I realize their astonishment was more in disbelief than in admiration, but that is neither here nor there).

Fortunately, the Kyoto Arts Center provided our eight-person class with a translator, alleviating some of my linguistic limitations. We rehearsed every day for three weeks, each learning an utai, a small section of a play that we would eventually perform in a recital at the historical Oe Theater in the heart of Kyoto. My piece was called “Kiyotsune,” and it told the story of a Samurai warrior who firmly consoles his wife as he leaves for battle.

Three Noh Masters led our class, all of whom were in their thirties and had been training in the art since they could stand on their own. As with many of Japan’s traditional arts, the older generations pass down their wisdom and technique to their children, transmitting their secrets through daily lessons taught from a young age. Needless to say, as a 20-year-old American taking a crash course in the art of Noh, I would not be headlining in Japan any time soon. Shingo-san, the head Master, made this clear from the beginning. “You will not perform this piece splendidly,” he said with a boyish grin, “so just do your best to be satisfied by your performance.”

His words were incredibly intimidating, and yet there was something comforting in his fatherliness. After our lessons began, I discovered that even though the translator could tell me that I had to angle my foot out a bit more, the most effective communication took place between my body and those of my Masters. I watched their movements and adapted them as my own; as we spoke in the language of the body, we transcended the need for translation.

Gradually I began to see when my arms were raised too high, and when I had to open my fan more swiftly and directly. And more than just knowing it, I started to feel the way in which there was a spirituality that existed in these physicalities, an effort to reach through meditation zones of thought that existed beyond the range of verbal expression. Like the tea ceremony and flower arrangement that flourished during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods, Noh also requires the diligent physical, mental and spiritual discipline reminiscent of arduous religious practices.

Unlike the often over-produced American theater and film, Noh adheres to a Japanese sense of beauty that emerged during the Kitayama period and can still be seen in the contemporary cultural aesthetic: splendor used with restraint. The costumes, for instance, are usually quite elegant, and yet they lack any sense of gaudiness when placed on the bare Noh stage.

More significantly, however, Noh acting involves a concentration of expression and a vigorous physical control that favors inner profundity over ostentatious display. It is the very expression by the restraint of expression that allows the audience to experience moments of rarity and truth when the actor tilts his head with the most measured delicacy.

In the weeks leading up to the recital, I tried my best to ensure I wasn’t merely performing the correct moves, but that I was also striving towards a transcendental truth in my work. Even as an extreme amateur, I wanted my performance of the Samurai warrior to invoke something in the audience that made them contemplate the human condition in addition to my performance.

The night of the recital, after the students and the Masters had hopped from bar to bar in celebration of our accomplishments, Shingo-san pulled me aside, along with the translator who had been with us on our night of festivities. There was something in his boyish smirk that resonated with his disclaimer at the beginning of the class; I began to consider the possibility that I did succeed in the art and that my performance exceeded all of his expectations for an American student. He put his hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye with conviction, and all I know is that the words that followed lacked the phrase “kitchen princess.” When he had finished, I looked toward the translator for the meaning: “That head shift in the middle of the piece was beginning to become very dynamic.”

One of the most important lessons I learned in Japan was the phrase “ichigo ichie,” a concept that stems from the Japanese tea ceremony, literally meaning, “one time, one meeting.” These two Japanese words pointed to the fact that each gathering is an opportunity for an experience that will never occur again in one’s life, and it demands an appreciation and recognition for the individuality of each moment.

This was certainly the case for my summer experience, for even if I find myself in Japan again, the faces will have changed, the cultural climate will have shifted, and I will have quite a few more years on me. Perhaps in this phrase I have found the perfect answer to the question, “How was Japan?” — one that is not sarcastic or curt or evasive. The answer will seem cliche, but it is sincere and direct: “It was unique. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Elliot Greenberger performs his piece, “Kiyotsune,” while the three Noh Masters watch in the background.
Courtesy ElliotGreenberger
Elliot Greenberger performs his piece, “Kiyotsune,” while the three Noh Masters watch in the background.

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