Seven hundred years after it first emerged in Japan, Noh classical theatre will be performed in Cambodia for the first time next month, in front of a star-studded crowd at the foot of Bayon Temple.
Derived from the Japanese word for “skill” or “talent”, Noh is considered to be the world’s oldest continuing theatre tradition, according to Yoshi Abe, second secretary of the Japanese Embassy in Cambodia. Noh involves mask-wearing actors performing Japanese folk tales in heavily stylised song and dance routines, and has been consistently performed since the 14th century, outstripping the duration of western renaissance theatre.
Abe helped organise the upcoming performance, which includes 30 actors from the renowned Kita School in Tokyo, and said that he hopes the masks, music, and especially the dancing, will go down well with a Cambodian audience.
“Cambodia has a long tradition of dance, so we thought this type of theatre might be appealing. The performance is free and open to anybody; its primary purpose is to promote cultural exchange between Cambodia and Japan.”
Drawn from an anthology of 250 plays, most dating back hundreds of years, Noh actors train individually and don’t rehearse as a troupe until the day before each performance, in order to give each show a fresh feel.
This unusual rehearsal technique, or lack of one, evolved from medieval Japanese philosophy, in particular the idea of transience, best summed up in the saying, “ichi-go ichi-e”, or “one chance, one meeting.”
Philosophy, aesthetics and tradition are key parts of Noh performances, said Takanobu Kitagawa, chairman of the International Cultural Exchange Organisation, adding that the unbroken legacy of the theatre makes it unique as a performance art.
“Shakespeare left a great legacy to modern drama, but he was born 200 years later than Zeami, a person who is said to have brought Noh to perfection.”
The October 25 performance outside Bayon will be followed by a second show the following night at Chaktomuk Hall in Phnom Penh, and both will be attended by VIP guests, including Princess Norodom Marie and government officials.
Abe said that the show is part of an effort to bring more Japanese culture to the kingdom. He added that while Japan is a popular country with Cambodians because of its humanitarian work and role during the UNTAC period, he would like to see it known for more than robots and sushi.
“I think the impression of Japan overall is quite good because we were involved in the peace process, but Cambodian’s information about Japan and Japanese people is limited. When people are asked their impression of Japan they always talk about economy and high-tech science and there are cultural aspects they don’t know much about, that’s my impression, and what we’re trying to change.”
Most of the Cambodians in the audience will be seeing Japanese classical theatre up close for the first time, but they won’t be alone.
Abe said that despite living in Tokyo for many years between overseas stints as a diplomat, he has never watched Noh performance live.
“Actually I haven’t watched Noh theatre before, I’ve seen some on TV and been to Kabuki a couple of times, but I will be at this one.”