Man Behind the Mask

Noh actor Michishige Udaka takes us backstage

Humble, serious, and precise, Michishige Udaka makes a perfect Noh scholar, performer, mask carver, composer, and teacher—a person who knows the rules of the ancient performance art so well that he can break them with style and grace. His current goal is to push Noh theater out of its comfort zone, moving it from insular to international, by inaugurating programs that train people from outside Japan to become Noh performers and by writing contemporary plays.

Udaka defines the oldest type of theater still performed in Japan as, “History of the East and West told by the Japanese.” He makes it clear that the voice telling these stories is a mix of cultural perspectives: “Japanese culture is an onion. Take off one layer of Chinese influence, another of Indian influence, yet another of European, and keep going to its core.”

  • Noh Theater is the oldest type of theater still performed in Japan. The musical drama tells a tale by portraying the cathartic release of the main character. A quaint stage and limited number of characters allow for an actor’s voice, music, movement, wardrobe, and richly carved mask to resonate.
  • Shite is the main character in a Noh play, who in their journey normally begin as an ordinary person and later transforms into the ghost of a famous person.
  • Yūgen translates as “profound grace” and is known as the highest principle of Noh theater. The aesthetic idea describes an ineffable moment of pure beauty that can only be attained by the most practiced, patient, and talented Noh actors.
  • Waki is a secondary character in a Noh play, whose role accentuates the journey of the main character called the shite.

Udaka’s ancestors who were not part of Noh theater were still deeply rooted in art and politics. His relative Kawada Shōryō, born in 1824, was a samurai scholar and painter. Shōryō used his archive of historical events to oppose Japan’s policy of isolationism. For example, his interview with one of the first men to visit America celebrated a dialogue between cultures.

Or consider Udaka’s father, Zuisei, a painter and historian, who encouraged his son to learn chant and dance, at which Udaka excelled from a young age. Udaka was not only a star pupil in theater. He also had a knack for sculpture that would lead him to carve his own masks later in life.

Udaka was always drawn to faces and found excuses to incorporate them into his work. In junior high he was given an assignment to create a mailbox, so he made an extraordinary box. The facade depicted the face of Hannya, the jealous female demon, whose mouth opened to receive mail. Then, in high school, while apprenticing with Noh master Kongō Iwao II, Udaka walked into a room full of Noh mask carvers and thought to himself, “They stole my job!”

Ever since then Udaka’s performance and mask carving have been one and the same, and he can’t see it any other way:

“For me, they aren’t different. They’re the same task, and both necessary. When I perform Noh, the mask is an extension of my performance, of myself.”

Noh theater has been in Udaka’s blood for three centuries, but the art form itself can be linked back to sangaku, an ancient circuslike entertainment brought to Japan from China in the early eighth century. By the fourteenth century, an extension of sangaku, mixed with indigenous performance and outside mythology and folklore, became known as Noh theater and was popularized by renowned actor and playwright Kan’ami Kiyotsugu and his equally well-known son, Zeami Motokiyo. Their performances sparked interest from aristocrats and the samurai class, who soon came to cherish Noh theater. Their support allowed it to blossom into the art form we know today.

Rather than a story and plot, a traditional Noh performance often unfurls as a tale portraying the cathartic release of a character through dance, poetry, chant, and music. The abstract subject matter is based on fourteenth-century Buddhist thought, which holds that a person cannot find peace, even after death, if he or she still possesses a strong emotion or desire. To rid the character of such emotion, he or she—and sometimes companions—must embark upon a personal journey to a significant place in his or her life, such as a battlefield, or to confront an event, such as a love affair. The stage is sparse, with little visual stimuli besides the actors themselves, so the viewer finds details in the actor’s voice, music, movement, wardrobe, and mask.

The seduction of Noh theater comes from the principle of yūgen, which the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines as “profound grace.” The word has Chinese roots that reference the “dark” or “mysterious.” However, in Japanese, the aesthetic idea describes an ineffable moment of pure beauty that can only be attained by the most practiced, patient, and talented Noh actors.

Before speaking about yūgen, Udaka pauses, as if out of respect. He alludes to a tension between the planned and unplanned, human and nature, schedule and coincidence. Finally, he says, “I went out to lunch in the summertime. While I was eating, a bug flew around me. It really bothered me, so I reached out my hand and caught it! The next day, I went to the same restaurant, ordered the same lunch, and another bug flew around me. I tried to catch it, but missed. Since that lunch, I haven’t caught another fly. This may be yūgen.”

“But on an unexpected area of the stage, the light might shine so beautifully for a few moments that it moves you to tears.
That’s yūgen.

After more thought, Udaka continues, “I can’t do it. Of course, I can prepare; I can remember the chant and the movement; the instruments can play at the perfect time; everyone is in sync.

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Skills that have taken life-long devotion to hone; deliberate movements, specially-made tools, time-honored traditional arts. Japan has innumerable unique performing arts and crafts created by long-ago techniques, but these precious disciplines here are understood by few, and produced by fewer.

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