Japanese Noh tradition makes it way to Whitehorse

When Fumi Torigai was a child in Japan, he could sometimes hear his father singing traditional Noh stories. "Sometimes I sat beside him, and he also tried a little bit of the dancing..."

When Fumi Torigai was a child in Japan, he could sometimes hear his father singing traditional Noh stories.

“Sometimes I sat beside him, and he also tried a little bit of the dancing and I tried to learn how to walk – there’s a very special way of walking,” he says, a little bashfully.

“But that’s my childhood memory.”

Since coming to Canada 43 years ago, Torigai hasn’t heard many of those traditional stories or seen the dancing of the ancient Noh theatre.

The Japanese art form isn’t something you can just catch on the weekends. Not even in Vancouver.

But on May 8 Torigai will be able to see Noh in the Yukon.

“It’s a very, very rare opportunity for Whitehorse audiences to actually see it live and hear the sound of those instruments,” he said. “I am very excited about it for sure.”

Noh dates back to an era well before Shakespeare’s, but like Shakespeare’s work in Britain, Noh has a permanence in Japanese culture, said Torigai.

“Just like any masterpieces in any genre,” he said.

“People are people after all and Noh tells the story in a very unique form, but the message is very much the same, or common, with many other types of arts, deep arts.”

That traditional Noh form is strict and structured. It is the theatre of ancient aristocrats and it is very formal.

Noh performances are slow moving and traditionally, they could last all day long.

It has refined, elusive beauty, said Torigai, using the Japanese words wabi sabi.

“It’s very stylized and, as I say, generally very slow moving.

“It’s hard to really sit through awake,” he said laughing. “But if I may, the esthetics of Noh are very similar, and resonate with, the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. So if you think of that, I think somehow you will get some image.”


About 150 plays have been inherited through the generations and kept in their traditional form, he said. New plays aren’t written or created in Noh.

The traditional stories tend to focus on infamous warlords and ancient battles, or the relationships between gods and the people.

And while this traditional Japanese theatre may sound completely foreign, most of the globalized world is more familiar with it than we may think, thanks to the art form’s integral masks.

The masks play a big role in Noh, said Torigai.

The plays don’t use much of a set or props, apart from the masks. The number of actors is restricted to about four but each plays more than one character by wearing different masks.

To one side of the traditional Noh theatre, which is usually a Shinto shrine, there sit about eight singers, like a Greek chorus, singing in the background for the show’s entirety.

Torigai’s father used to be in one of these choruses for a hobby, and his penchant for practising is what brought those traditional stories into his childhood home.

There are also only four instruments used in traditional Noh theatre: the flute, the shoulder drum, the hip drum and the stick drum.

But lately, Noh theatre has begun a resurgence in Japan through the music.

Tsunao Yamai, the leader of the theatre troupe coming to Whitehorse, has been prominent in that revival.

In an attempt to bring younger generations back to this traditional art, Yamai has started collaborating in Noh with more modern musicians. Jazz musicians have supported traditional Noh stories, said Torigai, citing a recent example from a visit of Yamai’s troupe to Paris.

Yamai has also proudly promoted Noh in Japanese school curriculum.

“Tradition means so much and it’s not easy to change or bring new elements into it,” said Torigai. “Tradition must be kept, must be reserved to a good extent and to develop it into a new form is not easy.

“Is there any reason why a 700-year-old art form or tradition is still going strong? Well, strong is not the right word. It’s surviving if you like. It’s not widely enjoyed but still, of course, there is a small group of strong supporters.

“But now there seems to be a revival and change of thinking among the decision makers in education and teachers’ associations or what have you.

“And now they seem to be bringing in these art forms into the Japanese, regular curriculum and that’s definitely making a significant difference and I’m very glad to hear that.”

But the real secret of Noh’s survival and current resurgence may be found within its timeless stories, said Torigai.

In one Noh play, the main character is a high-ranking general of an ancient ruling clan in Japan. He foresaw the demise of the clan and tried to convince the leader. But no one would believe his prediction and the general became desperate. Eventually, he took his own life and what he warned about came true shortly after.

“That kind of story somehow appeals to modern people in Japan in the modern society in which, unfortunately, there are so many people who take their own lives and that’s happening mostly because of the economic difficulties,” said Torigai. “So people living in Japan, seeing what’s happening around them, and a story like that resonates very deeply with them.”

On Tuesday, Yamai will be demonstrating an excerpt from Noh’s most famous play called Hagoromo, which means the God’s Regalia.

He will be offering a lecture before the demonstration, translated by Torigai, on Noh and its history.

“With Noh, it helps to be aware of history, underlying esthetics and philosophy,” he said.

The theatre style originated for the upper echelons of traditional Japanese society – unlike its parallel ancient theatre, Kabuki, which was made for the masses and is still very popular. Noh is less accessible or approachable than Kabuki and demands a little more effort from its audience.

Noh is like the Western world’s opera, where Kabuki is more like Broadway.

“But honestly, if you really try to get into it, there are a lot of things you can find, a lot of things in common you can relate to,” said Torigai. “Sometimes it’s not easy. It may take some effort, but all real good art forms appeal to people deep inside.

“Noh may not be easy to approach in a way but there is something very special, very, very beautiful. You just have to approach it with an open mind. And at the end of the day, if you don’t like it, you don’t like it. That’s OK. That’s life. That’s reality. But you might. And then you get to like something that you didn’t know at all before. And that’s the fun of life: finding out something new everyday.”

The free Noh demonstration will be at the Yukon Arts Centre at 7 p.m. on May 8.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at