The first time I visited Japan I fell hard for the highly abstract, ritualized form of musical drama called Noh. My Japanese friends found this a little puzzling, since I couldn’t understand the dialogue, and there was no simultaneous translation such as one finds at the opera. Even they didn’t understand the arcane Japanese dialect from hundreds of years earlier. There were synopses of the plays, of course—usually just a few lines in a mimeographed program. My traveling companion and I were often the only Westerners at these performances, which were held in the late afternoon, adding to the oddness of the experience. The atmosphere was very different from the more popular Kabuki. No beer. No cheering, no talking in the house at all. Pretty soon, as the intricate rhythms and the rising and falling pitch of the atonal chanting start to work on your brain, you begin to get a feeling for the dramatic arcs.
Memory plays. Ghost stories.
Noh is the carrying forward of misfortune, of a stain of disgrace that won’t go away; fate unwinds in front of you. Most of the action takes place before the play begins. Characters speak from beyond the grave, recounting memories of betrayal, luckless love, suicide by drowning. (George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo is American Noh.) The clacking together of two wooden blocks signals a change of scene and releases a heavy sense of malaise into the present. Visitations from the underworld are routine. The weeping cherry tree on a bare stage turns out to be the tears shed by an abandoned lover waiting to tell her story.
What elevates these narratives of woe is the solemnity of their staging, which contributes to a feeling that the boundaries between past and present, human and spirit, have loosened or dissolved altogether. The slowed-down movement across an empty stage, the actors’ white masks, the plaintive chanting and its shattering rhythmic accompaniment, the even, undramatic lighting—the theatrical illusion is hard to account for, but after two or three hours’ immersion in the Noh world, I would begin to feel myself overtaken by an immeasurable sadness, with tears spilling down my face. Such exquisite perfection in the telling, so much suffering in the tale.
Walking mesmerized through the Rei Kawakubo retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum was the closest I’ve come since to the feeling of Noh theater. Without always understanding what I was looking at, I was gripped by the kind of melancholy that seems to accompany the toughest, most searching and demanding levels of beauty.
The exhibition design, a collaboration between Kawakubo and the Met curators, follows no perceptible chronology. Enclosures of various shapes—inverted cones, flattened spheres and semicircles, keyholes, ovals, triangles—contain the clothes, which are grouped by collection or theme. These frames are…
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