PENANG, Malaysia -- A man dressed in heavy robes moves slowly across a platform while the sound of drums intensifies in a dramatic crescendo. His steps are as light as they are powerfully choreographed, every expert movement contributing to heighten the tension in the room.
Most haunting of all is a mask slung over the man's face: a golden, horned and other-worldly visage set between the performer and the crowd around him. A forbidding barrier with a demonic grin. This is Noh drama, one of Japan's oldest and most traditional forms of theater, which dates to the 14th century. It is an art so exclusive that its secretive tradition risks causing its decline.
"Noh has become less and less popular, even among its loyal audiences. I think that today, Noh actors should experience some kind of unprecedented revolution within their own minds, something new that has nothing to do with altering the classical form," Naohiko Umewaka, a Noh master, told the Nikkei Asian Review.
An austere man who breaks out in a hearty smile when mentioning his love for traveling and good wine, Umewaka is one of Japan's living masters of Noh. Trained in the art by his late father, Naoyoshi Umewaka, until he was 15 years old, Naohiko went on to study the impact of esoteric concepts on Noh's traditional choreography, earning a doctorate in drama from the University of London in 1995.
Originally developed to entertain the Shogun warriors and wealthy elites of medieval Japan, Noh is the heritage of a few families of Japanese performers who treasure choreographic manuals called katazuke. Handed down exclusively by players of the same family between generations, these tomes carefully explain every aspect of the performance, and have never been revealed to outsiders.
The traditional corpus of Noh comprises about 200 plays whose performance may vary based on the rules of each family's katazuke. All the manuals teach performers to strike a balance between Noh's two opposite choreographic elements: the visual, which is immediately perceived by audiences, and the metaphysical, which is considered to be the driving force behind the mask. Actors must control the metaphysical element to summon the magical powers of a Noh performance.
Noh's complex background and rigid set of rules are time-consuming to learn and hard to market to international audiences. Thus, the art risks remaining trapped within Japan's borders, or limited to small elite audiences. But to Umewaka, revamping Noh and bringing it up to speed with modernity is just a matter of changing the perception of the art in the performers' minds.
He likens this process to refurbishing a laptop. "A computer's hardware is like a form of classical dance: they both function thanks to adequate software. In other words, there's no need to buy a new computer when we can simply install a new operating system," he said.
For this reason, Umewaka has broken from the tradition of his family's katazuke, rebranding Noh to save it from self-absorption, and making it more accessible to modern audiences. "However, new operating systems eat up more memory and require faster processors. Noh is the same: An actor's internal update needs more energy than a mere change of his external performance," he said. "I believe the art is dying because of the actors' confidence without a cause: if they are satisfied with their outdated operative systems, then the whole Noh dies."
Umewaka has already tested the limits of his revolutionary attitude by bringing his existential Noh play, "The Italian Restaurant,"around the world. Dealing primarily with food as a metaphor for life, the restaurant of the title is an ethereal space. In the play, the restaurant has burned down, and all the characters are dead spirits interacting in limbo. In this quirky afterlife, the restaurant's premises keep shifting -- from an eating room to a pedestrian walk; from an apartment to a bedroom -- while the ghosts tell their stories.
"I wrote this play as a person, not as a Noh master. My training is just incidental, and yet crucial at once: I tried to get away from tradition as much as I could, even if I believe that spectators may still perceive 'The Italian Restaurant' as a contemporary Noh performance. Quoting my own play, 'the form of Noh theater has started to contaminate my daily life,'" Umewaka said with a smile.
"The Italian Restaurant" has evolved by traveling to the Philippines, Turkey, Italy and Lebanon. An updated version is about to be performed in Malaysia. Each time, it is Umewaka who dons the haunting golden mask, supported by unmasked local performers untrained in Noh. "I consider [it] less important to teach actors about Noh's physical technique for one forthcoming show," Umewaka said. "Indeed, based on traditional teachings, making the simplest Noh walk look plausible on stage could take perhaps two to three years of study. I prefer to deal with contemporary acting, as it suits me better."
Umewaka's upcoming Malaysian appearance is coordinated by Penang-based Ombak-Ombak ARTStudio. He will appear on stage with Aida Redza, a leading Malay performer and choreographer known for her tradition-breaking, highly innovative dance work. In 2016, her successful play "Moved by Padi" -- a multi-arts collaborative show focused on the ritual importance of rice in Southeast Asia -- transformed the urban Macallum district in George Town, the state capital, into a paddy field transported from the countryside.
Aida and Umewaka first met in 1997, working on a rendition of William Shakespeare's "King Lear" directed by Singaporean dramatist Ong Keng Sen. "I had to learn the basics of Noh in order to perform the shadow of the [character] that Naohiko was playing," Aida told the Nikkei Asian Review.
"In 1998 and 1999 we toured in Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and Australia. We kept in touch, but I haven't seen Naohiko ever since," said Aida. Umewaka wanted her to join his production in Turkey, but Aida was committed elsewhere. "I reconnected with him only last year while I visited Shizuoka Performing Arts Center," said the Malaysian choreographer.
It was then that the two artists decided to bring Umewaka's modernized Noh play to Malaysia. In August, Umewaka, Aida and a troupe of five Malaysian actors will perform "The Italian Restaurant" in Penang as part of the George Town Festival. They will also travel to Kuala Lumpur to perform Aida's play "Entranced: An Evening with a Ghost" at the Diversecity Kuala Lumpur International Arts Festival.
Aida fully supports Umewaka's revolutionary attitude. "I know there have been numerous attempts to introduce Noh abroad, and in some cases, even to update the form. But to me, their exchange is too top-down, like a one-way transfer from a master to a student," she said. "In Noh, breathing and respiration are very important to the use of vocals and choreography. In my own Malay tradition, it's all about dominating the wind, being entranced by it -- the concept of masuk angin -- akin to a state of shamanic power. With this collaboration, Naohiko and I are trying to 'exchange our inner winds,' passing concepts between Japanese and Malaysian culture."
In March, Umewaka traveled to Malaysia to scout for actors and conduct master classes at universities in Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Tanjung Malim. His return is eagerly awaited. "Malaysia is one of the most complex countries I ever visited," said Umewaka. "There's spirituality, religion, economic and historical heritage, and so much more, all intertwined. It's historical and modern at the same time."
The question now is how Malaysian audiences will receive Umewaka's and Aida's teamwork. "I'm not too concerned with how a Noh performance would be received here ... but maybe I should be," Umewaka said.