Whitehorse audience will have a rare opportunity next week to experience a form of classical Japanese theatre that dates back almost 700 years.

Although not as well-known in Western circles as the other two main types of Japanese theatre, Kabuki (dance-drama) and Bunraku (puppet theatre), Noh theatre commands a respected place in Japanese culture.

Some 200 traditional Noh stories are still performed regularly, and newer ones are being written based on the highly-stylized art form.

Whitehorse resident Fumi Torigai’s exposure to Noh dates back “over half a century” to his high school days, although he admits he has only “a very, very vague memory” which he has recently been refreshing with internet research.

A few years ago, he visited one of the most famous Noh theatres, near Hiroshima.

“That one has part of a shrine that is set up so it can be used for a Noh stage, and that was just beautiful,” he says.

As president of the Japanese Canadian Association of Yukon, Torigai will be at the Yukon Arts Centre next Tuesday evening

That’s when one of Japan’s foremost Noh actors, Tsunao Yamai , of the Komparu School of Noh Theatre, will present a lecture and demonstration of Noh, together with four other actors/musicians.

Tsunao Yamai, one of Japan’s foremost Noh Theatre actors PHOTO: courtesy of Consulate General of Japan, Vancouver

The main actor wears a character mask and elaborate costume PHOTO: courtesy of Consulate General of Japan, Vancouver

WithTorigai acting as interpreter, Yamai spoke about the ongoing appeal of Noh in a recent telephone conversation from Tokyo.

“Noh is a kind of art form that expresses human emotions of anger and joy and everything,” Yamai explained.

“That’s why it appeals to everyone who feels those emotions deep inside. And that is why it has power to appeal to modern people, as well as it did 600 years ago.”

As an example, Yamai cited one traditional story, in which a warrior whose clan was at the height of its power tried to warn his people that their extravagant lifestyle would lead to the clan’s downfall.

Frustrated that they would not heed his warnings, he took his own life.

“There are lots of people who see others around them committing suicide, and they feel their desperation,” he said.

“They somehow identify with that warrior who foresaw the demise of the clan and took his own life. To young audiences, that kind of story just reverberates.”

The Komparu School performs about 170 distinct Noh stories “just about exactly as they have been performed before,” Yamai explained.

“Other schools do create new works, but the Komparu School is mostly focused on the old, traditional, classical pieces.”

Yamai, who is now 39, began studying the intricate, highly-stylized art form when he was just five years old.

In Noh theatre, the main actor wears a mask and an ornate costume. Female characters are performed by men.

There are about 200 traditional Noh masks, representing such characters as gods, warriors and demons. A Noh performance may last for hours and consist of different stories interspersed with comedic and musical elements.

A Noh actor has to learn many skills and forms of movement, Yamai said. He developed his own craft by imitating his master and learning “through the body” rather by studying theory.

Despite its nearly 700-year lineage, Noh theatre has not been taught in Japanese schools the way Shakespeare is taught in the English-speaking world, until very recently, Yamai said.

“Only maybe in the past five or six years, they started to change and include the study of classical art forms in the school systems.”

In Whitehorse, Yamai and his colleagues will perform a few short dances and explain the costumes, characters and instruments in the traditional Noh presentation.

To conclude the evening, Yamai will dance one of the most famous pieces in the Noh repertoire.

“It’s called Hagoromo, which is a story about God coming from above to the human world and bringing happiness and prosperity to the people,” he explained.

The free event takes place Tuesday, May 8 at 7 p.m.

It is being presented jointly by the Consulate General of Japan in Vancouver and the JCAY, with financial sponsorship from the Japan Foundation and Japan’s Cultural Affairs Agency.