Know Your Noh: A Celebration of Japanese Theatre

The Japanese theatrical tradition of Noh came to the Claremont Colleges for the week of Oct. 24. Noh, one of the world’s oldest forms of theater, dating back to the 14th century, mixes drama with song, dance, and masks to tell stories.

Isabella Ramos SC ’17 worked with Professors Anne Harley and Bruce Coats over the summer to plan the Noh Theater Festival. Ramos applied for and earned two Mellon Foundation Undergraduate Research Fellowships, which provided much of the funding for the project. Professor Harley emphasized the importance of the fellowship, stating that “this [project] could really only work if we had a Mellon because there’s such a huge amount of summertime work that, unless the student’s getting compensated, there’s no way for it to make sense.” 

Ramos is an art history major at Scripps with a focus on the arts of Asia. She became motivated to pursue Noh in her studies after handling Japanese woodblock prints from the Williamson Gallery in a handful of her classes.

The week of Noh featured a wide variety of events that were free and open to the public, including art exhibitions, lectures about Japanese art, and a musical performance commissioned specifically for this occasion.

Professor Coats curated artwork for On Stage: Japanese Theater Prints and Costumes, which is on display in the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripps until Dec. 17. Coats reviewed over 1000 Japanese theater prints from the Scripps College Collections over the last summer to choose what to include in the exhibit.

Coats said he initially selected the Noh theater prints based on the types of plays, “then looked for prints by different artists depicting the same play, to explore how artists translated the performance into a single image.”

Ramos' curated works are included in “The Tale of Genji” Reimagined, which will show at the Scripps Clark Humanities Museum until Nov. 19. She was inspired after taking Professor Coats’s class, Creating and Recreating Genji, her sophomore year. The gallery features woodblock prints from artist Ebina Masao. Each print depicts an event fromThe Tale of Genji, a classic work of Japanese literature written in the 11th century, often credited as being the world’s first novel. There are 54 chapters in The Tale of Genji, but Ramos chose to highlight nine in the exhibit. The woodblock prints featured in the gallery were then projected later on during the musical performance, Imagined Sceneries.

“I really wanted to explore and celebrate that recreation and imagination behind these prints,” said Ramos.

Ramos and Harley commissioned composer Koji Nakano to write Imagined Sceneries, which had its world premiere Oct. 29 in the Scripps Clark Humanities Museum. Having been corresponding with Nakano since January, Ramos found it "wonderful" to meet him for the first time at the performance, which was "standing-room only...people were rolling in chairs from the classics classrooms. The room had really positive energy," he noted.

The musical piece featured vocals by Ramos and Harley, as well as Grammy award-winning koto player, Yukiko Matsuyama. The koto is a thirteen-stringed form of a zither. It was also Ramos’s first time performing a koto.

Imagined Sceneries included audio recordings from the locations featured in The Tale of Genji, but set in today’s world.

“A lot of [the sounds] were traffic,” said Prof. Harley, “but there was one place that sounds similar to what it did back then and that’s the temple. That’s where [Nakano] starts the piece. There’s a bell that was played when he was there…and that invokes the beginning of the piece.”

Ramos added, “It’s out of the recognition that a lot of these sites that appeared in The Tale of Genji have disappeared from history and he just wants to recreate [the history] via those soundscapes and projections.”

Ramos emphasized that the week of Noh would not have been possible without the help of all of the professors involved. She is currently working on a “really long list of people to thank.”

When reflecting on Noh Theater Week, and especially Imagined Sceneries, Ramos said “I just felt a really positive energy that night. I just feel exhilarated when I go back to that memory.”