Noh Theater, the Sacred Foundation of Japanese Action

Below is an action breakdown that’s not so much about action. This post is more about the spirit behind action. Our subject is Mr. Udaka, a Noh theater performer and mask-maker. Noh theater stems from the 1300s, and like any theatrical art form Noh is a precursor to modern action. If you want to understand Japanese action with its emphasis on poses and unique beats between action, study Noh.

In Noh theater the performer wears a mask, not to just pretend to be a character, but to “enter the realm of gods” (1:09), becoming possessed by the character represented by the mask. In Udaka’s own words (2:06), “The actors use a mask, a Noh mask, without fail, in order to reincarnate past occurrences in present times. In other words, the actor wearing a Noh mask is not acting as a modern-day person, but as a spirit or wraith.”

The sacred history of Noh stems from its origins as “monkey music” (Saragaku, 1:51), which shares a common origin in the monkey king legend that is prominant China and India. We might see Noh as a fun cosplay enterprise, but we should take Udaka’s own words more seriously than this. Cosplayers would never admit to being possessed by Iron Man, but Udaka-san’s an honest man and admits that, in Noh, the dedicated performer becomes totally compromised by the spirit world.

In The Puppet of Desire: The Psychology of Hysteria, Possession, and Hypnosis (trans. Eugene Webb, Stanford University Press, 1991) Jean Michel Oughourlian posits that possession rites aren’t simple entertainment affairs. While the audience watches the possession rite for recreation (“re-creation” is very telling here), all possession rituals imbibe the subject with a sort of “spiritual package” that transmits traditional cultural norms in one big download. The subject becomes the spirit for a moment in time.

Why would someone subject themselves to a possession rite? In Oughourlian’s analysis of the raw data of anthropologists like Frazer and Levi-Strauss, possession rites are no different than hypnosis. The subject has a problem, anything from an addiction to a spat of envy or whatever else might disrupt the community (and could contaminate them). These problems in Oughourlian’s view stem from the ego’s attempts to “backdate” the subject’s desires before his rival’s. For example, bouts of envy over a woman SHOULD be easily resolved by reminding the subject that the woman belonged to someone else first. In that fantasy world rationality reigns king and envy over money and success could be quickly eliminated. But our egos are tasked with reversing time to legitimize our desires starting around age 2. We become convinced that our desires came first. To correct this reversed timeline, clinical help is sought.

Jean Michel Oughourlian on desire

The doctor, usually a shaman, attaches the “resolving spirit” to the subject through music, dancing, and other contagious art forms. The subject receives the spirit mostly against their will, but the spirit, a new trusted model for the subject, has the effect of correcting the misaligned timeline during the possession. The cathartic effect is: hey buddy, look at your jacked up timeline. Your friend had the girl first, then you came in and messed things up. The subject believes for a moment that they’ve had a self-realization, repairing (at least in part) the desire timeline. A hypnotist functions the same way, as does EMDR, both of which reposition emotional issues into rational parts of the brain for proper processing. After a brief exorcism ritual, the spirit leaves, and the subject is left with the embarrassing realization that they messed up, but with some additional tools (and maybe a restraining order) they can now right their wrongs.

Possession ritual in Venezuela

Noh theater is a large-scale possession rite. Anybody who wants to imbibe themselves with the spirit of the ancients just has to follow Mr. Udaka’s methods. He uses couched, dramatic terms when describing the possession experience (6:30): “When you can perform without thinking and it surfaces naturally, once you reach that level, you will be able to experience a shining instance of serendipity.” Serendipity is the clarity of the possession experience. At least, it’s clarifying in the sense that you’re taking on a spirit that’s not your own. Imbibing spirits is also another term for getting drunk off your ass. Careful which spirits you drink.

The pacing of Noh gives us some insights into modern, Japanese physical art forms. When looking at the style of the Japan Action Club, founded by Sonny Chiba, you see an emphasis on poses and silhouettes. These are theatrical for a reason: the Japan Action Club is the film extension of Japanese theater. Beats between movements, called ma, are critical to the overall action design. Japan Action Club (now Japan Action Enterprise, JAE) members criticized undercranking, a standard feature of Hong Kong action cinema, claiming that it threatened to eliminate the ma in between movements1. The action in Junya Takagi’s Bad History (1989) epitomizes ma with lengthy, uncut, wide takes.

Takagi Junya
Bad History (1989)

Note the timing between movements (ma).

The ma between movements in Japanese action, epitomized by the Japan Action Club from its theatrical roots, gives Japanese action its distinct flavor. It’s something I never understood or appreciated until I worked as a motion capture stuntman on a Japanese game and developed the action understanding to even see it myself. Do the spiritual foundations of Noh theater permeate Japanese ma-based action? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Udaka ends the lesson as he talks to his ancestors at a cemetery. He rightly claims that as Noh disappears Japan is becoming a “robotic country driven solely by pure economics” (7:52). Removing the sacred from the people is the task of tyrants who destroy shared tradition to prop up their regime as the sole center of deferral. Even if you don’t defer to the same gods as Mr. Udaka, you can agree with his implication: the death of Noh is the death of Japanese ancestor-worship, the death of shared Japanese tradition.

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1:09 “I can enter the realm of gods.”
1:51 Started out as Saragaku “monkey music”, from the monkey king, deep ties to the sacred world
3:19 Making his own masks out of wood
5:20 “When you have to think while performing the Noh dance, for example when you start wondering what are the next lyrics, or shoudl I be dancing like this next… It’s not a good sign when your mind staerts wantering like that.
6:30 “When you can perform without thinking and it surfaces naturally, once you reach that level, you will be able to experience a shining instance of serendipity
7:11 Bisiting and speaking to ancestors
7:30 Desire to maintain sacred institutions like Noh, tea ceremony, flower arrangements (ikebana) and martial arts.

1. Interview, Yutaka Nozawa, Dec 10 2020. Many thanks to Yutaka for his insights.