There are plenty of ways to experience yūgen or “beauty, with a tinge of sadness,” according to the great 14th- and 15th- century Japanese playwright, Zeami. Just watch a flower grow out of a rock, the sun’s descent behind a flower-clad hill, or once visible ocean ships obscured by far-off islands.
It’s the same feeling one gets by absorbing the pomp and pathos of A Noh Christmas Carol (opening Thu/5 at Theatre of Yugen). Written by Theatre of Yugen founder Yuriko Doi and Cienna Stewart and directed by Nick Ishimaru, A Noh Christmas Carol, now in its third year, is a unique reimagining of Charles Dickens’ classic 1843 novella.
Here, Victorian-era England has been replaced by Meiji-era Japan and miserly businessman Ebenezer Scrooge and his late business partner Jacob Marley with Ebezo Sukurooji and Jakube Mashima. The story of a man who’s reminded of the true meaning of Christmas by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future is told using a mix of centuries-old Japanese theatrical forms — Noh, kyogen, kabuki, and butoh — as well as traditional music and costumes.
I spoke to Nick Ishimaru, Theatre of Yugen’s artistic director, about reinventing A Christmas Carol, the story’s message of altruism, and how we must step up our support of local theaters this giving season and beyond.
48 HILLS Why do an alternative take on a holiday classic like A Christmas Carol?
NICK ISHIMARU Classics have a way of becoming staid museum pieces as audiences become more and more familiar with them. Eventually, the power and magic that make them classics dull and audiences stop responding to them as living art, but only through the lens of tradition.
But when a classic is completely reinvented and told through a new medium, to loosely borrow from Brecht, the familiar is made strange, and viewers are forced to shed their traditional understanding of both story and form in order to understand what they’re seeing and hearing. The text is opened up, revealing new insights and nuances that, perhaps, had been dulled over the years. Reinvention invites viewers to experience a classic, like A Christmas Carol, in a whole new way.
48 HILLS Why was A Christmas Carol ripe for the Noh treatment?
NICK ISHIMARU A Christmas Carol is a perfect story for transposition into Noh because this call for the alleviation of suffering through community parallels the spirit of Noh.
A typical Noh is about someone performing a prayer or task for a long-suffering spirit, resulting in that spirit’s enlightenment and escape from the endless cycle of suffering in life and death.
Furthermore, the liminal space that A Christmas Carol relies on resonates in perfect harmony with the aesthetics of Noh where spirits come and go and the corporeal interact freely with the phantasmal.
48 HILLS How would you explain Noh and Yugen to someone who knows little about Japanese culture?
NICK ISHIMARU Excellent question! I’ll start with the harder of the two and talk a bit about yūgen first. Yūgen is a word that talks about a feeling one gets from experiencing something profound, and as it lacks a direct translation, there are a variety of phrases and imagery scholars and performers use to explain yūgen.
It has been described as “beauty, with a tinge of sadness,” “profound elegance,” “the beauty of human suffering,” or even “transcendence.” My favorite way to describe yūgen is through mental imagery. It is the feeling you get when you look up into a cloudy night sky, just in time to see the clouds part and a full moon revealed behind them.
Yūgen is often used to describe elements of Noh because Noh is a ritual performance art that seeks to evoke the otherworldly and dredge up the profound from the depths of the human soul. It is derived from, and in many ways remains, a religious experience, rooted in Shinto and Japanese Buddhism. Performers don masks in a shamanistic invocation of spirits, and many performances are about a priest who prays for the release of a spirit from the suffering of the world.
Noh is a meditative, deliberate performing art where power often lies in what is not said or done, rather than in active performance. Noh is not theater. It is not an experience that audiences attend expecting to be entertained in the way someone might expect to be “entertained” at a tragic drama or slapstick comedy. Noh does not tell a story; it meditates on a moment within an experience and invites the audience to exist in that moment with the literal and figurative spirits enacting said moment.
48 HILLS Why is it important to keep Noh and kyogen alive in this way?
NICK ISHIMARU The bar for entry into authentic Noh and kyogen is very, very high. Even in Japan, most people have never been to a Noh or kyogen performance and are unlikely to ever go.
There are currently experiments with performances of Romeo and Juliet and Comedy of Errors that are trying to bring these traditional arts into the contemporary world theater. Experiments with adaptations like these serve to lower the barrier to traditional performing arts and draw audiences in through a mix of name recognition and celebrity.
A Noh Christmas Carol is a step further removed, but it piques Bay Area audience interest in the original forms we employ enough for audience members to feel like maybe traditional Japanese theater isn’t quite so difficult to understand!
48 HILLS There is so much Christmas-themed entertainment out there vying for our attention and dollars. Why is A Noh Christmas Carol the perfect way to spend the holiday season?
NICK ISHIMARU A Christmas Carol is a reminder to reconnect to our communities, be they social, familial, or economic. This story is not just a literal wake-up call to one man to become altruistic; it is a reminder that we are all on this journey through life together, and in times of crisis, our most crucial duty is to be our best selves, both for the sake of others and ourselves. Only then can we truly provide respite from strife. Telling this story in the way that we do deepens and re-emphasizes these core truths of the text, which are often lost in the tradition and pageantry of other more typical productions.
48 HILLS Why should audiences support local theater?
NICK ISHIMARU Audiences need to support local theater because without them, the ability to tell our City’s stories, to take chances, to create in the moment together, will die.
San Francisco is at a breaking point, where companies are closing and our old paradigms are failing. Without direct support, both by buying tickets and through generous donations, our local theater scene will continue to shrivel and wither.
Local arts, be it theater, music, dance, poetry, or anything, are the heartbeat of a city. There is no better way to devise, imagine, tell, and experience the collective moments a location is experiencing than through local art.
Theater is my medium of choice because of the ability to bring so many performing bodies together in a combination of words, sounds, rhythms, visuals, and creativity. Yet that culmination is always ephemeral, just like any moment in history is. It might leave its impact, but it’s impossible to experience the same live performance twice.
A NOH CHRISTMAS CAROL
Thu/5 through December 29
Theatre of Yugen, SF.
More info here.