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Noh players seek new audiences with live subtitles on tablets

by

Staff Writer

Tightly traditional noh drama is loosening up, with theater groups trying out tablet computers to help baffled audiences understand what’s going on.

The devices show the actors’ lines and help to explain plot twists in real time.

“Noh groups are trying to get more people interested in the plays … we thought that tablet devices would be a good tool to spread noh to beginners,” said Hiroyuki Shibata, who works for Tokyo-based noh group Kanze Kyukokai.

Kanze Kyukokai has been testing iPads since September, handing them out to the audience before performances.

At one performance at Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre in Toshima Ward in June, some young people said they found the iPads useful.

“The content automatically changed to tally with what was going on, so it was easy to see,” an 18-year-old female college student said. “It was hard to understand what actors were saying, but the tablet helped.”

She added, it was her first time to watch noh.

The idea began when NTT Comware Corp., a Tokyo-based technology firm, was looking ways to promote its technology to control text and images on tablets remotely. The firm thought it suited to traditional performing arts and the provision of informative real-time data to audiences.

The firm teamed up with Tokyo-based Hinoki Shoten Co., which specializes in books about noh, to develop content.

NTT Comware then met Yoshimasa Kanze, a leading actor with Kanze Kyukokai. He expressed interest in adopting the system with a view to reaching new audiences.

Core noh fans are generally elderly, and the industry needs to try harder to attract a younger audience, Shibata said. He said the increasing numbers of inbound tourists offer potential. The tablets provide information in English, too.

Noh dates from the 14th century. It is performed by actors on a simple wooden stage, with accompaniment by a chorus and musicians playing shoulder drums and noh flutes.

Stories are usually set in ancient Japan and feature interactions between humans and supernatural beings, including ghosts and sprites.

The actors wear elaborate kimono and masks, and speak dialogue in old Japanese.

Shibata said young people are probably put off by noh because they feel the plays are hard to comprehend. They may also consider the dramas out of touch, representing Japan’s old aristocracy.

“I think they assume noh is not a casual performance,” he said, adding that many young people do not know how to tackle the plays as spectators.

Also, whereas prominent kabuki actors are frequently seen on TV, noh players are generally unknown among young people, Shibata said.

Industry insiders hope that the tablets could help fill in some of the blanks. A major advantage of a digital device over a paper program is that the display changes as the drama unfolds.

It can also offer larger text size, making it easier to follow the lines than squinting at a program, Shibata said.

He added, the screens also do away with the distracting noise of hundreds of paper pages being turned all at once.

Before the play begins, the displays show basic information about noh and a summary of the play’s plot.

NTT Comware said other noh groups are also testing tablets. It plans to urge Kanze Kyukokai and the other groups to begin using the tablets regularly from the end of this year.