Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater, with Some Thoughts on Muses

Ian Buruma – The New York Review of Books

Copyright The New York Review of Books
Kissing the Mask:
Beauty, Understatement and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater, with Some Thoughts on Muses (Especially Helga Testorf), Transgender Women, Kabuki Goddesses, Porn Queens, Poets, Housewives, Makeup Artists, Geishas, Valkyries and Venus Figurines
by William T. VollmannEcco
504 pp., $29.99
Some twenty years ago, William T. Vollmann wrote a remarkable novel, entitled Whores for Gloria,1 about prostitutes plying their trade in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. He has written about prostitutes in other books too, notably in The Royal Family and Butterfly Stories, about an American’s adventures in Southeast Asia. In “The Shame of It All,” an essay reprinted in Expelled from Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader (2004), he writes:
I have worshiped them and drunk from their mouths; I’ve studied at their feet. Many have saved me; one or two I’ve raised up. They’ve cost me money and made me money. People might say that we’ve “exploited” each other. Some have trusted me; a few have loved me—or at least said so. They’ve healed my loneliness, infected me with diseases and despair.
Vollmann likes to do his homework. To research Whores for Gloria, he spent many hours with whores, drinking and smoking crack, paying them to tell him stories, and whatever else was required. But unlike many others afflicted with nostalgie de la boue, he does not romanticize his subject:
The kitchen floor was black with dirt. Nicole lay down on it and raised her legs to make her cunt so nice and tight for him, and Jimmy stood over her watching the groping of those legs, which were speckled with boils and lesions, until her left ankle came to rest on the chair that she had sat on, while the sole of her right foot had to be content with bracing itself against Jimmy’s refrigerator.
One of Vollmann’s literary tics is to repeat certain images in unexpected ways—in the case of Whores for Gloria, flowery images. Jimmy, observing Nicole’s genitals, which “glistened under the kitchen lights with the brightness of metal foil,” remarks: “Your pussy is just like a flower.” This elicits another Vollmann tic, the footnote displaying the author’s quirky erudition, often about some historical example of horrific violence:
“I still remember the effect I produced on a small group of Gala tribesmen massed around a man in black clothes,” wrote Vittorio Mussolini. “I dropped an aerial torpedo right in the center and the group opened up like a flowering rose. It was entertaining.”
It might seem a very, very long way from the scuzzy, crack-addicted denizens of San Francisco’s Tenderloin (or indeed the bombing of hapless tribesmen in Ethiopia) to the refinements of Japan’s Noh theater, and yet, once one gets the drift of Vollmann’s preoccupations, the transition is not as radical as one might think. The main character in Whores for Gloria is Jimmy, an alcoholic Vietnam vet, seedy, fat, and unprepossessing in every way, but for one odd kind of grace: he is a romantic, forever searching for his great love, the ideal woman, his adored wife, his goddess, Gloria, who may or may not have existed.
In Kissing the Mask, not a literary fiction this time, Vollmann sets out on an equally romantic quest, for the secret of female grace, feminine beauty, the source of man’s dreams of erotic fulfillment. He seeks it, this time, not in the sweaty stink of cheap Skid Row hotel rooms, where the promise of love and beauty is grotesquely out of sync with reality, but in the masked dramas of the Noh stage, where male actors express the ancient passions of female beauties with a flick of an exquisite fan and the tilt of a pale mask. Something no less artificial, of course, but of a very different order. Artificiality is in fact the point, for grace and beauty in Vollmann’s books are not the unadorned products of nature. Adornment is everything; what leads men on in their never-ending chase after female beauty is less a matter of biology than of art and performance. And no performance of femininity is more stylized, more artificial than Noh.
fter spending much time in such rugged places as Afghanistan and the murderous US–Mexican borderlands, Vollmann has picked his destination well. For Japan is the right place to observe artificial beauty, from the plastic cherry blossoms that adorn city streets in spring to the mincing steps of the (male) actor of female roles (onnagata) in the Kabuki theater. Few cultures have developed the refinements of erotic performance more than the Japanese. Japan has the reputation of a country soaked in exquisite beauty (once you know how to pick your way around the neon and concrete jungles) and kinky sexual adventure. These things are there, to be sure, but beauty and grace are rarely approached directly; they are represented rather than revealed, and thus elusive. And that is what interests Vollmann: the dream, the way our desires act on the imagination, whether they be that of an old drunk trying to find Gloria in the eyes of every whore he meets or the Californian author stalking Noh stages and the straw-matted rooms of geisha establishments.
Some believe, in defense of the great art of men playing women in Noh, Kabuki, or in pre-Communist days the Chinese opera, that men can represent the allure of female beauty better than women can. For the idea is not to mimic reality but, as in a Chinese painting, to express an idea of reality, an abstraction almost. Men can represent the idea of women better, because they can take a distance from the real thing and reinvent it as art. 2
Vollmann does not quite buy this: “My own opinion is that telling other people what they are incapable of expressing is always absurd.” Yet he is mesmerized by the great Noh actor Kanze Hideo playing the ghost of an old woman who was once a celebrated beauty. “Played by Mr. Kanze,” writes Vollmann, “she still is. When I remember that performance now, I am moved almost to tears.” Elsewhere he writes that “one of the many astonishing achievements of Noh is when a dumpy old man becomes a lovely young girl, all the while showing his swollen feet in the white tabi socks and working his Adam’s apple as he sings in his old man’s bass.”
I know exactly what he means. One of the most extraordinary Kabuki performances I have ever seen was in Osaka, in the late 1970s. It was a famous love scene in the eighteenth-century play Chushingura between a samurai, Kambei, and his young wife, Okaru. Compelled by tragic circumstances, she is to be sold to a brothel, and he is about to commit suicide. Their last scene together is unbearably sad. But what sticks in my mind is the grace of the young woman, played by a great actor, Nakamura Ganjiro, then in his late seventies. The samurai husband was played by Ganjiro’s own son.
Like Jimmy, the protagonist of Whores for Gloria, Vollmann is clearly a romantic, a man given to hopeless quests. The impression you get from his writing is of a somewhat nerdish romantic; his obsessions lead to voluminous research, and not just in libraries. To write Kissing the Mask, he not only read everything he could find in English on Japanese art and theater, but he paid geishas to perform for him (this can cost thousands of dollars for a short session), interviewed cross-dressers and transsexuals, pestered Noh actors with endless questions, and even had himself made up and dressed as a woman by a lady in Tokyo who caters to men with secret transvestite yearnings.
ollmann is not someone who wears his hard-earned learning lightly, despite his almost Oriental disclaimer of any academic expertise. The opening sentences of the book are immediately disarming: “Deaf, dumb and illiterate in Japanese, innocent of formal study in any discipline of art, a graceless dancer afflicted with bad eyesight, I may not be the perfect author for an essay on Noh drama. Fortunately, this is no essay, but a string-ball of idle thoughts.”
His thoughts are rarely idle, however, and Vollmann has the prolixity of the autodidact. All his inquiries, and the possible answers, are laid out at great length, even though this book of 504 pages is actually slender compared to some of his other works.3 There is something bold and even refreshing about a writer who shows so little concern for the shrinking attention spans of modern readers. Vollmann will go where he has to go. This can be wearying. And so can the occasional tangles of woolly prose:
We have said that the Japanese concept of aware refers to the beauty and harmony beyond direct expression which shines uniquely from various entities in their own occasion—for instance, cherry blossoms about to fall.
But even though he can sometimes come across as the bore at a drinks party who pins you to the wall as he holds forth on his latest theory, Vollmann has a fascinating mind, which makes up for the patches of boredom. And his research turns up some highly arresting facts, such as the famous woodblock artist Utamaro’s categories of the ideal vagina: “takobobo, todatebobo and kinchakubobo (octopus, which sucks; trapdoor, which grips; purse, which is tight).” What makes this book particularly interesting is the way Vollmann mixes personal experience with intellectual sleuthing. Ideas and feelings are often in a state of tension, which means that in the end we learn as much about the author as about Japan, and that distinguishes this literary work from an academic tome. One can’t somehow imagine Professor Donald Keene, say, one of the great American experts on Noh, telling us all about his love life.
Here is Vollmann on the mask of the zo-onna, the ideal of pure female beauty, which he has compared to the face of a contemporary Japanese porn star. The Noh mask, no matter how exquisitely carved, comes to life only on stage. The zo-onna, writes Vollmann,
awaits the ceremony of being inhabited by yet another man, a man whose true flower sweetly guides him, like the woman I love who sometimes sits astride me to better control her pleasure; he inhabits her in order to bring her back to life in the manner that he expresses life, so that we may watch and experience the joyousness of our own desire, which he and the zo-onna have understated into metaphysics.
This might strike some readers as unbearably pretentious, but I think Vollmann has caught something important about Noh. For Noh is the art of making live drama out of the most minimalist, stylized means: a masked man gliding very slowly across a stage of cypress wood, which is bare except for a simple painting of a pine tree. This is what Vollmann calls “understated.” Again, as in a Chinese landscape painting, with its large empty spaces, much is left to the imagination. By reducing the expression of life to the barest of means, the art form increases its intensity.
ike many (perhaps all) ancient forms of drama, Noh has religious origins. Once called sarugaku, monkey music, because the first practitioners were supposedly monkeys mimicking the gods, the earliest dances were performed at Shinto shrines to pray for good harvests. These dance dramas were refined and made into a high art during the fourteenth century by a father and son, Kan’ami Kiyotsugu and Zeami Motokiyo. They wrote most of the plays that are still performed today. Noh might actually not have survived if General Ulysses S. Grant had not arrived in Tokyo on a goodwill tour in 1879 and declared that this fine art should be preserved.4 His was an important encomium, because Japanese at that time were keen to jettison all kinds of traditions in their efforts to look Western.
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