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Asian Theatre Journal 1.1 (2002) 233-235

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Nomai Dance Drama: A Surviving Spirit Of Medieval Japan. By Susan M. Asai. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. xvii + 248 pp. $65.

Nomai dance drama is a folk performing art preserved by thirteen remote villages at the northern tip of Japan's main island. Susan M. Asai's descriptive study pays particular attention to nomai music, but she also reveals the wealth of performance traditions that contributed to nomai's growth while exploring the religious influences, particularly esoteric Buddhism and mountain asceticism [End Page 234] (shugendo), that provided its spiritual resonance. The result is a detailed study of a dramatic dance form important to a local community and one revelatory of the eclectic medieval culture that performing arts participated in shaping.

The introduction takes the reader to the villages in the Shimokita peninsula in northern Aomori prefecture that preserve nomai. Asai conducted eleven months of fieldwork in Japan including five weeks in four of these villages. Nomai performances consist of a masked dancer accompanied by an instrumental ensemble and chorus. Nomai is the preserve of men; young men's associations in these villages are its sole performers. Women, meanwhile, have only supernumerary roles in the seasonal round of performances; typically they serve food and mend costumes. Asai divides her study into four parts: historical background, nomai theatre, nomai music, and an epilogue addressing the importance of nomai locally today. A video of four representative dances is also available separately for $30 directly from the author.

The first three chapters of Part I establish a background for nomai. Chapters 1 and 2 set the historical stage and dramatic antecedents. Unfortunately, these two chapters lack the specificity needed to advance Asai's argument that nomai retains elements of medieval (1100-1500) drama, music, and religious practice. The history section is too broad and, a distillation of dated textbooks, shows its age. The second chapter also takes too wide an approach in its recapitulation of theories about the ritual origin of Japanese drama and its listing of medieval performing arts that may have contributed to nomai's development.

Chapter 3 puts the study on firm ground with an analysis of the connection between esoteric Buddhism, mountain priests (yamabushi), and the development of nomai locally. It has been suggested that, like nomai, rural Kurokawa no theatre in nearby Yamagata prefecture may have originated in yamabushi dance arts enacted by mountain priests for alms raising and proselytizing. The links are hard to make for Kurokawa, however, given the lack of records before the year 1600. Concrete historical evidence is also wanting for the case of nomai, which dates from about the same period. But Asai makes a convincing argument for such a connection on the basis of dramatic and interpretive similarities between nomai and the practices of yamabushi, thereby documenting a significant example of the interplay between religion and the performing arts.

The three chapters of Part II present the performers, practices, and repertoire of nomai. Several times Asai notes a debt to her principal informant, Ota Zennosuke, a nomai performer, scholar, and preservationist. Though both the author's study and nomai have benefited from Mr. Ota's efforts, there are times when the book could have profited by including other voices. Chapter 4, for example, documents how different villages maintain nomai. Interviews with villagers might have explicated why certain customs in the rural seasonal calendar are no longer preserved "depending on a particular household," as the author notes (p. 60). Similarly, this reader wanted to hear more about how performers themselves view the traditions of their art. Further interviews, [End Page 235] moreover, would have fortified the author's argument in the epilogue that nomai expresses the villagers' worldview today. Perhaps these will be included in further studies, as the author herself recommends (p. 185).

The performance practices described in Chapter 5 are fascinating and reveal nomai's distinct style and local religious meanings. A curtain divides the nomai stage; seated behind it are a chorus and flutist. Some villages erect an altar backstage...


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