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Theatre Journal 53.3 (2001) 513-514
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Nomai Dance Drama:
A Surviving Spirit of Medieval Japan
Nomai Dance Drama: A Surviving Spirit of Medieval Japan. By Susan M. Asai. Contributions to the Study of Music and Dance, no. 47. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999; pp. 288. $65.00.
Nomai Dance Drama: A Surviving Spirit of Medieval Japan is a comprehensive study of a little-known Japanese folk performance tradition whose roots go back to the twelfth century. Nomai, which combines music, dance, and song, continues today, preserved in the small villages of Higashidorimura prefecture in the north of Japan. Susan Asai's historical account of the origins of this form and her analysis of current performance practices, with special emphasis on the music of nomai (Asai is an ethnomusicologist), are results of a combination of thorough scholarship and field study. She displays great sensitivity to the close-knit community she studies, as well as respect for her main informant, Mr. Ota, a master nomai singer and dancer and founder of the Federation of the Preservation of Village Performing Arts. As both an outsider and honorary insider, Asai gives an objective account of the form and offers insight into the role it plays in the communities that cherish and preserve it.
The book is divided into three sections. In section one Asai presents a full history of Japanese performance in order to do justice to the rich cultural heritage that contributes to nomai, which is primarily a partner to the no theatre. Bothdeveloped from sarugaku no in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and they share many features including "repertoire, performance practice, dance movements, and vocal influences" (180). But, as Asai shows, they parted ways in the Muromachi period (AD 1185-1573), "no incorporating secular and urbane elements in its efforts to match the aesthetic refinement of the ruling warrior elite, and nomai remaining a plebian performing genre with yamabushi emphasizing its ritual character" (180). Indeed, Asai puts forth the compelling idea that in nomai we can see traces of the development of nobefore it came under the patronage of the Ashikaga shoguns. Though Asai's theatre history seems to cover territory that has been thoroughly addressed elsewhere, it emphasizes some unique points. One is the role played by Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in providing venues for both popular and court performances and, in so doing, allowing those forms to blend with and enrich each another. This situation characterized the Muromachi period with its transition from a court- to a samurai-dominated culture. Asai also emphasizes the important role of yamabushi,mountain priests who combined Shinto shamanistic and Tantric Buddhist practices, in mixing a variety of theatrical traditions and spreading them throughout Japan. From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century,when Buddhism and Shinto were both becoming more formal, yamabushi administered directly to the people and used a variety of theatrical forms to promote their religion. In so doing, they transplanted folk and court forms to remote areas like Higashidorimura.
Section two gives an account of the nomai repertoire and how these pieces function in performance, especially in relation to the village community. The repertoire runs the gamut from sacred to secular, including ceremonial, warrior, and comic dances. Villagers in Ori believe that at the end of the prayer piece, "Gogenmai" (Lion Dance), the Buddha of Healing is manifest "when a nomai performer goes into the audience and touches every person with the Buddhist sistrum he is holding in his hand as a gesture of healing and protection from evil influences that cause illness" (102). Warrior pieces like "Yashima," on the other hand, are meant purely as entertainment. Like many of the warrior dances, "Yashima" is a masked dance with a binary structure; the first half enacts the famous battle of Yashima and the second half the battle of Dan no Ura, both engagements between the Genji and Heike clans. The comic pieces, like the sacred dances, are also associated with spiritual appeasement but "reflect local color of village life through use of local dialect" (110). "Tengyo," or "the heavenly maiden," is a version of the no play "Hagoromo" and includes a dance...