Naginata in Noh

I had the chance to discover another aspect of our beautiful martial art during an initiation organized in Brussels on Friday, March 23rd by MAJ (Maison des Arts Vivants du Japon). It is in its artistic form that Master Masato Matsuura uses Naginata through the Noh theater.

traditional noh teater in Japan

A short presentation of our teacher is necessary first ; born in Japan, Masato Matsuura trained in Noh theater with Master Tetsunojyo Kanze VIII, of whom he was Uchi Deshi (direct disciple). He also trained in many martial arts (sword, kendo, aikido, taichi,…).

The double approach of theater and martial arts allows him to think about the essence of movement and a body expression based on a deep awareness of the fluidity and the construction of the body, which are the foundation of the traditional Japanese theaters, realizing the union of the arts of singing and weapons, of text and dance.

Living in Paris since 2006, Masato Matsuura currently divides his time between teaching and performing. He founded the Sayu school and the Deux Spirales dojo in Paris. He regularly gives courses and workshops in Brussels and Caen, as well as master classes in France, Belgium, Bosnia and Japan.

During this small workshop Master Matsuura invited his students to discover the handling of the naginata through a scene from the Noh play “Tomoe”. Most of you know this heroine who wielded the naginata. Learning to practice with naginata here means also understand the piece of art you will act so let’s first understand this noh piece written more than 400 years ago.

“Tomoe” is taken from the famous literary work “The Tale of Heike”, and portrays the last dramatic moments between Tomoe, a female warrior, and her lord Kiso Yoshinaka. The story portrays Tomoe’s unswerving loyalty and love for Yoshinaka, Tomoe’s deep regret that she cannot meet her end together with her lord, and her resolve to continue to flight on his behalf. The scenes of this female warrior in action are vividly depicted as if we were seeing the events unfold in a hand scroll. 

Of course Matsuura sensei talks about the same guards as we do when he teach naginata; chudan, waki, asso, gedan and takes his students back to the notion of ki ken tai ichi but his practice seems to come from another world. He hits the ground with his feet to support it with his whole body and draws cuts by raising his legs high.

Those who, like me, have already seen old schools will believe that they will find movements from Katori Shinto ryu or Jikisninkage ryu but is it really the case?

Here the students enter the skin of Tomoe Gozen in a very precise scene, and the actor even if he learns martial techniques interprets a role and puts the character of a moment in it. This is why our instructor explains the movements but also the vision he has of them. He cuts, he slices but he also draws in the air movements linked to a character in a medieval tragedy.

“Hana no takinami” or “Torrent of Flowers”, “Happô Barai” or “Torrent of Flowers” and “Ko no Ha Gaeshi” or “Returning the Blade to its Scabbard” or “Eight-sided sweep” are all forms that this great fighter will use in a fight scene. We draw eight ‘s in the infinite with the edge of the blade digging the air of the ghosts of the past. We cut the air by spinning and jumping to the rhythm of voices reciting the exploits of the past.

Sunday after a busy weekend the students give a presentation of their achievements. After an introduction to the context and history of Tomoe by the students, one of the organizers of this workshop, Benoit de Spoelberch, reminds us how these Noh pieces are presented using a mask.

One might think that by depriving the actor of their face, the mask would remove the possibility of conveying emotions through facial expressions, but this is not the case! Noh masks are meticulously crafted with attention to detail such that their expression changes depending on the lighting. Thus, if oriented slightly upwards, a mask will appear rather cheerful, whereas if the actor tilts their head forward, the expression becomes sad. Additionally, removing the actor’s face allows for a greater emphasis on their gestures and body language.

Like a series of katas presented to the sound of a mantra. It is impressive to see Tomoe dancing reincarnated in her movements to the sound of voices reciting her feats with a naginata that look real but is completely made of wood.

If you want to see the entire play here is an exemple with english subtitle :