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A fragile legacy, handled gently

The negotiations were delicate, but in the end Japan agreed to loan treasured theater robes and masks to LACMA.

November 18, 2002|Irene Lacher | Special to The Times

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art's chief costume curator had to call on several skills to assemble the first major American museum exhibition surveying the history of Japanese Noh and Kyogen theater robes and masks, but perhaps the most important was patience. Indeed, doing business in Japan parallels its counterpart in Hollywood in at least one respect -- everything turns on relationships. And when it came to mounting a definitive show on Noh theater, the art of gentle persuasion was just as crucial as scholarly credentials in persuading Japanese cultural officials to part with some of the country's most fragile treasures.

Sharon Sadako Takeda, head of LACMA's costume and textiles department, remembers early discussions with the Bunkacho, Japan's agency for cultural affairs, about borrowing the objects that would make up the exhibition "Miracles & Mischief: Noh and Kyogen Theater in Japan," which opened Nov. 10. Takeda arrived with a wish list of 90 masks, enough to illustrate twice over the range of variations in a 600-year-old art form.

That number would allow the museum to replace the masks halfway through the three-month show, necessary because Noh objects are so light-sensitive that they're never displayed for more than one month at a time in their own country. For the LACMA exhibition, the Bunkacho has even assigned its own watchdog to check the light and humidity meters every day they're on display. And because the objects are so fragile, L.A. is the only American stop for the show.

Even with all the special handling required, Takeda was stunned by the Bunkacho's opening offer -- only four masks. "I said, 'Four? If you make me rotate it, that's two masks up at a time. You can't do a comprehensive exhibition about Noh with just two masks up.' "

Five hours of hemming and hawing later, Takeda had managed to save the exhibition. "I submitted 50, and in the end they came back with 35, and they don't need to rotate," she says. The Bunkacho ultimately decided the masks were better off with less handling.

Takeda ended up with an array of masks illustrating such esoterica as Heian period (794-1185) standards of beauty, which required women to blacken their teeth. Some masks display curiously universal images, such as the Muromachi period (1392-1568) face worn by the character Hannya, a ghost with horns signifying his jealous and demonic nature.

The lives of ghosts

Noh drama, an art form cultivated by the ruling classes, largely explored the inner lives of ghosts. A typical Noh marathon would be interspersed with performances of Kyogen, comedies for commoners. Kyogen actors wore costumes of dyed hemp, which the Japanese used for clothing before they appropriated Chinese silk and embroidery during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279).

Noh costumes could be as elaborate as the most sumptuous aristocrats' robes. Some actually were; audience members showed their appreciation by stripping off items of clothing and tossing them onstage.

Costumes made specifically for Noh performances tended to be louder than everyday wear; their brighter colors and bolder patterns, visible from a distance, were equivalent to contemporary stage makeup, which is too garish for ordinary life. A Momoyama period (1568-1615) robe in the exhibition, deemed an Important Cultural Property by the Japanese government, is identifiable as a costume because its pattern of herons and reeds is bigger and more dramatic than would be seemly on an aristocrat. Takeda, who collaborated on the show with professor Monica Bethe of Kyoto's Otani University, had never seen the robe in person until she unwrapped it for the exhibition.

That was true of several pieces in the show, despite five years of biannual trips to Japan to examine collections around the country. Some shrines were impossible to get into, at times because they lacked the staff to pull the robes out of storage.

Important relationships

Other times, Takeda found that cultivating relationships opened doors. The Bunkacho advised her that the Hayashibara Museum might be more inclined to lend its Momoyama period robes if LACMA offered its director a trip to L.A. "Then the director changed, and I said, 'Do we still have to honor that?' And they said no. So we were still able to get quite a number from them."

Takeda also tapped her network of colleagues to get behind closed doors. When another scholar visited the Noda shrine in Yamaguchi prefecture, she was able to tag along.

"You climb up these dusty stairs, and they unlock the storage house," Takeda says. "I met the head priest, who was a very cool guy, and some colleagues had done an inventory of their collection, so I started off with some photographs and just started limiting it down."

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