'EMILY: AN ENGLISH-LANGUAGE NOH' Reviewed by Helen Parker

EMILY: AN ENGLISH-LANGUAGE NOH (text by Ashley Thorpe, music by Richard Emmert, directed by Richard Emmert and Ashley Thorpe), was performed at the Handa Noh Theatre, Royal Holloway University of London on 24 and 25 May 2018. 

The first surprise about Emily: An English-language noh was finding that Emily Wilding Davison, the suffragette and Royal Holloway alumna whose story inspired this new work, does not figure as a character in the play.  Fortunately our daytime activity, a symposium on adaptation, translation and acculturation hosted by the Centre for Asian Theatre and Dance, had underlined the point that this is not unprecedented in noh. Carol Sorgenfrei’s excellent keynote on “Intercultural Conundrums” examined some contemporary variations on Aoi no Ue, a well-known noh play by Zeami that takes as its “seed” the central character in chapter nine of The Tale of GenjiIn this work, the eponymous principal wife of Genji is represented only by a folded kimono in the centre of the stage.  

At the Handa Noh Theatre just before the start of  Emily on Friday 25 May, 2018. (For the first time, I noticed that the green, white and violet of the suffrage flag are also in the  agemaku .) Photo © Helen S E Parker.

At the Handa Noh Theatre just before the start of Emilyon Friday 25 May, 2018. (For the first time, I noticed that the green, white and violet of the suffrage flag are also in the agemaku.) Photo © Helen S E Parker.

In Emily, the mae-shite, or protagonist for part one, is a gardener working on the estate at Royal Holloway. The main role in part two, the nochi-shite, is the spirit of Herbert Jones, the jockey who was thrown off King Edward VII’s horse, Anmer, when Davison famously stepped out on to the racecourse at the Epsom Derby in 1913. It is noticeable that both leading characters are men, and both are justified in terms of their connection with Emily.  Thorpe relates in the programme note, “Writing Emily,” that he was conscious of working with the story as a male author, and aimed to highlight that “the play was being written from a male perspective, and one that did not set out to judge anyone....” Indeed, the rest of the casting balances the masculinity of these two protagonists. The waki, or counterpart to the main characters, a “member of the laity” who comes to the College to visit the chapel in its Founders’ Building, is not assigned a gender in the script, but in this initial production is cast and convincingly portrayed by Silje Lund as a devoted young woman. The ji chorus that takes up and amplifies the telling of the story at appropriate points is all-female.

Throughout the play, it is impressive how Thorpe and Emmert have transferred the essence of noh into something easily accessible to their cast and audience at Royal Holloway, beginning with the michiyuki, a journey towards the place where the action of the play is set, listing epithets and linking places of literary and historical importance. The opening of Emily actually leads us right to the vicinity of the Handa Noh Theatre, the venue for the performance.  Presently the waki encounters a gardener, whom she asks for directions: the mae-shite’s traditional mask and costume, as well as Shiori Yamamoto’s sensitive interpretation of the role, suggest something mysterious, even ethereal, about the character. After explaining how to reach the chapel, the gardener goes on to talk about the new building named after Davison, stressing how important it is commemorate her.  Thorpe’s script adopts the noh convention of weaving into the text quotations which may be familiar to the audience, and so enable them to take part in creating the mood of the play through their individual responses. Contemporary resources about the suffragette movement are frequently cited, and there are also references to The Knight’s Tale (the story of another “Emelye”) by Chaucer, whose work Davison admired as a literature student. As in contemporary noh theatres in Japan, the programme provides the script with notes to guide the audience. It comes to mind that most, perhaps all of the works quoted must be held nearby in the Davison Building – the College library. 

Royal Holloway College, University of London on 24 May 2018. The Founders’ Building (left) and Davison Building (right). Photo © Helen S E Parker. 

Royal Holloway College, University of London on 24 May 2018. The Founders’ Building (left) and Davison Building (right). Photo © Helen S E Parker. 

The ai-kyōgen, an interlude performed by kyogen actors interacting with the waki to help advance the story in noh, is another example of successful acculturation in Emily. Here the waki, who becomes disorientated when the mae-shite unaccountably disappears, gets to meet two Royal Holloway students – it was amusing to learn from one of our hosts that these were quite recognisable types within the College. The female student who appears first talks intensely about her research on Davison from a feminist perspective. She dwells on the view of austere prison conditions and forcible feeding as torture, and echoes more insistently the gardener’s idea that her heroine - martyr to the cause of women’s suffrage - should be commemorated at the College.  When a male student who professes himself “something of an expert” on Davison joins them, questioning the relevance of the suffragette movement and equating their militancy with terrorism, sparks begin to fly in a way that proves highly entertaining for its audience. Their debate is delivered in a formalised speech that is true to the original form, but is one aspect that might be quite difficult to process for those less familiar with noh and kyōgen.  Given that the language of such interludes is much more colloquial than in the noh proper and is intended to make the content easier to understand, it might work better to make the delivery of the students’ discussion more natural, a better match for the twenty-first century fashion of their costumes – though that would mean missing the striking percussive effect when the two speak in unison at the end.

Ashley Thorpe as  nochi-shite  (the spirit of Herbert Jones) in part 2 of  Emily , Friday 25 May 2018. Photo © Nicola Hewitt-George. 

Ashley Thorpe as nochi-shite (the spirit of Herbert Jones) in part 2 of Emily, Friday 25 May 2018. Photo © Nicola Hewitt-George. 

In the second part of the play, Ashley Thorpe takes to the stage, following the almost automatic expectation of those who conceived the aesthetics of noh that playwrights will also be actors.  His nochi-shiterole gives a voice to Herbert Jones, who was unconscious for many days after falling from Anmer, and whose suicide, after the death of his wife almost forty years later in 1951, has sometimes been attributed to possession by Davison’s restless ghost. Thorpe writes in his note that in this much-analysed film footage of the 1913 Epsom Derby, he found “something about the pacing of the film that seemed to suit the jo-ha-kyū structure” characteristic of noh. (This, alongside evidence of Davison’s interest in Japanese society, convinced him that her story would lend itself to dramatization in the form.)  

While the waki is praying in the chapel at twilight, she is startled by someone moving through the shadows.  The nochi-shite, whose costume aptly combines a strong element of traditional attire for ghosts in the noh with a black riding hat, and whose mask has been specially carved for the production by Kitazawa Hideta, reveals his identity. He declares that he did not know and was not haunted by Emily while he was alive, yet their spirits have become entwined. As he relives the anticipation of the race and evokes the atmosphere at the beginning through movement, the nochi-shite’s lines home in on key developments in the depiction of the actions that happened so fast on the track.  Lines spoken by the chorus add to both the detail and the intensity of the narrative. The tension mounts, leading into an energetic and arresting climax when the chorus describes Emily’s collision with the horse. Then, suddenly, “all lie motionless” and the audience, with the characters, are left to take in what has happened.    

A week or so after Emily, a discussion on performative commemorations of World War One events at another symposium turned to the question of whether attempts at authentic re-enactment might end up being too emotionally raw to serve their purpose well.  Might not a different kind of performance with greater alterity work better? I think Emily offered this recommended alterity in several ways. The choice of noh, a form quite removed from the time and place of the original events, as a means of expression for this story, was appropriate because its formality of structure could both contain and highlight the drama of the closing moments. It also allowed the audience to stop and think about new perspectives on the events and to understand why, despite the physical absence of Davison from the stage, it was undoubtedly remembering and honouring Emily.

Helen Parker is Lecturer in Japanese at the University of Edinburgh and author of Progressive Traditions: An Illustrated Study of Plot Repetition in Traditional Japanese Theatre (Brill).

A Horrifying Comeback

Japanese horror films became popular during the 1990s with Takeo Nakata’s The Ring (リング、1998) and Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on (呪怨、2000). Not only were these films visually invigorating and revolutionary for their time, they also directed the audience’s attention to the ignored problem of abused women during the 1980s in Japan. They were interesting because instead of overusing jaded jump-scares, Nakata and Shimizu exploited psychological scares to instill fear about societal dangers.

But if we look at some recent horror films, we find a lack of emphasis on the significance of the content and more of a focus on the use of good-looking models for poor recreations of past successes, an example being Nakata’s latest film Ghost Theater (劇場霊、2014), which did not do well at the box office and received poor reviews.  Likewise Takashi Muike’s Kuime (食い女2014), which was enticingly scary and engaged once again with the issue of abused women in Japan, was ultimately rushed and confusing. Thus I was left asking: have Japanese horror films had their day? The answer, in my opinion, is that they have made an incredible comeback.

Yoshihiro Nakamura’s Inerasable (残穢, 2015) has brought new life to the Japanese horror scene. In the film a novelist referred to as ‘I’ and her helper, Ms. Kubo, work together to learn about past tragedies in order to write a novel. With its frequent use of hors-champ (off screen) eerie audio, prolonged camera shots of slow movement, and first-person visual shots, the film produces real suspense and authentic scares.

Steady shots of Ms. Kubo slowly looking over her shoulder at uncanny noises in the distance instills a natural and analogous feeling with viewers, for humans have an identical response when we fear what we cannot see or comprehend. In addition the director uses a dark and grainy color palette during flashbacks or inside of a house, which is a similar and very successful technique for creating a disturbing atmosphere found in Ju-on

There is also a message imbedded within the film’s plot. Several references to death, murder, suicide, and hate compounded with the theme of construction, develop Nakamura’s allusion that Japanese society is built on these attributes. Society continues to build on top of past tragedies of death and anger, and these negativities become foundational frameworks of Japanese metanarratives. Just as Shimizu subtly provided the audience a warning at the end of Ju-on, Nakamura, too, seems to suggest that Japanese society has been plagued with sadness, death, and anger from the past, and if Japan continues to walk the same path, society will become consumed by this evil. Nakamura’s revolutionary national level of fear in Inerasable has achieved new expectations and for me has restored faith in Japan’s horror film industry. 

Jonathan Pelz is studying on the MSc in Japanese Society and Culture at the University of Edinburgh

The Challenge of the Year Abroad

I know this is a postgraduate blog, and postgrad degrees don't tend to have a compulsory period abroad (our MCS Master of Chinese Studies is of course an exception to this rule).  But a great deal of us will have been on a compulsory year abroad at some point and then, once back at our home institutions, been required to complete an independent research project.  I remember this experience well, and not for the best of reasons.  So bear with me and if when you’ve finished reading you have any ideas, please do get in touch.
How can we make the best use of our time in Japan as researchers?  This is a quite the tricky proposition.  Why?  Because quite frankly Japan is profoundly distracting.  The food is too good, the cities at night are too good, the beer is just far too good to be spending time in libraries and/or archives with notepad and pencil, deciphering yet another blurry kanji compound or trying to work out how the photocopying system works (I’m looking at you National Diet Library).
For students tasked on their year abroad with becoming fluent in Japanese the challenge is even greater.  The reasons are obvious and completely understandable: new country, new culture, new institution, new people and a host of new obstacles to be overcome.  So research tends to drop off the bottom of the list of priorities.  
But there is no getting away from the fact that research must be done.  Dissertations won't write themselves.  And let’s face it, dissertations without primary data are not much good.  So what can Area Studies departments do to help?
Enter the Japan Foundation!  The JF have invited year abroad coordinators from a across the country to London in November for a discussion of the year abroad and all the opportunities and problems it presents.  I’ve been asked to talk a little bit about making the most of the year for dissertation preparation, something I have been pondering since I became a year abroad coordinator myself back in 2012.

The sights and sounds of Akihabara can also tempt one away from those newspaper databases...

The sights and sounds of Akihabara can also tempt one away from those newspaper databases...

So I have been thinking about this question for a while now.  And one thing I am certain of is that there is no easy fix.  But I do think that expecting students to suddenly become active researchers in third year is unrealistic and a bit unfair.  My feeling is that by then it’s too late.   If the dissertation is an afterthought, or something to happen in the future then even with the best intentions in the world, as soon as Japan hits, research will drop off the agenda.  And if we don’t give our students the tools to do research before they go, how can we expect them to get research done?
As such I think the only way for research to happen in the third year is to get students thinking about dissertation from the off — from first year or at the very least second year.  If a culture of research is encouraged — embedded, reinforced and practiced — from day one, then when students get to Japan in third year the idea of research will hopefully be second nature.
Degree programme design should therefore take this goal of embedding a culture of research as a central organising principle.  We need to start early with research training, data gathering, and independent research projects.  
For example, in week one of his second year research training course my colleague Mark McLeister in Chinese Studies asks students to leave the classroom and bring back an object that helps us understand Chinese communities in Edinburgh.  The classroom melts away and the city becomes a field for research.  I think it’s this sort of exercise that will equip students as researchers for their experience abroad, be it in Japan, China or Korea, and make the best of this invaluable opportunity.
I am very much looking forward to discussing these ideas with colleagues in a month’s time, and wish to thank the JF for this wonderful initiative.  As I said at the start of this post, if you have any comments or ideas, please do get in touch!

Chris Perkins is Head of Japanese in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh and Programme Director of the MSc in Japanese Society and Culture.

The Olympics and Japan: A Retrospective

As the 2016 Rio Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games move from primetime viewing to public memory, we must once again endure the long four-year wait for the 2020 Olympiad in Tokyo. The Summer Games will be an important event for Japan: emblematic of the reconstruction and recovery following the aftermath of the Triple Disaster of March 2011, and a powerful projection of Prime Minister Abe’s vision of Japan as a proud “beautiful country” within the international community of nations. Abe himself even took centre stage as the culmination of Japan’s impressive handover video

Tokyo 2020 also provides an opportunity to revisit and reflect upon Japan’s previous Olympic milestones. I have selected three such landmarks for discussion today - 1912,1940, and 1964. 


Japan first participated in the games during the fifth Olympiad in Stockholm in 1912, becoming the first Asian nation to do so. The Japanese team consisted of two athletes, Mishima Yahiko (track and field) and Kanakuri Shizō (marathon).  

Neither athlete was able to return home with a medal, but Kanakuri did cause quite a stir in the marathon. A combination of inadequate footwear (Kanakuri ran in split-toed padded tabi) and the searing summer heat resulted in Kanakuri retiring from the race after 27km. Kanakuri returned to Japan promising to do better next time, however he had neglected to make his withdrawal from the marathon known to Olympic officials. As a result, he was recorded as “missing” in the final race results. 

However, the story doesn’t end there.  Kanakuri would later be invited to return to Sweden to officially “finish” the race, although not until 1967. Despite being in his seventies, Kanakuri leapt at the chance, allowing officials to finally stop the clock that had started ticked all the way back in 1912. His final time? Fifty-four years, eight months, six days, five hours, thirty-two minutes and 20.3 seconds. Kanakuri, in obvious good spirit, commented, “It was a long trip. Along the way, I got married, had six children and 10 grandchildren.”(*1) 


The second major Japanese Olympic milestone is “the missing Olympics” - the cancelled 1940 Tokyo Games.(*2) As the first non-western nation to be awarded the games, Japan was afforded an opportunity to present a distinctly Asian perspective on the competition. Furthermore, 1940 would be a particularly auspicious year for Japan as it marked the 2,600th Anniversary of the Ascension of Emperor Jimmu and the founding of Japan as a nation (Kigen 2,600-nen), a fact quickly capitalized upon by the organising committee. Although ostensibly an international event, much of the ideology behind Tokyo 1940 was aimed towards the domestic audience to foment national pride and strengthen the "kokutai" (i.e. the “national essence” of Japan). Likewise, the games would act as a forum for “people’s diplomacy” through which Japan could justify its burgeoning empire free from the criticism of the international community. This was particularly significant given Japan’s withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933 following the Manchurian Incident. 

Interesting parallels can also be drawn between the 1940 games and the upcoming 2020 games given the geographical and economic situation of the period. Most noticeably, the Japan of 2020 will have overcome many similar challenges to those of the late 1930s: reconstruction following a devastating natural disaster (the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 versus the 3.11 Triple Disaster of 2011); increased tourism as an aid to recovery from economic malaise (the 1929 Wall Street Crash versus the 2008 Lehman Shock); and a government keen to stress the value of tradition and national culture (the commemoration of Kigen 2,600-nen versus Prime Minister Abe’s vision of a “beautiful country”). 

However, Tokyo 1940 was not to be. The Marco Polo Bridge Incident of 1937, heralding the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War, brought renewed threats of boycotts and increasing international pressure on Japan to forfeit the games. Domestic pressure also grew, both from a materiel perspective but also a moral one. Was it right to compete while soldiers were fighting overseas? Believing the war would soon be over, Japan persisted in its pursuit to host the 12th Olympic Games, however as hostilities dragged on this position grew increasingly untenable and Japan officially forfeited the games in July 1938. 


The Olympic flame would not return to Asia until 1964, when for the second time Tokyo was designated host city. This time, however, Japan's aims were very different. Postwar recovery, international rehabilitation and solemn remembrance were key elements of the opening ceremony. This was most apparent during the lighting of the Olympic flame, with the honour given to nineteen-year-old Sakai Yoshinori, born in Hiroshima on the morning of the atomic bombing. 

Technology also played an integral role during the 1964 Games. This was the age of rapid economic expansion and consumerism, when owning a car, cooler (air conditioner) and colour TV meant that you could count yourself among an ever-expanding middle class. As a result, Tokyo 1964 marked the first time the games had been broadcast internationally via satellite. Likewise, the newly constructed Shinkansen “bullet train”, which had opened just a few days ahead of the opening ceremony, was able to shuttle competitors, tourists and businessmen alike between Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka at record speed. This was a far cry from the devastation of a generation before. 

The introduction to the Olympics of new sports such as judo also gave the Japanese a newfound sense of pride. Likewise, the nationalistic ideology which had dominated the 1940’s bid was replaced with images of multiracial athletes lined up together, emphasising international cooperation and peaceful competition. Indeed, Tokyo 1964 would “not only be a display of sportsmanship by the world’s athletes, but would also serve to highlight the continuing efforts of the Japanese people as a worthy member of the world family of nations.”(*3)

Left: Official Poster of the 1940 games. Right: Promotional poster from 1964.

Left: Official Poster of the 1940 games. Right: Promotional poster from 1964.

2020 - A NEW DAWN 

So what can we expect for Tokyo 2020? From the video shown during the closing ceremony of Rio 2020 it appears that Japan is going all-out on the soft power front, with references to popular video game and anime characters such as Captain Tsubasa, Pac-Man, Doraemon, Hello Kitty and Mario. There are also clear references to the imagery of Tokyo 1964, which are echoed in the promotion of the technological aspects of the games,4 with plans to showcase emerging technologies such as self-driving taxis, instantaneous language translation, and ultra-HD broadcasts. Environmental concerns, highly pertinent in light of events in Fukushima, will also be addressed with plans to run the Olympic Village on hydrogen.(*5) 

Above: Screengrab from Japan’s official handover video echoing promotional artwork from 1964

Above: Screengrab from Japan’s official handover video echoing promotional artwork from 1964

As for the man taking centre stage, Prime Minister Abe seems to be playing to the crowd, perhaps keen to show a lighter side to his personality and cast aside recent controversies such as the reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution (the so-called “peace-clause”) to allow for collective self-defence, the introduction of the State Secrecy Law, and his continuing visits to Yasukuni Shrine. Abe will also be keen to show a welcoming face, particularly to Japan’s closest neighbours with whom tensions have been rising in recent years over various territorial disputes. Indeed, the idea of a “people’s diplomacy” may be alive and well in the 21st century. However political ambitions aside, Tokyo is sure to wow the crowds in four years’ time. Faster, higher, stronger may be the Olympic motto, but it could equally apply to Japan’s Olympic ambitions. I, for one, cannot wait. 

Roddy McDougall is a PhD candidate in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh.


1 A full account of this story is available at The Japan Times. 2012. Better late than never for Japan’s first, “slowest” Olympian. via https://goo.gl/NZ5oaD (Accessed 02/10/2016) 

2 For a comprehensive overview of the 1940 Tokyo Games, refer to Collins, Sandra. 2007. The 1940 Tokyo Games: The Missing Olympics. Routledge: Oxford 

3 Quote taken from McClain, James L. 2002. A Modern History of Japan. Norton: New York. 

4 An interesting infographic on the proposed technological innovations can be found at Futurism.com. 2016. Tokyo 2020: The Olympics of the Future. via http://futurism.com/images/tokyo-2020-olympics-future (Accessed 02/10/2016) 

5 Refer to Popsci.com. 2016. The Olympic Village of the Future. via http://www.popsci.com/olympic-village-future (Accessed 02/10/2016)