Japanese consulate celebrates 125 years with theatre for the ages

Yamai Tsunao in Hagoromo | Photo Courtesy of Tomoe Arts

Yamai Tsunao in Hagoromo | Photo Courtesy of Tomoe Arts

Japanese people and culture have been a part of Vancouver for a long time. A man named Manzo Nagano arrived in New Westminster in 1877, becoming the first official Japanese immigrant to Canada. Twelve years later, the first Japanese Consulate-General in the country was founded in Vancouver.

In 2014, the consulate will celebrate its 125th anniversary with a series of events promoting Japanese culture, highlighted by Hagoromo, a play in the ancient Japanese art of Noh theatre. The performance will take place at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre on April 12.

Representing Japan

Consul General Seiji Okada | Photo by Jake McGrail

Consul General Seiji Okada | Photo by Jake McGrail

The Japanese Consulate in Vancouver covers B.C. and Yukon, and is responsible for representing Japan in these areas. It offers services to Japanese businesspeople, farmers, and others conducting business in B.C., while also fostering greater awareness of Japanese culture and history in Canada.

“The reason we opened our office is because there were Japanese people here. We are revisiting their history. One of our jobs is to promote Japanese culture to Canadians here. We have to do that as best as we can,” says consul-general Seiji Okada.

One of the events that will celebrate Japanese culture and the consulate’s 125th anniversary is the Noh play Hagoromo, presented by the Consulate-General and Tomoe Arts, a dance theatre company.

The artistic director of Tomoe Arts, Colleen Lanki, has ties to Noh theatre and Japan. She lived in Japan for many years and studied Noh and other types of theatre.

“I’m honoured to present this. [The performing troupe] are master artists. My whole company is honoured,” says Lanki.

An ancient but vital art form

Colleen Lanki, artistic director of Tomoe Arts | Photo by Jake McGrail

Colleen Lanki, artistic director of Tomoe Arts | Photo by Jake McGrail

Noh theatre has been around for hundreds of years. It originated in the 14th century, and was popularized and formalized by a man named Zeami. Four main troupes, or schools of Noh were established. Noh was elevated when an early shogun officially made Noh an official ceremonial art and introduced regulations for it. Noh became focused on tradition, not innovation. A fifth school was added and the same five schools perform today.

Hagoromo comes from the Komparu school of Noh. It is about an angel that descends to earth and has her feathered robe stolen and with it, her ability to fly. The angel has two distinct appearances during the play. One is with her patterned and colorful robe, and one with a simple white outfit.

The costumes are mostly silk and have many layers to create a “bulky” effect. This means they are very warm and not pleasant to wear.

“They are very heavy and uncomfortable.” says Lanki. “[Noh actors] have to wear pads underneath the costumes to absorb the large amount of sweat they produce.”

The masks are very important as well, as they are one of the key visuals that define the characters. They are made out of the Japanese cedar, hinoki, and are flat.

“You have to wear pads on your cheeks because they are flat,” says Lanki. “If you don’t lift them they will break your nose. If you have a smaller nose then you’re better off!”

A character can change masks and costumes multiple times throughout the play to become different characters. A warrior can turn into an old man or a seemingly harmless woman can reveal that she is really a demon.

According to Lanki, Noh performances in Vancouver attract a mix of different people and cultures.

“My experience is about half and half. Japanese want to see and support their culture. The other half is curious people, people wanting to learn about Japanese culture,” says Lanki.