Photo Gear, Photojournalism

Japanese Handicrafts: Noh Shozoku – Theatrical Costumes

I have been touring Japan photographing craftspeople and artisans for my upcoming book to be published by Gestalten this year (out next month, preorder here!!). In total I managed to photograph some 70 artisans, all of them wonderful, however due to space constraints in the book not all of them were able to make it into the final cut.

I plan to introduce some of the ones that we unfortunately couldn’t include here, so I hope you’re in the mood to learn about some crafts!

One of the most demanding and expensive types of garment produced in Nishijin also requires one of the most flexible approaches.

Kyoto’s Nishijin is home to many of Japan’s finest textile weavers, however one of the most demanding jobs in terms of quality would have to be the production of Noh Shozoku, or costumes for Noh theatre. An extremely rare type of craft, Noh costumes have similarities to kimono but also include a great deal of other types of garment in order to depict every different type of character ranging from young to old, beautiful to vengeful, human to supernatural. This wide range of costuming requirements depends upon an equally rich repertoire of weaving techniques – something only the most technically proficient workshops can provide. Sasaki Yoji’s Noh Costuming workshop is one of very few that can fill these orders in Japan. 

While the mask of a Noh actor is a powerful, transformative theatrical aid, it is the many-layered, wide-shouldered costumes that give the actors their ponderous, larger-than-life presence on stage. Starting with the garment called karaori, which is the most emblematic of Noh costumes, modern day Noh Shozoku are known for their sumptuous, bold and intricate designs featuring many colors and liberal use of gold and silver string. It wasn’t always this way however – initial Noh costumes were simple samurai wear or court garments. It was in the Edo period that Noh gained the full patronage of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and the daimyos – feudal lords – were expected to sponsor costume production and and fund Noh performing troupes. Then with the Meiji Revolution (1868) and the subsequent dissolution of the shogunate, the patronage Noh enjoyed disappeared, leaving actors, mask carvers and costumers very short of work.

Despite this climate, Sasaki’s grandfather opened his workshop in 1898, and shortly after that Noh regained financial support of the Imperial Government. ‘There used to be Noh actors everywhere, and costume workshops were much more common,’ says Sasaki-san. ‘Now, the only real places left are in Kyoto.’ The current location has been in operation since 1934 and employs twelve people who handle all steps from operating the Jacquard looms to sewing the completed panels together. Sasaki-san’s job is to consult with the Noh theatrical troupe and elicit their needs: what play do they need costumes for, what does the lead actor have in mind, and so on. As the costumes play a large role in denoting what kind of character is being played, some conventions such as colors and patterns must be observed, but the rest can be designed freely. Given the expense and effort involved in making these garments, these decisions are extremely important. 

The Sasaki workshop produces 50-100 karaori – or kimono for main actors – a year. This is in addition to the dozens of other types of  garment used in a single play by the side actors, all of which require different construction. Sasaki-san thinks that the reason they have been able to thrive is because of the team of artisans employed at his place. ‘It doesn’t matter how skilled one person is – for jobs this big you need a certain level of organization to create costumes in a reasonable amount of time.’

Each artisan is consummately skilled in their own specialization – for example the exorbitantly decorated karaori coats worn by the main actors features hand-woven brocades that are so luxuriant and three-dimensional that they are often mistaken for embroideries. Other types of garment, for example the mizugoromo, are translucent, rough-woven overgarments that use extremely thin string to denote a threadbare or dilapidated look. This material is produced on a regular loom with horizontal weft purposely set in a random wave pattern against the warp. The result is a gossamer, ephemeral looking kimono that looks just like its namesake: water garment.

Visitors to the Sasaki workshop will also find a small showroom in the front of the property that displays some of the works produced there, but also several items from a line of goods that Sasaki-san has been working on in his spare time. ‘I literally started it when I had nothing else to do,’ he says with a smile. The brand, ROSA, is a series of handbags, wallets, change purses and so on, made out of special silk woven textiles only found in Noh costumes. While they fetch designer prices, one can be assured of the craftsmanship, history and uniqueness from buying from these very special artisans.