Jo-Ha-Kyu and the Discordant Aesthetic

As a young man in my early twenties I spent a year living in Japan. What brought me to live there was my determination to deepen my training in a Zen sword discipline called Iaido. At the time my Japanese language was quite poor, only surviving with rudimentary phrases. Luckily, the philosophy of Japanese martial art training was observation and practice. Hardly anything was explained, its theory, philosophy and execution was learned by just doing.
During my training, I continually heard three sounds my Sensei would bark out as I moved. “Jo!” “Ha!” “Kyu!” At the time I had no idea what they meant, but they were always connected to a specific movement. Jo was regularly connected with the slow steady movement of my hands when they stealthily moved toward the handle of my sword. Ha was the draw of the sword and lastly Kyu was the efficient cut of the sword as it dispatched the imaginary opponent.

By the end of my time in Japan I understood the significance of Jo-Ha-Kyu to Iaido, but these three words are not just used in the martial arts. They form the basis of Japanese aesthetics, particularly in the arts that involve movement. The person who derived the term Jo-Ha-Kyu was the founding Father of Noh Theatre Zeami Motokiyo.
Zeami wrote one of the first treatises on drama, which was the Fūshikaden 風姿花伝the literal translation is "The Transmission of the Flower through the Forms" or more simply "Style and the Flower", also known as Kadensho 花伝書. It is the first known treatise on drama in Japan though similar treatises were written by Japanese Buddhist sects and poets, but is commonly known as the Noh treatise. In this first treatise Zeami first articulated a detailed explanation of Jo-Ha-Kyu 序破急.

Jo-Ha-Kyu is the most important of Zeami’s aesthetic concepts. It represents “the natural rhythm of life” . So the way we move through time and space physically is uneven, “because human beings always exist within a state of unbalanced harmony, our aesthetic consciousness of rhythm also exists within a disharmonious construct” . This leads to an alternative explanation to the normally perceived definition of Jo-Ha-Kyu, which is viewed fundamentally as: beginning, middle and end.

This simple perception can be further from the truth. When one separates Jo-Ha-Kyu into its three phonetics, a deeper meaning is revealed. Jo 序 means foreword, preface or opportunity. Ha 破 means rip or break and Kyu 急 means urgent, sudden or abrupt. In a dramatic context Jo refers to a position, a spatial element, Ha signifies a destruction of an existing state and is the element of disorder, Kyu is a temporal element and to speed, more specifically acceleration. Even today Kyu’s Chinese character急can be seen on Japanese trains signifying that the train is an express.

Jo-Ha-Kyu as an aesthetic is unique, because it is cyclic. The process does not merely stop at the final step Kyu, an element of Jo must be incorporated in Kyu so the process can start over again. Jo-Ha-Kyu can be seen as the DNA of Noh Theatre, because its principals are used in every aspect of Japanese theatre from the movement on stage including exits and entrances, to choreography of dances, to the way music is played, the structure of the play, building up to the programming of a day’s theatre.

It is this aesthetic of discord, which Jo-Ha-Kyu derives from, was the reigning philosophy in Japan over a thousand years ago and still influences modern Japanese society. For example in Japan odd numbers are considered more favorable than even numbers and this comes from over a millennia of tradition: A child’s third, fifth and seventh birthdays are especially celebrated and classical poetry is composed in three or five units of five or seven syllables. In the development of their aesthetic conscious the Japanese intentionally rejected the harmonious for the favor of the discordant, a respect for the asymmetrical in the construct of time and space. Within this philosophy of which Jo-Ha-Kyu is a part of, there are three other concepts: Dynamic Symmetry, Ten-Chi-Jin and Shin-Gyo-Soh.

The Heian period (AD 794-1185) was a time of great change. To relieve themselves from the monotony of balanced symmetry of Chinese art and architecture the Japanese introduced the element of disorder. In a space construct it would be called a spatial composition with no axis. A spatial composition with an axis is symmetrical always controlling the looker’s eyes to focus on the apex of the structure or object. In a non axial space the vision is not controlled, rather the eye is kept in constant motion because the center of the shape is never in the center of the space.

Ten-Chi-Jin 天地人 “Heaven, Earth, Man” expresses a non-axial, non-harmonious arrangement of three elements; something high, something low and something in between. Noh theatre is performed in a space made up of three spatial forms constituting three elements; Near Honbutai ‘The Stage’, Far Kagami no Ma ‘The Mirror Room’ and the Hashi Gakari ‘The Bridge’. This is a non-axial arrangement therefore the line of vision of the audience is not focused in one direction. This spatial composition is used in other arts and literature for example a recurring motif is the ‘Three branches of the coldest season’ being pine, bamboo and plum, which represent longevity, endurance and the ability to withstand the cold of winter.

Complementary to the concept of Ten-Chi-Jin is Shin-Gyo-Soh 真行草 “Truth, Moving, Grass like”. This also can be interpreted as Formal, Semiformal and Informal. The term is used a lot in the art of calligraphy where Shin describes the block letters, Gyo is the less clear semi-cursive and Soh is the full flowing cursive script. However Shin-Gyo-Soh does not only mean a simple process of abstraction, it is a method of giving substance with Ten-Chi-Jin. If Ten-Chi-Jin is the formal stage of composition then the process of abstracting the elements either by altering the shape or changing then nature of the creation passes through the semiformal and finds its culmination in the informal stage.

These aspects of the Japanese discordant aesthetic have had a profound influence in my work as a stage director from staging movement to the architecture of my sets. What I am discovering during my career in the theatre is that Jo-Ha-Kyu and the other concepts of the discordant aesthetic are not just synonymous with the Japanese or other Asian cultures. Zeami has found something that is truly universal, that the human condition is in a constant state of unbalance. It is this unbalance, which is the seed of drama, where humanity embraces the struggle to find harmony and balance through development-rupture-acceleration and the then the cycle begins over again. If you’re looking for western examples of Jo-Ha-Kyu just listen to Giuseppe Verdi’s overture of Nabucco or Radiohead’s song Paranoid Android.

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