The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
Looking to the future of Noh with Hirotada Kamei, an Otsuzumi (Okawa) artist who calls himself a Noh actor
3rd "Name of Kai: Kamei Hirotada"
(Dec 2004 at Hosho Nohgakudo)
Name of Kai: Kamei Hirotada
Photo: Maejima Photo Studio
I would imagine that there are times when you get to the rehearsal before a performance and find that the image of how you are going to perform a play turns out to be different from that of the shite. What happens then?
    It depends on the case. If it is a highly accomplished actor (shite) that everyone respects, I adapt to the will of the shite. In the end, the shite is a conductor who doesn’t use words, asking about his intentions beforehand is an important prerequisite. But, if I find that I can’t agree with some things, there will be times when I make requests for some changes. However, it is the otsuzumi and the jigashira who actually move the performance along once it is underway.
    The rhythm of Noh is an eight-count beat. In terms of Western music it is 4/4 beat or an 8/4 beat. Within this beat, the otsuzumi plays the odd-numbered beats and the kotsuzumi the even numbered beats. In other words this means that the otsuzumi provides the first beat, and the kotsuzumi provides the ending beat of the 5/4 rhythm or the 8/4 rhythm. The otsuzumi gives the lead beat and the kotsuzumi receives it, or answers it. The otsuzumi creates the initial notes, whether it is the “yoh” call or the beat of the drum, and also the interval between the two. In this way, the otsuzumi is setting the initial tone and timing of the phrase, and that is what makes it so interesting to perform.
    Among the four instruments of the Noh ensemble, the role of the kotsuzumi is to “fill out” the sound [that the otsuzumi has initiates]. The taiko drum is played in double-time, providing both upbeat and downbeat to dominate the rhythm. In that sense you might consider it to be the heartbeat of the hayashi. As for the flute, if the kotsuzumi “fills out” the sound, the flute “decorates” it or highlights it. And the otsuzumi is the initiator of “circumstance” for each of these parts and the creator of the overall framework within which they fit. So, the otsuzumi has to be strong and decisive, otherwise the musical accompaniment and the flow of the play as a whole will not come together successfully.

The calls that are shouted out in the hayashi are loud to the point of even being noisy, close to a percussion instrument. Do you take measures to modulate the calls you make in any way?
    In fact, most of the measures I take for modulation or expressive variation concern these calls, rather than the sounds I make with my drum. There are many ways in which the calls must integrate with the narration (recitation) of the play. For example, our sounds are divided basically between high, medium and low sounds, which are referred to as ryo-chu-kan in the Japanese tradition. And, if the next line coming in the recitation is a high (ryo) phrase, I will hit a high note and then make a call that leads into it by saying in effect, “Here comes a high phrase.” The role of the otsuzumi within the hayashi is to give the initial leading note and beat, so I take this role into consideration with my calls as well as my drum beats and their tone. And there are also times when I may come in with a low sound even if the coming recitation is a high phrase and in that way create a sort of push-and pull dynamic. There are also times when I come in with a more abstract, floating type of call regardless of the recitation that will follow. In fact, the decisions about what kind of voice to make each call in is based on trial and error for me.
    I was once told by my old master, “Your use of the calls is deceptive. You don’t need to use so many clearly different voices. One sound is enough.” From my point of view, I think I am traveling the same path that my Master did when he was young. When I listen recordings of my father’s performances from his younger years, he is clearly changing the sound of his voice with different scenes. As a performer like him gets older, the techniques he acquired in the trials and error of his youth are gradually polished away, in a positive sense. I guess there is a need for a performer in the world of theater to add variation and “fatten” your repertoire of vocabulary and technique until your mid 40s. But when you pass the age of 50 you begin the process of polishing away the excess until your art begins to shine. Doing as you are taught is a stage that should end before the age of 20.

Since sons of the Noh and Kabuki families begin their training at a very early age. So by your age in your 30s you already have a career of over a quarter of a century.
    That’s true. It has already been 30 years since I began training. For an athlete my age is around the age when they reach their peak in terms of physical prowess, and it is all downhill after that. But in our profession the longer you live and perform the more you can refine your art, so I look forward to the years ahead. I feel truly fortunate that I found a profession where I can work for the full span of my life and I will not know what kind of performer I have been until the day I die.
    And that is not all. There is also the art of aging. Zeami, a cofounder of Noh theater, said “Like an old tree can bloom.” In other words, he hoped that people could continue to blossom even in old age. But a performer past the age of 70 with a voice that is not as strong as it used to be and less freedom of movement in the old joints can continue to blossom and bring inspiration to people with his dance, no matter the constraints or how stripped to essentials it may be. That is the kind of world Noh is. In his theoretical book Fushi Kaden, Zeami wrote the words “Nenrai Keiko no Jojo.” I interpret it to say if you haven’t achieved some degree of fame, technique and character by the age of 34 or 35 you will only go downhill from there, so it is best to give up the effort. I trained until now to reach this first goal and now I want to work toward the next goal, which is the fill out the bones of my art with some more meat by my mid-40s.

We hear that you call yourself an actor rather a musician. Why is that?
    I decided to stop thinking of myself as a hayashi musician. As long as I am performing on stage, I want to think of myself as an actor who uses the otsuzumi as an expressive medium in the play. As long as I am performing where the audience can see me, my line of sight, the movement of my hand, my posture and my facial expression are all parts of my performance. The otsuzumi player sits in the position that is most prominent from the viewpoint of the audience, so every posture and movement must be a thing of beauty. I believe that posturing and movement are in the realm of the actor.

You come from a family where everyone is a hayashi musician. Do you think that when you began training at the age of three, was it of your own will?
    My parents said, “Come sit in front of me [and learn how to play].” And that’s how it began. Considering the fact that I had been hearing Noh and Kabuki since I was in my mother’s womb, it was only natural. At that time my mother was an instructor in Kabuki narimono in National Theatre’s trainee program while also giving lessons to her own amateur students and supervising the practice of the Tanaka school apprentices. She would also go to see my fathers Noh performances and her father’s Kabuki performances, while also performing in Kabuki geza (musical, sound effects). So that was certainly a lot of input I was getting.
    Besides that, when my brothers and I were small our mother often took us to see Kabuki and Noh performances. She would strap my younger brother on her back and have my youngest brother in one arm while leading me by the hand to go see the plays. She would have us sit inside the kuromisu—the equivalent of the Western orchestra box where geza performance takes place—or to the very back row of the audience and tell us to be perfectly quiet and watch. Looking back, I think she choosing the stages she took us to with the hope that at least some fragment of the performances of the great performers of the day would stay in our memories. I was about four when I saw Utaemon Nakamura perform Dojoji from the second floor of the Kabuki-za, and I wished the play would never end. Even at that young age I remember feeling an aura around him. Seeing the Kabuki performances of Shoroku Onoe II and Ennosuke Ichikawa and the Noh of the late Hisao Kanze, I am certain that I learned a lot even before I was aware of it.
    Since my mother is the one from the main family of a Kabuki hayashi school, I could just as easily have taken that path, but the reason I chose Noh is because I thought my father looked so cool when he was performing on the otsuzumi in the Noh play. When I was little there were only full-sized adult drums, so I used to pretend I was playing the otsuzumi by using my left hand as the drum skin and beating it with my right hand. When I was three, my brothers and I were officially apprenticed under the late Master Tetsunojo Kanze. I was three, my younger brother, now Denzaemon Tanaka, was two and my youngest brother, now Denjiro Tanaka was not yet one. I learned the recitation of the plays and the dance. The roots of my Noh lie in what I learned then.
    I said earlier that learning the play recitation (the chorus narration and shite monologue) is how I practice, but actually its 90% recitation and 10% practicing my calls. It is important that you train and engrain your body with the essentials of Noh, which are the words, melody and dance movements of the play, so that becomes part of your subconscious. Your ability to do that determines whether or not you will become successful as a Noh artist. If you can’t move from the subconscious, you probably won’t survive in the world of Noh.

That is truly a case of training a child to excel from the cradle. But you must have wanted to play like other children instead of spending all your time in training.
    It is true that don’t have any memories of playing like a child when I was in elementary school or middle school. It is a very mundane thing, but I remember having the feeling from my elementary school years that an eldest son like myself had to be prepared to work to support his family should something happen to his father. So I wanted to learn enough to be able to perform on stage so I could start earning money.
    When my father was 26 he lost his father, my grandfather, who was a Living National Treasure as an otsuzumi performer. My grandfather collapsed during a performance, and since it was in the first half of the performance, my father replaced him and performed the otsuzumi part for the second half of the play. I heard that story from the time I was in nursery school, and my mother would say, “Hiro, if something ever happens to your father you have to take his place.” That is the attitude I took to my practice and eventually to the stage.
    We call it hataraki (to serve a master) in the Noh world, that an apprentice should carry his master’s bags and help him backstage, preparing his kimono and his instruments. In my case, my Master happened to be my father and I was doing the hataraki of an apprentice, following him every weekend from the around the time I was a third grader in elementary school. When I could, I went in the evenings on the weekdays as well. While doing my duties as an apprentice in the dressing room, my hataraki, I learned where I should stay in the confined spaces so as not to be in the way, the rules of behavior of the dressing room, how to heat (dry) the otsuzumi skins.
    When I was working in the dressing room, I wasn’t just doing my chores. I was watched and listening to a lot of Noh plays. While my Master was performing I sat behind him and listened to the plays. This is what is known as koken (tutelage). If my father was playing a dozen or so Noh plays a month, I was determined to memorize at least one or two of them and to sit behind and play them. In that way I could learn about 12 plays a year. When I finished school in the afternoon I would come home and my father would say to me before dinner, “30 minutes of practice!” And during those 30 minutes I would give it everything. From my mother I learned about the etiquette and the proper attitude towards Noh performance. From my father I learned the techniques of Noh performance, and from the late Master Tetsunojo I learned about the severity and difficulty, and also the joy of Noh, I feel.
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