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
Hirotada Kamei
What were your middle school and high school years like?
    From my third year of middle school I was performing on stage in an increasing number of performances and by my first year of high school I think was performing about 20 stages a year. That was a lot for my age, but in my second year of high school that number had grown to 100 stages a year, and by my third year it was 120 stages. And it is a different play every time, so it was quite a task. So with the Noh performances alone there were 120 a year and then there were dances that I also played hayashi for. It was around this time that I felt that I could take over the responsibility of performing a stage if something happened to my father.
    After that I went to the National University of Fine Arts and Music, Tokyo, where I was exposed to other types of music, from opera to musicals. And, I believe that it was a very good experience for me to meet others my same age who were devoting themselves to the other traditional Japanese arts of nagauta recitation, sokyoku (Japanese harp music) and shakuhachi flute and nihon buyo (Japanese traditional dance). Seeing and listening to what they did and what they thought, was able to look at Noh more objectively and I was able to ask what it was necessary for Noh to do and what wasn’t. For example, the Noh play Ataka and the Kabuki play Kanjincho treat the same subject, but I honestly think Kanjincho is more interesting. Basically, when it comes to dramatic plays, Kabuki is more interesting than Noh. In historical terms, the more dramatic Noh plays like Ataka and Funa Benkei were written after the audience got a bit tired of the original yugen (ethereal) plays written by Zeami. In other words, in response to the changing tastes of the audience we see the emergence of Noh plays that were more enjoyable to listen to from the middle and later Muromachi Period (1336-1573). So I realized that in order for Noh to survive, we should not be doing the kinds of plays that Kabuki does better. I believe that should be doing plays like Takasago that bring out Noh’s strengths, or Izutu or Teika with dramatic scenario of human inner mind are unique to Noh and only Noh can give full expression to.

I am surprised to hear you say that Kabuki is more interesting [for some plays]. In most cases Noh is referred to as the original [and Kabuki an outgrowth].
    That is one of the things I don’t like about the Noh world. It is as if they are saying that we[Noh] are the pure bloodline of the performing arts. Even though our teachers and the masters of the previous generation reconstructed the Japanese traditional arts and culture after World War II, there are some who want to preach that Noh is Noh [as if it is an distinct, unchanging and sacred tradition], Kabuki is Kabuki and Bunraku is Bunraku. That is what I don’t like. But, in fact Noh is a tradition that adopted elements from Gagaku (traditional Japanese court music) and Kagura (Shinto ritual dance and music) as well as the Kowakamai dance theater popular in the Muromachi period and mystical ritual dance traditions like Dengaku in Heian Period (794-1185). So, I feel that Noh is actually an art that has borrowed and copied from other traditions. It may sound as if I am quoting Zeami’s phrase Riken no ken (looking at oneself from an objective viewpoint), but I believe we have to look at the Noh world more objectively today.
    Fortunately, my blood consists of half Noh and half Kabuki, and to take advantage of the fact that my brothers and I were born with half the blood flowing in our veins coming from a Kabuki family and the other half from a Noh family we started our “Sankyokai” performances to try to create works that brought together the good aspects of both the Noh and Kabuki traditions. Since in daily life the three of us don’t usually talk in any depth about our performing, it was only after beginning to work together on the Sankyokai performances that we began to talk in depth about our arts. And what we found was that neither Noh nor Kabuki is an art that copies others. Rather, they are two arts that approach the same subjects with different values and different viewpoints.

For the younger audience, Noh can be quite slow in tempo and even a little uncomfortable to watch. What do you think can be done to win over the audience of your generation? It seems to me that one of your attempts to do this is the group “Noh in the Present Tense” that you formed in collaboration with the Kyogen master Mansai Nomura and the hayashi flute master Yukihiro Isso in 2006. It appears to be a fresh new movement in which you choose a new shite each time to perform the main role.
    To be able to perform with an impeccable cast of players, the result should be performances that will be appreciated by anyone. This is a fundamental, I believe. And, although it may not be something for me to say, it certainly helps the beauty of the Noh if the performers are good-looking (laughs).
    Also. A lot can be done with the performance format, I believe. We can set a later starting time, such as 8:00 in the evening to make it night theater, and I believe that we can also have a run of performances for a week or so rather than the usual one-off performance of Noh. However, I don’t know if the Noh actor can accommodate this, considering the tradition that Noh is only performed in single, one-off performances and never in runs of daily performances.
    “Noh in the Present Tense” began as a project of Hashi no Kai and the concept was to have a performance by three performers of the same generation with sufficient draw to gather audiences to fill the 600 or 700 seat Noh theaters. In terms of contents, what we are doing is rather unique. It is a rather unfortunate fact that we three are the only Noh/Kyogen performers of our generation with the draw to gather audiences of this size, not to mention the technical prowess. I would like to see the younger generation following suit, but in reality it is difficult under the present conditions. So I am working to raise the next generation of talented young shite. If we don’t have star shite like Zeami was in the Muromachi Period, there will be no development for Noh in the future. Because the shite is the center of the Noh world.

What are your thoughts about the potential of the otsuzumi as an instrument? Some performers are trying things like performing with other artists of other ethnic instruments. How about you?
    I’m not interested in that kind of thing at all. As long as I call myself a Noh otsuzumi artist, I can’t even think of doing solo performances. I believe that the way of the hayashi artist is to perform in the organic dynamic of the trio with a flute and kotsuzumi or the quartet with the taiko drum. For the otsuzumi performer to go off by himself and do sessions with artists from other genre and searching for new potential there is off the mark and a big mistake.
    However, I did do the music alone on the otsuzumi for the 2006 production of Atsushi—Sangetsuki, Meijinden put together and directed by Mansai Nomura at the Setagaya public theatre. The otsuzumi is an instrument that is also performed with words (recitation) and that is why I was able to feel purpose in doing the music for that production. And it is because of that vocal element that I have also done performances in a storytelling recitation [rodoku]. I found performing on otsuzumi with a storyteller very difficult but I learned a lot from it, trying to be conscious to strike the drum during the intervals between the storyteller’s lines and to use my voice at a volume that wouldn’t drown out the narrator.
    My feeling is that whatever work I do, I want it to continue to be within the context of theater music, or music within the whole of the theater performance. I want to believe that if I continue my daily practicing my music will continue to mature as an art. My aim in art performing and the way I use my body is to be as free as possible and, as we say, “Cross the Heavens and Earth.”

You also compose (write) new works of Noh.
    Composing a work of Noh is called sakucho. Sakucho means to create a tune [melody]. I have done it 20 some works now. There have been some meaningful results like shite Rokuro Umewaka’s Kukai and composer Jyakucho Setouchi’s Yume no Ukibashi and Kuchinawa, but what I have learned is that it is very difficult to create new works of Noh.
    In Noh there are limitations in terms of the movements and music and the potential for what we call [psychological/philosophical] “expansiveness.” It is difficult to use devices like stage mechanisms and choreography to enhance and expand it like you can in Kabuki. And, so it is very difficult to bring in contemporary subject matter. However, I felt that if you pursue themes daily life that were the same in the Muromachi Period as they are in today’s Heisei (1989-present) world, such as Jyakucho’s eroticism, there are possibilities.
    And, I believe that it is best to do it with the same composition methods and the same choreography methods as 600 years ago. I am being asked to create a new work for Noh in the Present Tense, but for the time being I want to see the three of us doing good productions of the famous old works from the Noh repertoire for the audience before I try new works. Within ten years or so I should be able to have something new to show.

I look forward very much to that. Do the three of you in Noh in the Present Tense have any plans to do overseas performances? Since you stand out so prominently in today’s scene, and are visually a very pleasing group to watch, I’m sure that you could bring fresh, young and interesting Noh to foreign audiences.
    I would like to do that. But since we have a schedule that is full for the next two years and all of us are busy, it would be three or four years before such performances could be realized even if we started planning right now. But I definitely want to bring charm of our young Noh to world audiences.
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