The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
The world of Hidetaro Honjoh – pursuing shamisen music as a traditional Japanese folk art, and even venturing into British contemporary theater
Shun-kin (Co-produced by Setagaya Public Theatre, Complicite)
(Feb - Mar 2008 at Setagaya Public Theatre)
Directed by Simon McBurney
Performed by Eri Fukatsu, Songha Cho, Hidetaro Honjoh and more
Photo: Tsukasa Aoki
Shun-kin-sho (A Portrait of Shunkin)

This is the story written by Junichiro Tanizaki of the life of shamisen mistress Shunkin, the beautiful second daughter of a wealthy Osaka merchant family, portrayed through the eyes of her faithfully servant, Sasuke. This is one of Tanizaki’s representative works that combine traditional aesthetics with his particular obsessions.

Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965)

One of Japan’s representative authors, Tanizaki is known for a literary style, called akumashugi (demon-ism), defined by sensuality and often taking the femme-fatale as its subject. Words such as aestheticism, eroticism, fanaticism, romanticism and masochism are often used to describe his works. Born in Tokyo, he eventually moved to the Kansai region (Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto) and his youthful interest in things Western shifted to an interest Japanese tradition and aesthetics that is reflected in the many works he wrote during his career. Among his representative works are Sasameyuki (The Marioka Sisters) about the daily lives of four beautiful sisters, Chijin no ai (Naomi) and Tade kuu mushi (Some Prefer Nettles). Tanizaki also worked on a modern colloquial version of The Tale of Genji.

Jiuta (shamisen)

Jiuta shamisen is one used in the jiuta music that developed in Osaka and Kyoto, known as kamigata music. Jiuta is traditionally a music/song form passed down through generations of blind performers. In the feudal period, music offered a means for the visually impaired to support themselves and live independent lives. In the story Shun-kin-sho, the main character, Shunkin, is a blind woman who lost her eyesight as the result of illness at the age of nine. By devoting herself to the study of jiuta, she eventually becomes a master musician.

The size of the shamisen instrument determines the thickness of the strings and the plectrum. The playing technique and, naturally, the sound also vary with instrument size. Jiuta shamisen is larger than the nagauta shamisen with a slightly thicker neck. The most distinguishing characteristic of the jiuta shamisen is the presence of a metal weight made of lead or other metals in the bridge on the instrument’s soundboard that holds the strings. Varying the size (weight) of this bridge weight enables slight adjustments in the sound of the instrument. The jiuta shamisen is usually performed in ensemble with koto or shamisen and is basically a chamber [music] instrument for use in the home or [tatami] parlor/banquet rooms.
I once heard you sing a minyo from Ogasawara and was very surprised by it. Partly because it was the first time I had heard the music of the Pacific island chain of Ogasawara and also because it sounded like Micronesian folk songs. It gave me a renewed sense of how diverse the Japanese islands are. Was that a result of field work you have done?
    I have never been to the islands of Ogasawara, but I have listened to people from there sing their songs. Usually when people go collecting regional minyo, they probably get an introduction to a local singer and go to listen to them sing, but I don’t like to do that. My minyo gathering method is more like watching and listening to them sing from a more detached position. And as I do, I tend to absorb it all at once, like sucking the nectar from a flower. So when a sign a minyo from Ogasawara, it is probably different from the way other people sing it.

Does that mean that when you re-produce the things you have gathered, the nectar, it comes out in a different form through your own personal filter?
    That’s right. When I learn an Ogasawara song and sing it, I am not an Ogasawaran, so I can’t sing it as they do. But I can recreate in my performance the image that I have gotten from their singing. Since it is not my job to copy them, I let the things I hear run through my own filter and then make it my own. So, in a sense, when I gather new songs I am re-arranging and composing at the same time. In the case of minyo, the same song will be sung slightly differently by any two people, and depending on the physical condition of the person at that moment, the tempo may become faster or the key may be higher and the image of the song may change completely as a result. You need to be able to see through those elements, to have the ears to hear those differences.

So, are you listening to the songs as a resource for future use?
    Exactly. When I am singing, I vary the tempo of the songs depending on the songs that come before and after it in the program. Taking something like the Itsuki Lullaby, depending on its place in the order of that day’s concert, I might think, “It would be perfect to sing it with the beat and melody that so-and-so used.” In this way, for a given song I don’t learn just one way of singing it but several different rhythms and styles of singing it. That enables me to perform with much greater freedom.

Since the 1970s you have been introducing Japanese shamisen music overseas on programs supported by the Japan Foundation and others.
    When I was younger, I had the opportunity to travel to a number of countries, like the U.S., Brazil and countries of the Middle East, and to experience there a variety of folk/ethnic instruments. That experience has been a great asset to me. I also had the opportunity to play with performers of traditional instruments in each country, which prompted me to re-consider Japan’s minyo music.
    The world of the classics is something that developed as a performing art, I believe, but I think ethnic music is something that occurs spontaneously, and within that music is the spirit of gratitude for the blessings of the natural world. The classics are the spangled, man-made creations, while ethnic music has a different type of brilliance. I believe that we have to value our Japanese folk music and ethnic music much more than we do now.
    One other thing I realized by traveling abroad is that, although Japan is a small country, it has many distinct and different regional characteristics and cultures, and even the sense of rhythm and pitch are different. The way people clap a beat is completely different in many regions. Realizing and polishing these regionally distinct traditions would surely be a great way to create wonderful folk arts groups and music or dance companies. And that makes me wonder why it isn’t being done.

For a three-week run beginning at the end of January, you will be serving as musical composer and performing live on stage in a London production of Shun-kin (a story about a folk song master and her apprentice). This production is based on the short stories Shun-kin-sho (A Portrait of Shunkin) (*5) and Inei-raisan (In Praise of Shadows) by the famous Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki (*6) and is co-produced by Tokyo’s Setagaya Public Theatre and Britain’s Theatro Complicite. Its world premiere was in Tokyo last year. It is directed by Complicite’s Simon McBurney and the cast is Japanese. How was it that you became involved in this production?
    The person who had been asked by Simon (McBurney) back in 1993 to find the shamisen performer who had the most beautiful sound in Japan, saw the 1993 production of Hamlet that I composed and played the music for and apparently liked it. That was a production of Hamlet staged at the Panasonic Globe Theater (now called the Tokyo Globe) and the Swedish director, Peter Stormare, said that since the play was being done in Japan he wanted to have the music performed on Japanese instruments. Eventually it was decided that the shamisen would be used.
    When I met Simon, he said he wanted to do Shun-kin, which perplexed me a bit because the world portrayed in that story is jiuta (regional folk music: *7), which has a different sound from the shamisen I play. For people who know traditional music, they would be asking, “Why this kind of shamisen?” I then asked Simon if he still wanted to use me, knowing that contradiction. When he heard my shamisen, he said he wanted to use me in any case. When he said that, I decided to take the job. Then I began participating in the workshops for the production.

What kind of music did you decide to create for Shun-kin?
    This play was ten years in the making. It is based on the works Inei-raisan and Shun-kin-sho, but at first it was mainly based on Inei-raisan rather than Shun-kin-sho. It is Inei-raisan (In Praise of Shadows) that depicts more directly the beauty of light and dark and the use of shadows in Japanese daily life, and in that case I thought I could do music with the right kind of expressive nuance.
    As with the play itself, I began working on the music ten years ago. Simon divided the actors into groups and had them working on the script and staging [movement] for different parts of the story in a workshop method. Using this method he had each group do several scenes for a certain part of the story. When I first saw those workshops in progress, I felt that the work process was the same as composing and I thought that it was something I would be able to do. As the actors worked up a scene, I could work along and immediately come up with music through improvisation to go along with it. Each group had a different mode of expression, so the music came out differently in each case. Unlike musicians, the actors get into the scenes intellectually from a variety of perspectives and levels, and it was fun to be stimulated by that to compose music to go with it, thinking how to play each part and coming up ideas one after another. It was very interesting working with those actors.
    Around that time, Simon asked me if I could act. I told him absolutely not. But in the end he had me on the stage performing the whole time. Although there was no actual acting involved, it was the same for me as if I were acting out a part as an actor. Just on a whim, I happened to give Simon a short explanation about the construction of the shamisen and showed him how the neck is separated from the body and then how the neck comes apart into several pieces. I took it apart and then reassembled it again. That is something I should not have done (laughs). Seeing that, Simon apparently had a moment of inspiration, because he added an opening scene just after the curtain rises, where I come out carrying the shamisen in a case and proceed to assemble it. Then, at the end of the play where the main character dies, the shamisen is left on the stage when the final exit is made and the curtain falls. Looking back, I realize that it is something that causes wear on the shamisen and I should have just kept my mouth shut instead of making that original explanation that led to those two scenes (laughs). I regret it a bit.
    Assembling the shamisen there on the stage and then performing on it is in fact a very difficult thing. The shamisen is a sensitive instrument that is easily affected by changes in humidity and has to be tuned constantly. For this play, the instrument has to be assembled and the strings changed properly without damaging them before the play begins. Then the instrument has to be taken apart again and put in the case to be ready for the opening scene. Once the play starts and it is assembled again, I have to play while caring for the strings as best I can on it.
| 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |