Event extends reach of traditional theater

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“For over a thousand years, noh theater has consistently expressed a prayer for peace,” says Manjiro Tatsumi, a Hosho school. shite-kata (lead actor) and a designated Important Intangible Cultural Property, during the commentary session of the 18th Tokyo Dai Takigi Noh (Noh by Firelight).

The event was held at the Citizen’s Plaza, located in front of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building on the evening of October 16. Started in 1998 by the International Foundation for Arts and Culture, it has served as a rare opportunity for people to enjoy the art performed for free by noh professionals. With the exception of 2011, the year of the great earthquake in East Japan, and between 2015 and 2017, while the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building was undergoing repairs, the event was held every year until 2018. This is the first time the performance will be held since the COVID-19 -19 pandemic.

Haruhisa Handa performs at the 18th Tokyo Dai Takigi Noh (Noh by Firelight) in September 2018. He was unable to perform this year due to an injury. | TTJ TACHIBANA PUBLISHING

IFAC aims to promote art, culture and education by supporting and funding various projects internationally. It was founded by Haruhisa Handa, also known as Toshu Fukami, a philanthropist, business leader, calligrapher, painter and opera baritone, as well as a noh actor of the Hosho School and a member of the Nohgaku Performers’ Association. He studied noh at the Hosho Noh Society of Doshisha University under the tutelage of Nihei Kashiwabara and Takashi Tatsumi. He was due to star in “Sagi” (“The Heron”), one of three performances at this year’s event, but the program was replaced by another play due to his recent knee injury.

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Despite the change in program, the audience of approximately 2,800 people enjoyed the event and gave a generous round of applause to all the performers at the end of each performance. The livestream of the event was viewed 16,157 times on YouTube.

Before the programs, Tatsumi told the audience how to best enjoy noh and what each performance was about. “Noh is the aesthetic of jerking off,” he said, meaning that the simplicity in noh’s sets and props, as well as the actors’ movements and dialogue, are the result of pursuing minimalist beauty. “The audience is expected to add their own imagination to what they see on stage,” he said, emphasizing that it is the power of the audience that makes a small and empty stage from noh into an infinite space.

Tatsumi’s explanation of the programs helped the audience to understand the stories, even though no actors speak ancient Japanese. On a stage lit by torches, the musicians and jiutai (chorus) sat down quietly, and a high-pitched cry from a bamboo flute marked the beginning of the story.

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The first performance was “Kasuga Ryujin” (“The Kasuga Dragon God”), a story about a monk who plans to travel abroad and the dragon god who tries to stop him. Myoe Shonin, a monk who decided to travel to sacred Buddhist sites in China and India, appears on stage. He has come to visit Kasuga Shrine in Nara to announce his plan. But an old Shinto priest, played by Tatsumi, tries to convince him to continue his Buddhist practice in Japan. Tatsumi had explained prior to the performance that traveling abroad meant risking your own life because about a third of the ships sank during travel during the Kamakura period (1185 to 1333), when the story is set. The monk agrees and gives up his journey and the delighted old priest promises to show him the life story of Buddha and disappears. Then the dragon god, also performed by Tatsumi, appears and presents Buddha’s life story before the monk’s eyes and disappears into a pond.

The second part of the program was “Shibiri” (“The Inherited Cramp”), a traditional kyogen piece. Just as Tatsumi explained that kyogen is a form of traditional comedy theater that often portrays funny and somehow sympathetic adults, the characters in this short comedy were both witty. The master of the house instructs Taro Kaja, performed by Noritoshi Yamamoto, a kyogen-kata (main comedic actor) of the Okura School and a designated Important Intangible Cultural Property, to run an errand to prepare for a sudden visitor . But Kaja refuses to go and says he is suffering from an attack of his chronic paralysis. The master says: “What a pity. My uncle invited us to dinner, but you won’t be able to attend.” Kaja replies that he will try to mentally talk his paralysis down. The comedic dialogues and movements drew laughter from the audience.

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Takao Yamauchi plays Yamanokami during "Yoro 'Shugen.' "|  TTJ TACHIBANA PUBLISHING
Takao Yamauchi plays Yamanokami during ‘Yoro ‘Shugen.’ ” | TTJ TACHIBANA PUBLISHING

The third performance was “Yoro ‘Shugen'” (“Yoro ‘Celebration'”), a noh play about a waterfall in Gifu Prefecture that is said to have medicinal waters. An Imperial messenger sets out in search of the waterfall and encounters two men who know where it is. They take him to the waterfall and the mountain god, played by Takao Yamauchi, a noh actor who made his stage debut at age 7, appears. The event ended with the mountain god’s graceful dance of a prayer for long life and peace.

The event was supported by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the Cultural Affairs Agency.