Sun, Aug 16, 2020

Kyogen artist Nomura Mansai: “We will withstand the COVID-19 crisis” (Part I)

TSUMUGU interview

By Kazuki Matsuura / TSUMUGU Project

It was all unexpected.

What had been initially planned as a grand nohgaku (noh and kyogen) festival to celebrate the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics has just ended. The gala performance by known noh/kyogen actors at the National Noh Theatre in the metropolis was held wishing for an end to the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic instead, with the seats only half full.

And it wasn’t just the grand festival that faced serious challenges when the crisis in Japan emerged in March.

“So many performances (scheduled for this year) had to be cancelled … ”

Kyogen artist Nomura Mansai sat down with Tsumugu reporters for an exclusive interview in Tokyo, some days before the opening of the special event on July 27. He had some things to say about the special event and how the nohgaku theater is coping with the COVID-19 crisis.

“As for myself, I had to prepare for Tokyo 2020, so my performance schedule was not so tight to begin with. The Paralympics would have been over by fall, but a lot of performances set for thereafter had to be postponed, so I’m not feeling so excited.”

Nomura had been called upon by the organizers of the Games to orchestrate the opening and closing ceremonies. These, too, of course, had to be put back.

The kata makes you laugh

But not everything was on the negative side.

“Till then, I’d been so busy, I scarcely had time to relax and reflect upon myself. I even had time to grow herbs on my balcony.”

What’s more, the kyogen star took to giving a lecture on how to laugh out loud kyogen-style making good use of the social media.

“People were asked to stay in their homes and must have been put under great stress. That’s why I got on with distributing the video to demonstrate the kata (form) of laughter on YouTube and Twitter.”

In the Western theaters, laughter requires motive. However in kyogen, the stage art of representing the daily laughter of the common people in medieval Japan, “the motive isn’t required, because the kata can do the job for you. Laughing automatically makes you feel more lighthearted. It can make you relax.”

Nomura gave a lecture on how to
laugh out loud kyogen-style on YouTube:

(Wait until he says, “Repeat after me” in English)




Looking back on history

However, staying off stage was not easy even for the master of laughter.

“In the beginning, I was dumbstruck. But gradually, as I began to see what was happening, I realized the situation was grim.”

Having its origins in the Muromachi period, nohgaku has a history that stretches back nearly 700 years. Nomura couldn’t help thinking about the plagues, wars, political crises and natural disasters the stage art had withstood over the centuries. There must have been times when performers could not take the stage.

“Our predecessors did what it takes to survive all of this. When you think about what they accomplished, the national state of emergency in the past few months is only a blip. So I had to wonder if getting flustered was a good idea.”

“It may be that the survival of the fittest applies to the arts, too. The point being, who shall survive shall survive. When we look back on history, we see that some schools have been eliminated, and some arts have gone extinct. That is why we are asking ourselves the fundamental question: What do we do to survive?”

(Continue on to Part II)

Nomura Mansai:

Izumi school kyogen artist and artistic director of the Setagaya Public Theatre (Tokyo). Nomura also takes the stage in modern theaters, and from time to time makes appearances in TV dramas and movies. In 2001, the versatile actor won the prize for best actor at both the Blue Ribbon Awards and the Japan Academy Film Prize for his leading role as Abe no Seimei in the movie Onmyoji. In 1994-95, he was given the opportunity to study the theater in Britain under the Program of Overseas Study for Upcoming Artists sponsored by the Agency for Cultural Affairs. As a kyogen actor, he made his debut in 1970 in the play Utsubozaru (The Monkey Skin Quiver). First-born son of Izumi school kyogen artist Nomura Mansaku II, a certified ‘Living National Treasure’ (a title given to preservers of important intangible cultural properties in Japan). Born in Tokyo in 1966.

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