Mon, Aug 17, 2020

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

TSUMUGU interview

By Kazuki Matsuura / TSUMUGU Project

(Continued from Part I)

The answer to that question lay in the ongoing special event. It was put on “for people to see the worthiness of nohgaku.”

Kiyokazu Kanze, the grand master of the Kanze school of noh and other masters from various schools gathered from all over Japan to give their performances.

“There has never been a lineup of noh/kyogen programs like this before… I’d say, there never was, and there never will be another event like this one. Different schools have different styles, different tastes. This time, the various schools have sent in their top performers to show what each of them does best.”

“A huge nohgaku event was put on in 1964 on the occasion of the last Tokyo Olympics. The initial scheme for 2020 was to reproduce that event, but I believe the event we’ve put on is more than the last one. I think we we were able to make the audience see why nohgaku survived and why it will keep on.”

“The skills we’ve been cultivating for nearly 700 years, the refined dramaturgy, costumes and masks made based on our high level of aesthetic awareness, and the music, our power to create an atmosphere on stage, etc,. were all there.”

The event ran until Aug. 7. The programs varied from day to day, featuring well known plays including Okina (noh), Shakkyo (noh) and Suehirogari (kyogen).

Nomura himself was the shite (principal actor) in Kusabira (Mushrooms). In the act, a man is bewildered because the more he picks mushrooms growing in his garden, the more they grow. He asks a priest to pray them away, but it backfires, and they keep growing at an even faster pace.

“The story says oppression is not the way, but cohabitation or coexistence is. The notion of what we call ‘diversity’ today already existed in the nohgaku theater in medieval Japan. Typically, those who use force are made to suffer in nohgaku plays. When oppression was around, noh and kyogen represented the reaction against it.”

In nohgaku, “everything is handmade,” the artist went on to say.

“The performers go on a square-shaped, roughly 33-square-meter stage and get their acts together without relying on stage lights or fancy settings. Nohgaku, or for that matter stage art, is created by living human beings. On stage, living beings represent human deeds. In the audience, living beings witness what’s going on on stage. The theater is a way for people to communicate and where people gather to feel the catharsis of living.”

“We were forced to hibernate from April to June. Now, the flowers are beginning to bud, and gradually, the flowers will bloom. That we will take the necessary steps to cope with the pandemic is a matter of course. We have to be careful, but we also need to do something to make the flowers bloom. To make the flowers bloom on stage is to make the flowers bloom in the audience. When the flowers bloom in you, that energy radiates. That energy is what I’d like to share with the audience. Reason is no match for the power of the performing arts.”

Seeking the essence by comparison

Asked to compare the Western theater with that of Japan, Nomura said: “They say the theater won’t perish, but some say the Greek tradition has. They say the drama or script is still there, but dramaturgy has been lost. Take for example, Shakespeare. The script may always be the same, but the performance changes with every production. In nohgaku, the performance never changes. Well, it does make certain changes to reflect the conditions of the time, but we continue to follow a certain style or tradition passed down from our predecessors. I think that is why nohgaku is said to be unique and the oldest stage art in the world.”

Nomura is also active in the modern theater. As artistic director of the Setagaya Public Theatre in Tokyo, “I often end up asking the stage director to work on a modern reinterpretation of something traditional. In other words, I ask the modern theater to reinterpret with its own artistic sensitivities and physical expression what the nohgaku performers cannot. On the other hand, my personal challenge is to bring the style, techniques and ideas of nohgaku into the modern theater, including Shakespeare.”

“I’ve been in modern dramas including movies and was given the opportunity to study Shakespeare’s theater in Britain. I’ve been constantly thinking about how nohgaku differs. Knowing the difference, leads to understanding your own essence. You’ll never know what the essence is or what’s important until you try out something new.”

“Living the modern life as you look back on history in a society where tradition is aptly compared with something new and modern — something that may not be long-lasting, but is trying hard to at every given moment — that, I think, is one ideal way of life.”

(Go back to Part I)

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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