Experience the Richness and Depth of Noh Theater and Japan’s Traditional Culture


Ginza Stories

What the Relocation to GINZA SIX Means for the Kanze School

The Kanze Nohgakudo, or the Kanze Noh Theater, which has been nestled in the quiet residential neighborhood of Shoto in Shibuya for 43 years, is currently in the process of relocating its storied and hallowed cypress stage to GINZA SIX, a shopping mall with cutting-edge facilities that will open in the heart of Ginza in Spring 2017.
Ginza, a commercial district where tradition and innovation coexist, is technically not a new home for the Kanze School. Historically, the Kanze School was based in Ginza until four generations ago, when the 22nd Grand Master Sanjuro Kiyotaka returned the land to the Japanese government in accordance with the Meiji Restoration [1868]. So in that sense it is a homecoming. The other reason for the relocation is that in an aging society where we see so many senior citizens out and about, I wished to provide a more accessible setting for young people to be exposed not only to Noh, but to the richness and depth of Japan's traditional culture.
In this day and age especially, I can't help but feel that we are losing touch with yamato-gokoro, that is, the spirit of softness, kind-heartedness, and gracefulness that have defined the Japanese identity and formed the bedrock of our psyche since time immemorial.
Consider the Noh play "Hachinoki" ["The Potted Trees"]. Hojo Tokiyori, a regent of the Kamakura shogunate, is traveling incognito throughout Japan, posing as a priest on pilgrimage. One winter's day, as he is passing through the city of Sano in Tochigi Prefecture, a snowstorm causes him to seek shelter from the shabbily-dressed Sano no Genzaemon Tsuneyo, a former lord whose family has been reduced to poverty. Prodded by the priest as to his clan affiliation, Tsuneyo reveals that "Kinsmen usurped my lands, and now I live in misery." Despite his wretched state, Tsuneyo offers the priest some steamed rice with millet, and as the night wears on and grows colder, he cuts down his prized potted plum, pine, and cherry trees and uses the branches to start a fire, saying, "...for this night's entertainment." But he recites this line quietly, almost to himself. That is yamato-gokoro. When the Japanese talk about omotenashi, they mean hospitality that does not draw attention to itself, that does not ask to be recognized.
Of course, when I perform this Noh play I do it as Kiyokazu Kanze, who lives and breathes in contemporary times. Contemplating the times when the founders of Noh—playwrights Kannami [1333-1384] and his son Zeami [1363-c. 1440]—walked the Earth is constructive to an extent, but it is unreasonable to expect someone in the present to recreate a performance in its original form. I believe that the performing arts must possess the adaptability to keep up with the changing times and the insight to understand the subtleties that unfold therein.

A State-of-the-Art Nohgakudo With Multilingual Support

This past July, our troupe was invited for the first time to the Lincoln Center Festival, an annual event held in New York hosting some of the best performing arts from around the world. There we conducted six performances over five days at the Rose Theater to much fanfare and acclaim. Performances abroad such as these are attended by discerning, theater-savvy audiences, and we occasionally receive greater acclaim than we do in our native Japan. Even from behind a mask I can feel the energy of the room, and I can imagine the audience leaning forward in their seats. They appreciate the beauty of form on display in Noh theater—perhaps because they are witnessing a world that is completely unfamiliar to them. Truly, the people of New York embraced our art.
Some time ago, we performed "Aoi no Ue" ["The Lady Aoi"] in Lithuania. There is a part where the ji-utai [the eight-member chorus, who sit in two rows stage left] pick up their sensu [Japanese folding fans] in unison, chant the chorus, and then when they are through, set their sensu back down in unison. The Minister of Culture, who also happened to be an opera singer, later said that the ritual had reminded him of attending Mass back in his hometown. I truly appreciated that he had ventured beyond the language barrier and interpreted what he had seen on his own terms.
When performing Noh overseas, we normally feature supertitles to convey to foreign audiences what is happening on stage. At GINZA SIX, we will initially feature English in-ear guidance, with full multilingual support forthcoming. Furthermore, the issue of accessibility, or what we refer to in Japan as barrier-free, is a central focus of the new theater. We will make every effort to provide an environment for guests with disabilities to enjoy Noh—for example, by using our multilingual support system to assist those with visual or hearing impairment. The metsuke-bashira [a pillar placed stage right that serves as a positioning guidepost for dancers] on our stage can be removed to allow for a more unobstructed view, and our stage lighting system is much more adaptable than what you usually find at a Noh theater. We envision our stage being used for performances other than Noh.
The new Nohgakudo will be a place where both Japanese and foreign theatergoers alike can imbibe a visceral experience of our art, free of assumptions and expectations of what it is or should be. No need to do research or study up on the subject matter beforehand—come in fresh, and ask questions later.
Noh recitations are in a very old form of Japanese, and syllables are sung to a fushi [melody, or aria] with long vowel sounds. The meaning of the words are often not meant to be taken literally, rendering the poetry all but indecipherable to even native Japanese. All the more reason why we advise against trying to understand our plays and performances on a purely intellectual level. Why are there four pillars on stage? You're missing the point! (Laughs.) Come in with an open mind and heart, and let your emotions be moved.

The Vision for the New Nohgakudo

As a devotee of Wagner's music, I could not pass up an opportunity to attend the Bayreuth Festival in Germany with my wife two years ago. The famous music festival— comprised exclusively of performances of operas by Richard Wagner—is held annually at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, a wooden theater designed by the 19th-century composer himself and completed in 1876. The grandeur of it all was stunning.
The theater sits atop a peaceful hill in Bayreuth, and the upward slope of the approach evokes a sense of arriving at a higher plane. Inside, there are no announcements made over the PA system—only the modest ringing of a bell to let people out in the lobby know that the performance will begin in five minutes. And with that, the conversations and chit-chat wind down and the last guests saunter into the auditorium. During all of this, the ushers at each door barely move—they're not shouting out instructions, not even checking tickets. The cloakroom is manned by a single attendant, but there's never a line.
Basically, there's an unspoken order to everything, a dignity shared by both the theatergoers and the organizers of the event that puts them in perfect sync. We Japanese have a saying for this: "a-un no kokyuu", but this, I thought, was the kind of savoir-vivre you could only see in a place as cultured and theater-savvy as Europe.
It might be some time before our new theater is able to provide a kind of service on that level, but I have no doubt that the raw, immediate nature of our art can inspire, rejuvenate, and even trigger a spiritual experience. And I hear that GINZA SIX will also offer a number of fine dining options in refined settings. After a Noh performance, you can be sure that food and wine will taste all the richer for it.
That is my vision for the new Nohgakudo. And this is only the beginning.

Noh Master

Kiyokazu Kanze

Born in Tokyo in 1959, Kiyokazu Kanze is the 26th Grand Master of the Kanze School, which claims the closest line of lineage back to Zeami and Kannami, who founded Noh in the Muromachi Period [1336-1573]. He is the eldest son of 25th Grand Master Sakon (Motomasa) Kanze. He has performed across Japan and in many other countries in revived plays such as "Hakozaki" and "Akoyanomatsu", and the new Noh plays "Rikyu" and "The Conversion of St. Paul". He has been designated as part of an Important Intangible Cultural Property of Japan, and is the recipient of numerous other awards and honors, including the Minister of Education’s Art Encouragement Prize and previously its Prize for New Artists, the Pola Award for Traditional Culture, Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters (Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres) by the French government, and the Medal of Honor with Purple Ribbon from the Japanese government.

Interview and Text by Yuka Okada / Photographs by Satoko Imazu