Despite a daunting work schedule, and the added demands of this holiday season, Mansai Nomura made it — albeit sleepy faced, but at the appointed hour — to this interview in the coffee lounge of the Waseda Rihga Royal Hotel in Tokyo.
Though he is known first and foremost as a star of traditional kyogen — the classic Japanese comic theater established in the Muromachi Period (1333-1573) — this 36-year-old actor is far from content to restrict his versatile talents to that alone.
In particular, he is constantly striving to render his art form relevant to the younger generation, through presenting kyogen versions of contemporary drama (“Sumidagawa” by Minoru Betsuyaku, “Yabu no naka” by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, etc.) or staging kyogen with electronic subtitle displays to make the arcane language accessible to all. He has also broken entirely new ground with his kyogen versions of Shakespeare plays — “Horazamurai” based on “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” and “The Kyogen of Errors” based on “The Comedy of Errors.”
As well as all this — and appearing in numerous films and TV dramas, frequently lecturing at universities and conducting theater workshops — in August, Nomura was appointed to a five-year term as the artistic director of Setagaya Public Theater (SEPT) in Tokyo.
This interview took place just after the Tokyo-born Nomura finished yet another experimental project — a workshop before an audience at SEPT. Titled “Kaitaishinsho,” and loosely based on the first Western anatomy book published in Japanese, in 1774, this workshop, conducted together with the leading contemporary dancer Kim Ito, explored different approaches to physical movement.
Right after the interview, conducted in Japanese, Nomura had to jump on a train for Nagoya, to perform in classical kyogen there that night.
How did you feel about being chosen as the artistic director of SEPT for the next five years?
At first, I thought ‘Why me?’
It is quite rare for an artist from the area of the traditional performing arts to be offered that kind of appointment at a public theater. On the other hand, I have had a continuous relationship with SEPT since it opened [Nomura performed noh plays at the opening ceremony in 1997]. Since then, I have not only presented performances for them, but also I have done a regular kyogen workshop and participated in their theater education programs. So these long-term relationships with SEPT were perhaps why I received the offer at this time.
How do you see your role as artistic director?
I believe that one of the artistic director’s jobs is “being the face of the theater.” When a public theater is trying to open itself to the public more, it’s better to show the public a face it knows — a symbol of the theater. To this end, I understand that SEPT thought my character and my accomplishments may suit what they are looking to do over the next five years.
Other factors on my side were that I was interested in the role of artistic director, and that I have felt strongly about the significance of theater education since I lived in England for a year [from September 1994], and I am looking forward to working in that area as well as actually staging productions.
Fundamentally, why do you think the arts are of benefit to the public?
Sometimes, the arts work to heal people’s minds, and sometimes they are a tool for spreading opinions, ideas or ideology. I think the arts are essential nourishment for keeping people’s minds in balance.
What do you think about the commercialized arts business, such as Hollywood?
Put simply, I envy them that they have so much money, such budgets; I also envy — from my standpoint as an actor — the upmarket financial circumstances of actors and actresses there.
Also, the world of Hollywood is on a much larger scale than the Japanese entertainment world, and I think the scale difference is because they create something with universal appeal. For example, people from all over the world see Hollywood films and people go to Broadway — or the West End in London, for that matter — to see the plays there. Unfortunately, not so many people yet come to see what we are doing in Japan, even from other Asian countries.
However, I think if we can aim for a sort of global view, it will raise the general level of the Japanese arts scene. For example, there would be no progress if we only targeted Setagaya citizens at SEPT. We have to have an enterprising worldwide view, otherwise we won’t even be able to maintain our standards.
So, what is your ambition at SEPT, and how far are you looking ahead?
I do not want all the programs to be drawn from overseas, of course, and I would like to set targets depending on each program.
I am currently very interested in the differences between the modern way of creating drama and the Japanese traditional performing arts. Some people believe that the current method of creating drama does not work for pre-modern, period drama such as Shakespeare — so nowadays, some people say such dramas are not so interesting.
But I think, for example, that the Shakespeare-era method of creating a play was quite similar to the traditional Japanese performing arts’ method. I think perhaps the actors in Shakespeare’s time had more allegiance to Shakespeare’s lines and each of his words, and their main job was to convey the lines as they were written. There were not so many theatrical effects then as a modern theater uses on stage now — such as lighting or complicated sets — so Shakespeare explained all sorts of information, like the time of the day or the weather, in words. That approach is about telling lines as they are, rather than presenting the director’s or actor’s interpretation of the play.
In a similar way, in the Japanese traditional performing arts world there is an idea that the actors’ job is rather like craftsmen’s work. So we Japanese traditional noh and kyogen actors are taking a similar approach to a play as they did in Shakespeare’s time.
I believe we should more actively export that idea of Japanese theater, and then see how it matches with Western ideas. I have an ambition to open up kyogen to European people, who are the founders of modern drama, through presenting it in performances rooted in my oriental background.
What do you think would help to raise the standard of the arts in Japan?
I understand that a certain level of stable revenue and an environment in which people can put their ideas into practice quite freely contribute enormously to the creation of quality arts. Fortunately, SEPT is a public theater, not a commercial one, so it meets these two requirements already. So if we can set wider goals beyond running the theater only for profit as a business, and use it for the benefit of the audiences and the public in general, we have immense potential for the arts in Japan.
In Europe, both artists and governments believe that exporting their own arts ultimately benefits their national interest. In England, for example, representative theaters such as the National Theatre carry out that sort of role with support from the government. Hopefully, such a national-level arts vision will develop in Japan. I think the Japanese government could be rather more involved with arts policy, not only with the budget side, and could exercise more leadership.
You have said before that you would like “to thread the woof through the warp of Japanese society.” What do you have in mind?
A simple example is my recent collaboration work with the contemporary dancer Kim Ito at SEPT — in other words, collaborations with artists and people in different fields.
If I talk about the woof in relation to overseas, I have doubts about the conventional way of cultural exchange — about whether it is enough to take kyogen, kabuki or bunraku [traditional puppet theater] abroad as they are, without any change. I’ve been doing kyogen in America and other countries since I was 7, and I came to feel that foreign audiences mostly saw these performances as a kind of cultural educational program from an oriental country . . . rather than being interested in kyogen.
Like the K-1 [extreme fighting] world, I started to want to compete with foreign theater on the same stage, not as a world-heritage “guest.” So then I took a kyogen version of Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” — “The Kyogen of Errors” — to The Globe Theatre in London in July 2001 — playing Shakespeare in Ichiro style [referring to Ichiro Suzuki, the Japanese baseball star who plays for the Seattle Mariners in the U.S. Major League]. I wanted to compete with Western theater by presenting Shakespeare with a very Japanese sensibility — yugen (“boldness, but at the same time gracefulness”).
On a personal level, I sometimes work with artists from other genres, such as contemporary dramatists, TV people or teachers, which helps me to confirm my own position and the relevance of what I am doing. Equally, the Japanese arts world needs to mix with or collaborate with other countries to know its own relative power and ability.
You did “The Kyogen of Errors” at SEPT twice, once before you went to The Globe Theatre and then again after. I thought it improved hugely after England. What did you get there?
Sometimes actors are confused by external fine details or we get caught up in details of every line. As a consequence of such particularization, as a whole the play can become a work the audience cannot understand easily. At The Globe Theatre, as we presented the play in Japanese we didn’t get caught up that way, and I strove to cut everything unnecessary from the lines and my previous direction. In doing that, I learned how to find a way of simplification — in the other words, to “polish” the work into a new version by subtraction.
Also, at The Globe Theatre the stage structure was quite familiar for me. It resembles the noh stage of my theatrical roots, with pillars and a roof, and surrounded on three sides by the audience — in front and at each side. Additionally, most of the audiences understood the plot of the play, because the story is familiar to them, so it was really the right place to present “The Kyogen of Errors.”
As well, though, one unexpected reaction was that English people noticed our art of speech, not only our traditional kyogen movement. The artistic director of The Globe Theatre, Mark Rylance, said to me: “I noticed that kyogen has various kinds of diction, and there are several usages of sounds.” It was the first comment about kyogen speech from a foreigner in my life.
Why are you so attracted to overseas, even though you are from a long family line of Japanese traditional artists?
Generally, not so many noh or kyogen people are interested in foreign countries, but my family is. Both my grandfather Manzo Nomura [a late living national treasure] and also my father, Mansaku Nomura, [one of the current leading lights of kyogen] took performances overseas. For myself, I don’t want to concentrate on preserving a tradition; I would like occasionally to go abroad to relate our work to a wider context.
Related to this is that when we learn kyogen, we learn the kata [forms] from our masters. We can present a certain kind of performance by reproducing these fixed styles, which have been handed down through generations of masters. When I learned a style from my father, though, I was told that I must think about its meaning by myself. But if we start to think about why and how the style has been like that for 600 years, we have to think again from the beginning about the whole process of the style.
Now, this reconsidering is as hard as creating a new style, but whether a person does it or not will make a huge difference to whether their performance is good or bad in the end. So I believe it is vital to re-create the traditional arts, not just to reproduce them. That’s why I sometimes go abroad to refresh myself and to derive a new incentive.
Finally, who have been some of the major influences in your life?
I am always greedy to absorb many things from many kinds of people all the time. When I was small, my father often took me to different types of theater. He told me: “It’s worth seeing as much quality theater as possible.” I think there’s a limit to how much you can do alone, so I want to steal good things from others!
I was influenced by Charlie Chaplin and The Beatles, for example, and particularly — I dare say most — by [the English contemporary drama director] Peter Brook. I consumed his original ideas, although I think he was also influenced hugely by noh/kyogen. In the same way, I should also name Akira Kurosawa. Among my own generation, I would pick out Simon McBurney — the English co-founder and artistic director of London-based Thea^tre de Complicite — and the Canadian director/actor Robert Lepage. These two dramatists are setting me a good example — one I aim to incorporate into my work, hopefully in the near future.