Behind the mask

An audience with Japan's oldest-living noh performer

by Raju Thakrar

Noh is Japan’s most inscrutable performing art. A tremendous influence on kabuki and bunraku puppet theater, it is a household name across the nation, yet relatively few Japanese have ever been to a show. Culture vultures marvel at the elaborate costumes and the esoteric, chantlike music; the plays are loaded with gripping stories about life and death, ghosts and demons; but the snail-like pace of the actors’ movements leave most of us bored. And as for what is being said on stage, the language is so ancient that it is as foreign to most Japanese as James Joyce is to English-speakers.

Noh’s cloak of inaccessibility extends to its top performers, who, in stark contrast to those in kabuki, do not invite superstar treatment. So it is surprising to be invited into the inner sanctum of the art’s oldest practitioner, 86-year-old Yasuo Imai. Equally remarkable is his unvarnished candor about the future of the art form to which he has devoted much of his life.

“It will continue to go downhill, just like other forms of traditional Japanese music,” Imai says, matter-of-factly. “Noh is difficult to do and takes time to learn. It is so different from regular people’s hobbies that the only people attracted to it these days are slightly odd.

“A genius actor will have to appear to stem the tide, but that only happens once every 100 years.” (Clearly, Imai is not counting himself as a candidate.)

The juxtaposition is startling: arch-traditional art; plain-speaking artist. This is not atypical of Imai, who, having welcomed The Japan Times into his home in Tokyo’s trendy youth district of Daikanyama, completely dispenses with the formalities that first-time encounters in Japan entail and greets us by saying, “Hey, you guys are lacking in hair up top!”

This is an undeniably true fact for both writer and photographer but not something one would expect one of the top actors with the conservative Hosho school of noh to say. It sets the stage for things to come.

Imai is preparing to perform the shite (main) role in “Sekidera Komachi” — a play that has not been staged for 104 years. Perhaps oddly to those unfamiliar with the art form, there are no rehearsals in the noh. In the form that 14th-century playwright-performers Kan’ami and his son Zeami gave it 600 years ago, and which continues today, there are placing rehearsals for young actors, lines to be learned but no performance without an audience. Actors are normally taught new roles by their teacher or seniors. At his age, Imai has neither, so he has to think about roles by himself and make use of his experience. “I also use documented notes from the past that describe the roles, including dance moves, in great detail,” he says.

What’s more, no one alive today has ever witnessed a staging of “Sekidera Komachi,” including Imai, which makes it eerily similar to Imai’s first experiences of noh.

Imai was born into a family that ran a pawnbroking business, but at about the age of 3, he was adopted by his uncle, Takeji Imai, a noh artist who was desperate to find an heir to carry on his family name. In his first performance at the age of 6 in 1927, Imai played a child. “I was so nervous that I didn’t have a clue about what was going on around me,” he says.

Imai says noh has changed since he first took to the stage.

“These days, it’s harder to find high-quality noh. But the same could be said of all Japanese traditional art forms,” he says. “This is basically due to the decline in the caliber of the teachers. It’s really difficult to surpass a good teacher. Living a long life is important so that you can devote yourself to the art form.”

Imai refutes that noh’s slow movements lack appeal for Japanese people in today’s ultraquick society.

“Actually, not all noh dances are slow. The pace depends on the kind of character portrayed,” says Imai. “Movements are slow for old people, relatively quick for young people and fast and frenzied for demons.”

Noh is mainly watched by hardcore devotees who study its songs and dances. Imai explains what brings them back.

“The songs,” says Imai. “They are also the most difficult to master. Noh is 70 percent songs and 30 percent dance. It takes a lifetime to learn how to sing properly. An actor’s voice must possess a quality called gin (natural power) that gives songs softness and smoothness. It is not taught, so I had to study it on my own. But I can think of no better way to die than while reading a book of noh songs on my death bed. Do you think I’m a bit strange?”

The polite answer is no, but Imai seems determined to test our manners — as if perhaps to shake the cobwebs from the dull reputation his art form has earned — and regales us with anecdotes of a life richly lived: cancer battled and vanquished; a heart attack; aortic dissection; and dysentery. Imai came down with dysentery while stationed in Hansui Province, China, during World War II. Though it had taken the lives of many of his friends, he was confident that he would make it through. The cure, though, was not conventional.

“I grilled many cloves of rotten garlic and forced myself to eat them all,” he says. “I soon recovered. This makes me tougher than the Buddha, who died from dysentery.”

These stories are told while Imai sits perfectly still in the traditional seiza position, with his legs neatly wrapped underneath him. Your correspondent — although not unfamiliar with the pose — begins to cramp up in excruciating pain at about this point, an hour into the interview. How does an 86-year-old do it?

“I don’t have any secret formula to keeping healthy. People call me ‘Superman’ because I just don’t get tired. I guess I’m just physically different from other people.”

Indeed, you might agree after hearing Imai’s next story — an episode that may have brought on, or fortified him against, the afflictions he rattled off earlier.

“I found the lack of booze during the war to be hard to swallow. So one day, when I couldn’t take it any longer, I decided to go for the hard stuff: gasoline,” Imai says with a wicked smile. In order to prepare his body for this potent potion, he consumed a large amount of fatty pork boiled in miso.

“It wasn’t that hard to drink, actually,” Imai says. “The problem is that I haven’t found anything since that gives the same kind of kick.”

Yasuo Imai’s own personal troupe, “Rojo on Kai,” undertakes the first performance of “Sekidera Komachi” in 104 years at the Hosho Nogakudo theater in the Hongo district of Tokyo on Sept. 2.

Imai will play the shite (main) role of Ono no Komachi, a Heian Period (794-1185) beauty whose poetic prowess made her one of the best six waka poets of her time.

The play is set in Shiga Prefecture during the Tanabata star festival. A priest from the nearby Sekidera temple decides to take a child along with him to visit an old woman living in a nearby hermitage. After listening to her talk about famous poems and poets of the past, he begins to suspect the woman is none other than Ono no Komachi, who has fallen on hard times. It pains him to see her looking so frail, and he laments the transience of life.

The child invites Komachi to the festival, and she goes but says she has to return while it is still dark, because the morning sun will expose her for what she has become. Komachi returns to her thatched house as a bell rings in the dawn.

Imai only decided to stage the play after much urging by others.

“From about five years ago, people have been telling me to put it on, but I always said no,” he says. “Then about a year ago I finally began to feel that I could sing the play’s songs.”

The name of Imai’s latest troupe means “old women’s group,” so he thought that “Sekidera Komachi” — one of the Hosho school’s three main plays that revolve around an old woman — would be ideal as the first play they stage.

Tickets for “Sekidera Komachi” have sold out.