The history hidden behind the mask

by Rei Sasaguchi

Kiyotaka Imai, 67, is a prominent noh performer from the Kongo School, which was established in the Kansai region during the 14th century, and headquartered in Kyoto. The son of the late Ikusaburo Imai, a Kongo noh master of the highest ranking (shokubun) and a designated Intangible Cultural Asset, Imai began to study noh while young under his father and the late Iwao Kongo II, the former head of the Kongo school, making his debut on the stage in 1950, at age 7.

No stranger to Tokyo, Imai has been in 11 productions at Tokyo’s National Noh Theater, where on Oct. 30, he will be the shite (principal performer) in “Matsukaze,” a play by Zeami (circa 1363-1443).

Imai went to Doshisha University in Kyoto and was a member of the university’s noh club while he studied business, graduating in 1967. Having a repertory of over 200 noh plays, Imai has been active in the field for four decades, as both a professional performer and a teacher. He now is the director of the Kongo Association and serves Japan’s Association of Noh Performers as a trustee.

The history of the Imai family’s relationship with the Kongo school, began two centuries ago at the time of Tokugawa Ienari, the 11th shogun. Back then, the first Imai, Kangoro, was studying under a prominent member of the Kongo school, Sanjiro Nomura, and working as a member of the utai (chanting) group that accompanied Kongo noh performances at the Imperial Palace in Kyoto.

The tradition of Imai family noh performances under the group name Kagetsukai was started by Kangoro in 1826, and it has been passed down generations to Kiyotaka, the current head of the group, through five predecessors. It is now the oldest group of noh performers from the Kongo school.

In 1997, Imai was given an award for his outstanding performances by the Kyoto Prefectural Government and then another from Japan’s ministry of culture in 2004. He has also participated in various overseas noh events organized by the Kongo school, including a performance dedicated to Pope John Paul II in July 1984 and the production of “Shakkyo ” (“Stone Bridge”) for the 1998 National Cherry Festival in Washington, D.C.

For the female leading role in “Matsukaze,” Imai will wear the beautiful mask known as Magojiro, while his son Katsunori, 39, will be wearing a mask known as Koomote, as the tsure (accompanying performer) in the role of Matsukaze’s younger sister Murasame.

The role of Matsukaze is something that he feels new audiences to noh would find both aurally and visually stimulating. Her lines, as well those narrated by eight men in utai chants consist of beautiful phrases that are based on some well-known 31-syllable waka poems from the Heian Period. Matsukaze’s final mai dance also involves meaningful gestures and powerful and flamboyant movements; this all done in what he has described as an “elegant Kyoto style.”

The history of the Kongo Schol of Noh has contributed to what Imai suggests distinguishes this elegant style of performance from other noh schools. Five schools were founded in Kansai when Kyoto was Japan’s capital city. However, with the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate in Edo (now Tokyo) during the early 17th century, four of those schools moved their headquarters to Edo. Kongo remained in Kyoto, and it is the only school to still have its headquarters there.

Although Imai has played the role of Matsukaze several times in the past, he is still excited about the prospect of being her again. He confessed that he prefers playing women’s roles to male ones and that Matsukaze is in fact one of his favorite female characters.

The play, however, runs for almost two hours without a nakairi (when the actors leave the stage during a play), making it quite a strenuous performance, especially for a man of his age. Wearing a mask and maintaining the concentration needed for such controlled stylized movements for such a long period of time is perhaps the only reservation that Imai has about the upcoming performances. But it’s a challenge he clearly enjoys and one that provides a great opportunity for his fans to see him at his most impressive.

“Matsukaze” at the National Noh Theater in Sendagaya, Shibuya-ku, will be performed on Oct. 30. starting at 12:30 p.m. Reserved tickets are ¥10,000, ¥8,000; unreserved are ¥5,000. For tickets, call or fax (075) 491-2647, e-mail imaikouenkai@yahoo.co.jp or visit www.geocities.jp/yogilabo. Tickets will also be available on the door at ¥5,000.

An old love story as fresh as a tree breeze

A charming 15th-century play by noh playwright and performer Zeami, “Matsukaze” is known to have been adapted from a play written by his father Kan’ami, who in turn is believed to have based his “Matsukaze” on an even earlier play titled “Shiokumi” by Kiami, a master of dengaku (a dance-based performance art). The story centers on two sisters — Matsukaze (her name meaning “wind blowing through a pine tree”) and Murasame (“a sudden shower”) — who collect salt from the beach to sell for a living.

The play begins with a monk (a waki performer who wears no mask) traveling through the areas west of Kyoto. He arrives at the Bay of Suma located in Settsu (south of Kobe) and finds a pine tree growing on the beach. There, he hears from a man who lives by the sea that the tree marks the spot where two sisters are buried. The sisters, the monk is told, were both loved by renowned 9th-century courtier and poet Ariwara no Yukihira, who was exiled from Kyoto. On hearing the story, the traveler prays to the pine tree to appease the spirits of the two sisters, before he looks for a night’s lodging at a cottage not far from the tree.

On the moonlit beach, two women in white robes emerge, pulling a cart with a bucket. They begin to ladle seawater into the bucket and are overjoyed when they see the moon reflected in the water. The women are Matsukaze and Murasame, who believe that the moon symbolizes Yukihira, the man whom they adored. As they return to the cottage, they carry the reflection of Yukihira in the bucket of water on their cart.

The monk, who has been waiting at the cottage, asks the women if he can stay overnight. He then tells them that he saw the pine tree on the beach and he mourned for the women buried beneath it. Weeping, the women confess that they are the spirits of Matsukaze and Murasame, and that of all the fisherwomen living in the Suma area at that time, they were chosen by Yukihira to attend on him. After three years, however, Yukihira left them, only to die soon after returning to Kyoto.

After his death, the sisters’ love for Yukihira became even more intense as they struggled with the guilt of loving someone above their status. And now, even after their own deaths, they continue to suffer.

Overwhelmed by her memories of Yukihira, Matsukaze collapses. She puts on a cap and robe that Yukihira left behind. Then, now completely deranged, Matsukaze, goes to the pine tree and embraces it as if it were Yukihira. She dances around the tree, expressing the height of her emotions, to the accompaniment of the flute and the two tsuzumi drums. After asking the monk to save their spirits with his prayer, the sisters then disappear quietly as the day breaks. The monk, now alone, hears only the wind blowing through the pine tree as he wakes from what appears to have been his dream. (R.S.)