Noh, the 600-year-old performing art featuring drummers, chorus singers and masked actors, has survived in the modern world to this day thanks to its loyal, though aging, fan base. But as with many other traditional art forms, it is in dire need of new talent.
Hajime Tazaki, at 22, is one of those rare young performers and a rising star of the Hosho school, one of the five major schools of noh. On Aug. 21, he will share the fruits of his dedication to the art form with his performance in the folklore-inspired play “Sessho-seki” (“The Killing Stone”) at the Yarai Nogakudo Theater in Tokyo. Playing a leading role, he will portray the evil spirit of an old fox who has been transformed into a stone that kills whoever passes by.
“While noh is often said to be difficult to understand, the story of this play is fun to follow,” said Tazaki, who — immaculately clad in a plain black kimono — took a break at his practice studio for an interview last week. “It’s short but packed with action, so it should be interesting for anyone,” he explained.
As an example, he described what he considered to be his toughest scene in the play — one where he jumps after being shot by an arrow.
“I don’t jump that high, but I make it look like I do by folding my legs up swiftly,” he said. “You must express 10 things out of just one movement you make. But those limited movements in fact allow viewers to interpret them in whatever way they like.”
Fans say noh’s biggest attraction lies in this minimalist approach to movement, and the way it allows audiences to visualize scenes “through the mind’s eye,” using their imagination. The Hoshu school — started in the mid-14th century by pioneering noh actor Kan’ami’s eldest brother, Hosho-dayu — is said to be the most restrictive when it comes to actors’ movements, and places a strong emphasis on chorus singing featuring subtle and delicate tonal changes.
Despite his young age, Tazaki already has a 16-year career behind him, having first appeared on stage as a child actor (called kokata) at the tender age of 6. Tazaki, who was picked by his uncle — the award-winning noh actor Ryuzo Tazaki — to be the family’s heir, said he was initially lured to the stage by the knowledge that his aunt and other members of his family would buy him a new toy each time he completed a performance. As he continued training through his teenage years, however, his personal commitment to the profession gradually grew.
After graduating from the prestigious Tokyo University of the Arts in March, where he majored in traditional Japanese music, Tazaki made his debut as a shite (principal actor) in the play “Kinsatsu” (“The Golden Tablet”), written by Kan’ami (1333-1384). It was just around this important juncture in his career that the nation was hit with the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
In the face of that March 11 disaster, Tazaki said that those in the traditional performing arts felt they had to carry on what they had been doing, noting that continuity can give people a sense of security.
“Noh masters have always said that once the show begins, they must keep acting, no matter what happens,” he explained. “Sometimes dancers collapse and are whisked off the stage, but even in such situations — even if the audience gets noisy — the remaining performers must continue what they were doing and follow through, no matter what.”
This persistence helped noh survive World War II, he said, “Even when the actors couldn’t support themselves and had to take on other jobs, they continued their training.”
Today, in the absence of big sponsors, such as the daimyo lords who supported noh during the Edo Period (1603-1867), performers are looking at ways to reach out to the modern audience. Theaters now often give explanatory talks or workshops before or after shows, but when it comes to modernizing performances, Tazaki believes noh actors need to be careful. Collaborating with artists in different genres or translating dialogue into contemporary Japanese, he said, runs the risk of watering down and destroying tradition.
“We shouldn’t break a tradition that has lasted for hundreds of years,” he said. “Times are tough, and we don’t have as many sponsors as we used to. But the most important thing is to keep doing what we have been doing for all these years, because once we lose it (tradition), we can’t get it back.”
“Sessho-seki” will be staged at the Yarai Nogakudo Theater near Kagurazaka Station,Tozai Line, on Aug. 21, and will be preceded by a kyogen (traditional comedy) play titled “Kagyu” (“The Snail”); the performance starts at 2 p.m. and ends at 4:30 p.m. A brief English synopsis will be available. Tickets are ¥5,000-¥6,000 (advance), and ¥5,500 (at the door). For more information, e-mail the organizers, So-no-kai, at email@example.com, call (03) 5215 7477 or visit www.event-beacon.jp (Japanese only).
So-no-kai are offering readers of The Japan Times five pairs of tickets to “Sessho-seki.” To apply, state your name and address in an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. The application deadline is Aug. 12, and winners will receive tickets in the mail.