Tokyo gets five rare takes on Kyoto tradition

by Rei Sasaguchi

Special To The Japan Times

The upcoming staging of NHK Enterprises’ fifth “Gei no Shinzui” (“The Essence of Art”) series at the National Theatre in Tokyo promises a rare and rather sublime Kyoto treat for the capital’s lovers of traditional Japanese performing arts.

Titled “Kyo no Miyabi” (“The Elegance of Kyoto”), the Aug. 23 production — which is in collaboration with Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s “WA” project — will feature the sounds of fue (Japanese bamboo flutes) and a form of elegant and emotive mai dancing known as kyo-mai, since it evolved in Kyoto from a fusion of late-18th-century noh dance styles and dances performed for the Imperial household.

Playing fue will be Tosha Meisho (real name: Nakagawa Isao, 70), one of the nation’s foremost virtuosos, while Inoue Yachiyo (real name: Kanze Michiko, 55), the head of the Inoue school of kyo-mai since 2000, will bring to the performance her beautifully controlled dance gestures and rotating movements.

“Kyo no Miyabi,” as staged by these two artists who have been active in traditional entertainment in Kyoto and have known each other for 30 years, comprises five separate stagings over 2½ hours.

The opening piece is the climactic part of a familiar noh play titled “Shakkyo” (“The Stone Bridge”), which features arresting utai narration by five noh actors sitting on stage, along with a hayashi ensemble providing musical accompaniment from Meisho on the fue, two tsuzumi drums of different sizes and a taiko drum beaten by his 24-year-old son, Nakagawa Hideaki.

“Shakkyo” is the story of a man named Oe Sadamoto who, as a monk known as Jakusho, goes to China and India to visit famous Buddhist sites. There, he meets a young woodcutter who tries to warn him against crossing a stone bridge at the foot of mountain called Seiryo. On the other side, he says, is the land of Monju Bosatsu (Bodhisattva Manjusri), whom he predicts the monk will encounter if he ventures across. However, the great lion that is the Bodhisattva’s vehicle then appears and dances gaily and harmlessly among blooming peony blossoms, as he celebrates a year of prosperity.

The second number is a kyo-mai titled “Tamatori Ama” (“A Woman Diver Gets a Jewel from the Sea”), in which Meisho plays two types of flute, the nōteki which is the traditional noh theater version, and the shinobue, a thinner one used in kabuki and traditional folk music that’s made from a type of slender bamboo called shino. Yachiyo’s dancing in this piece is accompanied by lively and mesmerizing jiuta shamisen music and singing typical of the Kamigata region (Kyoto and Osaka) — where koto is sometimes played instead of shamisen. This style of juita-mai dancing is also known from its area of origin as kamigata-mai.

Tosha Meisho: A seeker after suggestive tones

Born in downtown Tokyo’s Ningyo-cho district in 1941 as the son of Tosha Shuho, then head of the Tosha school of fue (Japanese bamboo flute) players, Tosha Meisho was taken to live with his mother’s family in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, at war’s end.

There, at age 6, he began to take lessons in fue from his father and, at 16, was accepted as a pupil by the late eminent fue master, Tosha Rosen IV. Two years later, Meisho became a professional musician.

Since then has been active giving recitals around Japan and overseas, as well as performing in classical noh and kabuki and also lending his instruments’ atmospheric tones to Western music, both classical and jazz. Meisho has received many awards throughout his career, including, in 1995, the Bunka Koro-sho prize from Kyoto Prefecture.

These days, he is busy helping members of his family to develop their skills in hayashi (musical accompaniment using fue, tsuzumi or taiko). Also, since his father’s death seven years ago, he has been teaching fue to members of the five pleasure quarters in Kyoto, one of which is the world-renowned Gion.

The maestro says he often goes to Mount Kurama north of Kyoto to play fue alone in the woods. As to what he practices during those retreats, he explained, “When I was young, I used to blow on the fue very hard to make the tones as forceful as possible, but now I blow softly, hoping to make the tones quieter, but delicately suggestive.”

Then he added: “I have lived with the fue for 52 years, and I am going to live this way for the rest of my life.”

To share a little in that life, and what promises to be a feast of traditional performing arts from Kyoto, be sure to brave the heat and humidity and get yourself to Hanzomon later this month.R.S.

The work, based on a noh play titled “Ama” (“A Woman Diver”), tells the tale of an Imperial minister, Fujiwara no Fusasaki (681-737) — son of Fujiwara no Fuhito (659-720), founder of the powerful and warlike Fujiwara clan — who happens to meet a woman diver on the beach at Shido in Sanuki (present-day Kagawa Prefecture). The woman tells him that many years before she met a Fujiwara prince at the very same spot. She tells Fusasaki that as a result of their union then she gave birth to a baby boy which she presented to Prince Tankai, as her paramour called himself, before diving into the ocean to retrieve a piece of the Dragon King’s jewellery as a present for him.

Realizing that the woman is the ghost of his own mother, Fusasaki mourns for her spirit.

Through her dancing in this production, Yachiyo has said she hopes to portray — with the help of the delicate sounds of Meisho’s flutes — a mother who profoundly loved her son, and how she suffered from parting with him and still misses him.

The evening’s third act is “Sankyoku Ito no Shirabe” (“The Tunes of the Three Instruments”), a signature scene from the kabuki work “Dan-no-ura Kabuto Gunki” (“The Battle on the Coast of Dan-no-ura”). In it, Akoya, a beautiful courtesan in the Gojozaka pleasure-quarter of Kyoto, is ordered by the authorities to play a koto, shamisen and kokyu (fiddle), as they believe that through her playing they may be able to detect whether she knows the whereabouts of her lover Kagekiyo. That storied general of the Taira clan was routed in battle with the Genji clan at Dan-no-ura on March 24, 1185.

Here, Meisho has said that he aims to express, through his playing of two shinobue with a kabuki-style nagauta (singing and musical accompaniment), Akoya’s inner feelings — especially when she plays the kokyu — as she entertains her Genji inquisitors.

There then follows “Mosa Junrei” (“A Countrywoman on a Pilgrimage”), which is unique in the kyo-mai repertoire for only ever being performed by members of the Inoue school.

In this play performed to the strains of traditional gidayu music and kamigata songs from the Gion geisha district of Kyoto, Yachiyo first appears as a young woman from the north in a rustic sleeveless coat who has been visiting Buddhist temples on the Kii Peninsula (in present-day Mie Prefecture). When she reaches the city’s Kiyomizu Temple, however, she is transformed, magnificently costumed, into the late-eighth-century hero Sakanoue no Tamuramaro who, when not busy subjugating Ezo tribes in the remote north, founded that temple.

Then, with a rousing rite as its finale, the program will close in traditional fashion with music in which 19 members of the highest (kō) rank of Gion geisha play wooden clappers accompanying lively fue and shamisen playing and the pounding of taiko drums.

“Kyo no Miyabi” will be staged at 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 23 in the Large Auditorium at the Tokyo National Theater in Hanzomon. For tickets, priced at ¥9,500, ¥7,500, ¥5,500 and ¥3,000, contact Tokyo Onkyo at (03) 5774-3030 (10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.) or visit www.t-onkyo.jp (Japanese only). More details are available between 11 a.m.-6 p.m. from the Gei-no-Shinzui Committee at NHK Enterprise (03) 5478-8533, or via www.nhk-ep.co.jp/geinoshinzui/index.html.