Noh master Gensho appears to know no bounds on stage

by Ayako Takahashi

Special To The Japan Times

Noh is a performing art originally developed by and for the samurai class that has continued without a break for 700 years — a mighty span through which Umewaka Rokuro Gensho, as the 56th-generation head of the Rokuro Umewaka family, can trace his lineage.

One of noh’s most famous lead actors (shite-kata) of his generation, for many years Rokuro Gensho was known as Rokuro Umewaka VXVI. However, in 2008 he revived the name of Gensho, the patriarch of the Umewaka family, and began styling himself anew to retain its useage.

What really sets this artist apart, though, is the way he has long striven to revive near-forgotten works in this classical form of traditional theater and also to create unique new ones. Among the latter are a noh play based on the ballet “Giselle,” one titled “Shiranui” (“Sea Fire”) about Minamata Disease and another based on “Kurenai Tennyo” (literally, “Red Heavenly Maiden”), a popular manga. Meanwhile, the boundary-bending maestro has even shared a stage with the revered Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya.

By way of his next exploration, however, Gensho will shortly premiere “Shinban Tensyu Monogatari” (“New Production Tensyu Monogatari”), his adaptation of a work by the playwright and author Kyoka Izumi (1873-1939).

“I’ve seen Kyoka’s plays many times and have been fascinated by them and I’ve long wanted to make one into a noh work,” Gensho explained in a recent interview for The Japan Times. “He was well versed in noh and the way he depicts mysterious shape-shifting ghosts — and also how he uses just the right few words to communicate simply instead of weaving complicated plots or wordplay into the dialogue — are strong noh-like elements.”

In “Tensyu Monogatari,” a beautiful ghost named Tomihime who lives in a castle tower falls in love with a falconer named Zushonosuke, who turns up looking for one of his birds that has escaped. Soon afterward, they are blinded by soldiers hunting for them who poke out their eyes as they hide beneath a ceremonial cape — only to have their sight restored by a mysterious old sculptor named Ominojo Toroku. It’s as if, just as in so many myths and legends the world over, they have crossed a taboo line between worlds and must have their souls purified anew.

In the new version, though, the real-life role of the author Kyoka, played by character actor Hiroshi Mikani, has been added to the plot, while Tomihime is played by Yuhi Ozora, a former top otokoyaku (male-role actress) with the all-female Takarazuka Revue, and the talented Takamasa Suga plays Zushonosuke. With it also featuring several kabuki and kyogen (traditional comic theater) actors in the cast, this isn’t a pure noh play — yet it seems there will be noh-like elements at every turn.

As its author explained, “I think that Tomihime of the spirit world, and Zushonosuke of the human world, initially don’t feel the other’s sentiment so much as witness it — and at first their romance is perhaps a passion of the flesh. To enter a new state of mind they had to go blind and then have their eyes opened once more — and the person who shows them the way is Toroku, whose role is similar to the monk who sometimes causes the ghost of the lead character (shite) to appear in a noh play.”

In his wide-ranging love of the stage, Gensho — who confided that “noh is a world where you express techniques that have been thoroughly beaten into you” — is following in the footsteps of his noh-actor father, Umewaka Rokuro VXV, who sometimes performed in kabuki under Eno Ichikawa I. Like his father, too, Gensho, who is now in his 60s, can command a noh stage in roles as diverse as a warlord or a lovely young girl — highlighting not only his own skill, but also the magic of noh.

Clearly, there’s a lot more in store from this great artist — but a lot more of just what will that be?

“Shinban Tensyu Monogatari” will premiere April 23 at Festival Hall, Osaka. For details, call 06-6231-2221 or visit www.festivalhall.jp. It will then be staged at Bunkamura’s Orchard Hall in Shibuya, Tokyo, on April 26 and 27. For details, call 0570-00-3337 or visit www.bunkamura.co.jp. This article was written for The Japan Times in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.