Noh actor seeks new audiences for art

Minimalist style, explanations, shorter plays broaden the appeal

by Miya Tanaka

FUNABASHI, Chiba Pref. (Kyodo) Sakio Hashioka, a 37-year-old noh actor, is working to make the oldest professional theater in existence as popular as rock concerts, using the business sense he acquired when he was a salesman.

Though noh was designated a masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 2001, it is not hugely popular with the public. Its stylized, poetic language and deliberate movements are confusing even to native Japanese speakers without some background knowledge of the art form.

“Noh, which was an exclusive performing art of the ruling samurai class, continues to carry such an (elitist) tendency, being enjoyed mainly (by a) limited (audience),” said Hashioka, who also heads a Funabashi-based nonprofit organization to promote the art.

“Because noh actors are used to performing in front of an audience that understands the plays well, there is even an atmosphere of ‘if you don’t understand, so be it.’ “But if nothing is done now, I believe noh will die out,” he said.

Launching the NPO Sense in 2002 with about 10 people, including a college teacher and a translator, Hashioka has actively promoted a minimalist noh troupe, consisting of about one-fifth of the number of performers usually required for a production.

Said Hashioka, a noh performance usually costs several million yen to produce as it involves about 20 performers, including actors, chorus members and musicians.

“Performing noh with only four members using costumes and masks is (a departure) from the convention,” he admitted. “But it enables noh performances to be held in various places, including countries that do not have noh stages.”

The four-member plays are also shortened by selecting the highlights of a full-length play, which helps hold the attention of first-time viewers.

“The reduction of costs also encourages groups to ask for a performance and makes it easier to win sponsorship,” Hashioka said.

Such minimalism paved the way for the first noh performances in Qatar, Oman and Yemen, as well as the first one in 30 years in Iran, last year, according to Hashioka, who led the troupe.

In Oman, four actors performed on a temporary stage set up on a hotel beachfront, complete with palm trees and torches, instead of the usual noh stage, which has a bridge where actors enter and exit.

“Because there was an arched bridge near the stage, we did not hide it but rather used it. The essence of noh should not be changed, but it is sometimes important to be flexible,” Hashioka said.

The plays and lectures on noh that were part of the troupe’s recent overseas tour attracted some 700 people in each of the four countries, drew loud applause and a high degree of interest. The idea of a man dressing as a woman to perform a female role also apparently amused Muslims, Hashioka said.

Sense has also made unique efforts to attract young Japanese and foreigners in Japan to noh, such as by having a noh actor and an “otsuzumi” — a large hand-drum — player perform to a backdrop of techno music at a swanky dance club in Tokyo’s Roppongi district.

On Feb. 12, Sense will hold performances of noh and “kyogen,” a comical form of theater that developed along with noh, at the National Noh Theatre in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, at which the audience will be provided a pamphlet explaining the plot of the plays in nine languages, including Japanese.

An additional explanation in Japanese and English will be given to the audience ahead of the two-hour performance consisting of the famous “Aoi no Ue” (“Lady Aoi”), a noh play based on the classic court novel “Tale of Genji,” written by Murasaki Shikibu in the early 11th century, and the kyogen play “Boushibari.” Twenty-two performers will appear on stage.

“In overseas performances, we hold lectures and show costumes for people who know nothing about noh,” Hashioka said. “But we don’t often take such a beginner-friendly approach in Japan, and we thought foreigners in Japan are quite distanced from enjoying noh.”

Though now enthusiastic about promoting the traditional theater, Hashioka had times when he “nearly forgot” about noh when he enjoyed working as a salesman for a pizza delivery company and a chain of cram schools.

Having made his debut as a noh actor at age 3 and living in what he called a “closed environment,” Hashioka made the leap to the outside world at age 29.

“I was wondering whether the ability to perform noh was all I had, and noticed that I could be good at marketing,” Hashioka said with a smile. He later decided to return to noh after becoming convinced that the art form was the best product he could market.

Noh, which originated from dramatic performances at religious festivals, developed into its present form in the Muromachi Period (1333-1568). Its form is almost unchanged from that time.

Though born into a distinguished noh family of the Kanze school, Hashioka does not hesitate to ask actors of other schools to perform in plays organized by Sense if he thinks they are appropriate for the roles, something of an innovation in noh circles, where interaction among the various schools tends to be limited.

“I also think I would like to change the hereditary focus (of performers) to something in which individual ability will be evaluated,” Hashioka said.

While challenging convention, Hashioka also takes into account criticism he receives from insiders and plans to expand his minimal style troupe to six members from the current four.

But he stresses that tradition needs to evolve in the modern age.

“For example, if judo had stubbornly refused to accept change, I don’t think it would have become the worldwide sport that is seen today. I believe it’s the same for noh.”