Stage

New Okinawan theater completes missing link in performing arts

by Tai Kawabata

It is a dream come true for Tatsuhiro Oshiro, a native Okinawan and Akutagawa Prize-winning novelist and playwright.

A national theater, designed to nurture and promote the traditional performing arts of Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture, was completed July 31 in Urasoe, adjacent to Okinawa’s capital Naha.

Another important task of the theater will be to facilitate the study of the performing arts of the Asia-Pacific region and provide a venue for presenting them.

The theater’s inaugural season of weekend performances will run Jan. 23-March 21, 2004.

Since Okinawa’s reversion to Japan in 1972, Oshiro, 77, and many other Okinawans had been pushing for the establishment of a national theater in Okinawa to promote kumiodori — traditional musical plays with singing and dancing that were performed for the entertainment of Chinese envoys at the court of the Ryukyu Kingdom, once a Chinese vassal state.

National Theatre Okinawa is equipped with two stage facilities, with 632 and 253 seats respectively. The venue will present not only kumiodori but also performances of dance, folk songs, instrumental music — particularly that for sanshin (an ancestor of the shamisen) — as well as plays and comedies. Also, performing arts from various Okinawan communities will be presented.

Kumiodori was created by Tamagusuku Chokun (1684-1734), an official of the Ryukyu Kingdom. He gained knowledge about the performing arts of mainland Japan during visits to Satsuma and Edo, and created kumiodori by combining Okinawa’s traditional performing arts and folklore with elements of noh, kyogen, kabuki and Chinese plays.

Oshiro pointed out that National Theatre Okinawa is the only facility correctly designed for kumiodori — it has a stage with a projecting rectangular section in front.

He also expressed hope that the theater will serve as an academy of sorts for kumiodori.

In fact, the theater will offer a two-year course for three or four aspiring kumiodori actors and six to seven kumiodori musicians — both singers and instrumentalists.

“In the modern period, with the disappearance of the Ryukyu Kingdom, kumiodori lost its patronage and became part of commercial theater. It became difficult to accurately hand down kumiodori tradition, including the language. The theatrical traditions of kumiodori have thus gradually been lost,” said Oshiro.

“Dancers, rather than actors, have become the main force for the transmission of kumiodori. This has come to affect the acting style, including the way in which voices are produced and projected, although I appreciate the dancers’ contributions.”

Oshiro’s dedication to the preservation of kumiodori has led him to pen five kumiodori plays — the same number that Tamagusuku Chokun wrote.

“I belong to the last generation of native speakers of the Okinawan dialect. And I know dramaturgy,” he said. “I am the only person who meets the conditions necessary to write kumiodori plays. I regard it as my duty to write kumiodori plays.”

Oshiro’s play “Madamamichi (The Road of Beautiful Gems)” will be presented at the theater on March 19, 20 and 21. An adaptation of an Okinawan folk story, the play is a tragedy about an Okinawan samurai and a female villager who decides to become a shaman after the samurai’s parents oppose their plan to marry.

More than 10 years later, the samurai is put in charge of building a bridge at the end of Madamamichi road, which starts from Shuri Castle. The woman reveals she has received a divine message indicating that a woman who uses a seven-colored paper cord to tie her hair must be sacrificed to ensure safe construction of the bridge. Eventually, she herself is found to use such a paper cord and is duly sacrificed.

The completion of National Theatre Okinawa means all three regional centers for traditional Japanese performing arts now have national theaters — two in Tokyo for kabuki and noh, one in Osaka for bunraku, and one in Okinawa for kumiodori, Oshiro said.

Hiroshi Iwai, senior specialist at the Traditional Culture Division at the Agency for Cultural Affairs, said that at this moment, the Okinawan people’s interest in the theater’s inaugural performances is intense.

In the future, it is hoped that the theater will be included on sightseeing itineraries so people from mainland Japan will have an opportunity to enjoy Okinawa’s performing arts, he said.