Noh, contemporary classical music and calligraphy — each is an artistic form with its own appeal.

However, “Ikutagawa Monogatari (The Tale of Ikuta River),” a newly created noh drama to mark the 50th anniversary of Kanagawa Kenritsu Ongakudo (Kanagawa Prefectural Music Hall), will put all three together on the same stage. And more.

In addition to one noh actor and two musicians, the production will feature three kyogen players and the nation’s only female vocalist of Tendai shomyo (the chants of the Tendai school of Buddhism).

“It should be very interesting,” said Kanze Hideo, director of the production. “How will the different elements collide with each other? Will the performance rise to a higher level through the collisions? The piece has this potential and something totally unexpected may arise.”

A veteran noh player with extensive experience in directing theatrical productions and acting in theater and movies, Kanze will not only direct but also play the leading roles — a young maiden named Akatoki Otome (Maiden of Dawn) and her alter ego, Tokoyo Hime (Princess of the Nether World).

Doomed love

The script was written by celebrated poet Makoto Ooka, who won the Culture Prize, the nation’s highest culture-related prize awarded by the government, in 2003. Ooka’s “Ikutagawa Monogatari” is an adaptation of the noh play “Motome Zuka,” written by Kan’ami (1333-84), which was taken from “Yamato Monogatari,” a 10th-century work of 173 episodes, each centering on one or more waka poems.

“Motome Zuka” is about a young maiden who lives in Ikuta in Settsu (near present-day Kobe), and two suitors — Sasada Otoko and Chinu no Masurao. Although the two men send her love letters, she doesn’t reply, fearing that choosing a favorite will hurt the feelings of the other. To win the maiden’s heart, the two men compete against each other in various contests of skill. In a test of their archery prowess, they shoot at a mandarin duck in Ikuta River and both hit the bird simultaneously. Saddened by the fact that one of a pair of birds has been killed and unable to decide which man to choose, the maiden throws herself into the river. After retrieving her corpse and burying it in a funeral mound, the men stab each other to death. The maiden is doomed to suffer everlasting torment in hell.

In contrast, Ooka’s version ends on a slightly more positive note. In it, Akatoki Otome decides that she will marry the man who can successfully shoot a swan. The two suitors shoot the swan simultaneously, only to learn that they have actually killed the maiden. They both commit suicide by jumping into Ikuta River. Laying their heads on a moss-covered rock on the river-bottom, they fall into eternal sleep.

The rock is Tokoyo Hime, the alter ego of Akatoki Otome. Toward the play’s end, Tokoyo Hime is moved by the men’s ardor and shows mercy to them. Her beneficence brings about her transformation back into Akatoki Hime, who embodies beauty and its transiency. She then turns into a rainbow that spans over the river.

Split personalities

Shigeyama Ippei, a 25-year-old kyogen player, will play the role of Chinu no Masurao, and veteran kyogen player Miyake Ukon the role of Sasada Otoko. They will be joined by Nomura Mansaku, another experienced kyogen player, playing the role of a wise old man who has lived for a long time by the river and who offers penetrating insight into the story.

“I have used kyogen players because they can act in a tragedy without becoming too emotional,” Kanze said. “The theme of the drama is certainly heavy, but I don’t want it to be bleak and gloomy.”

Speaking of his two leading roles, Akatoki Otome and Tokoyo Hime, Kanze said, “They represent, in an extreme way, the two opposing sides [light and dark] of the same woman’s inner self. I thought it would be better for one person to act the two roles. Of course, to play the two roles distinctively is a challenging task.”

The music for the drama was composed by Toshi Ichiyanagi, whose past works include a collaboration with John Cage. Unusually for noh, the composition is for piano and percussion. Ichiyanagi himself will play the piano, some of which is improvised, and will be joined by percussionist Yoshiko Kanda. Besides using the keyboard, Ichiyanagi will also pluck and hit the piano strings with a mallet.

Filling out the mix will be Makiko Sakurai, in the role of a boy narrator. She will sing some of her lines in the style of a Buddhist chant as well as improvise melodies with a ryuteki, a bamboo flute used in gagaku (Imperial court music).

“My task is to successfully mix the sound of the piano, a Western musical instrument, with elements of noh,” Ichiyanagi said, noting that piano accompaniment has hardly ever been used in a noh play. “If the scales were obviously Western, the noh play would be destroyed. My trick is to use the highest or lowest notes so that one’s recognition of Western scales is lessened and the piano’s timbre is emphasized.”

Master strokes

A recent rehearsal, in which all the players were assembled for the first time, testified to the rapport not only among the performers, but also between them and the musicians. Interestingly, Kanze didn’t rely much on verbal instructions, allowing the other performers to simply follow his lead. Perfectly synced with the drama, Ichiyanagi and Kanda responded with tension-filled sounds at the appropriate times.

For the actual performance, three works by the late, maverick calligrapher Yuichi Inoue will be hung above the stage — the kanji character of tori (bird) in the center and the kanji for ai (love) on the right and left. Drawn with dramatic strokes, Inoue’s calligraphy conveys an impressive flow of energy, as if the artist captured the character at its birth, when it was a pure form.

A longtime fan of Inoue’s calligraphy, Kanze said, “He gets close to the essence of kanji. He grasps it instinctively and then stamps it with his own clearly expressed individuality.”

Although “Ikutagawa Monogatari” is performed by actors from the traditional performing arts, most of the lines in the noh play are spoken in contemporary Japanese.

In praise of Ooka’s text, Kanze said, “The language in Ooka’s script is powerful and should appeal to audiences. I hope the performance will convey this power.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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