If you’ve ever napped through a noh performance, you’re not alone. But this 600-year-old Japanese theatrical genre is being updated to make it more of a 21st-century entertainment than a Japanophile’s endurance test.

“It’s a bit like ‘Star Wars,’ ” says Mansai Nomura, artistic director of the Setagaya Public Theatre, describing battle scenes in the theater’s upcoming play “Shari.” “Noh shouldn’t be something to endure. It should be enjoyable, imaginary entertainment because the noh stories have such universal appeal.”

Nomura and two collaborators, flutist Yukihiro Isso and drummer Hirotada Kamei, are staging “Shari” and a second play, “Toru,” on June 20-22 as part of the theater’s “Nohgaku Genzaikei (Noh Plays as Contemporary Theatre)” series. “Shari” is about good and evil, and the climax of the one-hour play is a battle dance, or maibataraki, between the guardian god of Buddhism, Idaten, and a demon named Sokushitsuki who has stolen one of Buddha’s teeth. The poetic, 30-minute “Toru,” in contrast, is based on real-life Heian Period nobleman Minamoto Toru, a man of refined taste who is said to have been the model for Hikaru Genji in the “Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari)” written by Murasaki Shikibu about 1,000 years ago. At the play’s climax, Toru enacts an enchanting dance under a mystical moon.

Each play will be performed in three different styles — the Kanze, Kita and Houshou schools — each of which evoke different nuances and atmospheres. But although the performances utilize traditional music, masks and costumes, they entice with a fresh approach.

“Everyone will be able to feel the dynamism of the stories,” says Nomura. “We’ve taken noh out of the typical noh theater and added lighting effects and a totally original contemporary set design.” The hinoki (cedar) floors, iconic pine tree painting and pillars will be gone, replaced by a dance floor and real props never used in traditional noh theater. “With a moon and moonbeams, Toru will have a garden like Disney Sea,” he adds with a smile.

Nomura is one of Japan’s most intriguing celebrities. Born as an 8th- generation member of the famed Nomura family of kyogen actors, the 42-year-old has been performing on stage since the age of 3. Both his grandfather Manzo VI and his father, Mansaku, have been designated Living National Treasures. Since taking on the name Mansai II in 1994, Nomura has carried on the family’s 270-year kyogen tradition in unique and exciting ways. “I don’t want to break tradition,” says Nomura in his rich baritone. “I want to examine the roots of noh and kyogen and from there make it alive and contemporary.”

In addition to his years of nohgaku (noh and kyogen) stage performances, Nomura is also known for film and television roles. His film debut at 19 was as a blind, flute-playing boy in “Ran” (1985), Akira Kurosawa’s final, epic movie. He starred as the protagonist in a two-part film called “Onmyoji (The Yin Yang Master)” (2001) and “Onmyoji II” (2003), about the historical shaman Abe no Seimei, which garnered him many fans. His performance as Oedipus Rex in Yukio Ninagawa’s “Oedipus Rex” in Greece during the 2004 Athens Olympics was also highly applauded. Television appearances with NHK include the historical drama “Kurama Tengu (The Goblin of Kuruma),” which ran from January to March this year. Much of Nomura’s work focuses on children, so he often appears on the NHK children’s morning show “Nihongo de Asobo (Let’s Play With Japanese).”

It was Nomura’s time at the Royal Shakespeare Theater in London in 1994 and 1995 that whetted his appetite for directing. “I was inspired by the company’s fluid and modern directing techniques and felt those could be applied to noh and kyogen — even with its stylized acting. At the same time, I realized how truly unique and special noh and kyogen are. There are probably only about 100 kyogen actors in the world. It is a rare and strange thing.”

Since teaming up in 2002, Nomura and the community-based Setagaya Public Theatre have offered productions with a contemporary flavor to try to bring traditional theater such as noh and kyogen to a wider audience, including the young, non-Japanese or handicapped.

Their productions and workshops have also been far-reaching. “The volume of what we do is prolific,” says general producer Midori Okuyama. “It’s possible we’re the most active community-based theater in Japan.”

Opened in 1997 and funded by the Setagaya Ward, the nonprofit Setagaya Public Theatre contains the Public Theatre (600 seats) and the more intimate Theatre Tram (218 seats), named for the tram line nearby.

The theater also produces plays, invites productions from abroad and offers drama readings, lectures, a children’s theater and community workshops. These include annual kyogen workshops and performances for all public-school 6th-graders in Setagaya Ward — about 6,000 kids. Also aimed at the Setagaya public schools are the “order-made theater workshops.”

“Last week, a junior high school principal asked us to help the school start a drama club, so our team will visit the school and do a variety of creative games and workouts,” says Okuyama.

The weekly Saturday “Doyou Theatre Play Park” was created by Nomura. Open to the public, participants of all ages are taught a variety of acting skills that include pantomime, voice play and stage combat.

Integral parts of the Setagaya Public Theatre are programs aimed at non-Japanese and the handicapped. The theater offers earphone guides, preperformance demonstrations for the visually handicapped and Japanese subtitles for the hearing impaired, using funds provided by news service Bloomberg. English subtitles are being provided for the “Shari” and “Toru” performances on June 22.

Noh’s place in the history of performing arts was recognized internationally when it was named a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2001. With Nomura bringing contemporary and international flavors to the genre, its place is secure. “Noh and kyogen have lasted this long because the stories are like society’s mirror, reflecting the times. This is the tradition I want to carry on.”

“Shari” and “Toru” run June 20-22 at Setagaya Public Theatre, a 2-min walk from Sagenjaya Station on the Denen Toshi or Setagaya lines; ¥3,000-7,000; (03) 5432-1515

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.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.