Nihon buyo dancers pass on their culture

Two young talents take to the stage at the National Theater


As far back as elementary school, Yukari Hatori, now age 34, dreamed of becoming a nihon buyo (Japanese dance) performer.

She had learned the basics of nihon buyo as soon as she could stand on her feet, receiving lessons from her father, Onoe Kikunojo II, head of the Onoe school of dance. The school was originally established in the 1940s by the celebrated kabuki actor and dancer Onoe Kikugoro VI. In 1983, after taking lessons with Fujima Kanjuro VI, another eminent teacher in the field, a then 9-year-old Yukari danced the role of the butterfly for the famous actor Nakamura Kanzaburo (then called Kankuro) when he performed “Kagamijishi” for the New Year in Asakusa. Eight years later, at age 17, she was given the stage name of Onoe Yukari.

Yukari has long been active at the National Theater performing both classical and original dance numbers. She has held recitals there for the past 10 years and, since 2000, has been active also on stage and TV and in the films.

In the first part of the National Theater’s dance program this month, Yukari is to perform the role of Matsukaze in the 25-minute-long “Shiokumi (The Salt Maiden),” which is based on the noh play “Matsukaze (The Wind in the Pines)” and is one of the seven dances originally performed in Edo (present-day Tokyo) in 1811. The dance is a classic number that shows off the basic elements of nihon buyo.

Elegantly dressed in a courtly robe and cap left by her former lover, the exiled courtier Ariwara no Yukihira, Matsukaze appears on the moonlit Suma Beach. Balancing two buckets hung from a pole she carries on her shoulder, she has come to retrieve seawater to make salt. When she disrobes and fills the buckets with seawater, she finds the moon reflected in them. Glancing back at Yukihira’s cap and robe on a pine tree, Matsukaze begins to dance gracefully, yearning deeply for the man who is gone forever.

“I am going to dance ‘Shiokumi’ as I first learned it, rendering Matsukaze’s inner feelings in each posture I will make,” she says. The elaborate costume for the dance, with its long sleeves and trailing kimono, helps the performer express Matsukaze’s sentiment.

Yukari doesn’t always depend on such costumes to create her characters, though. In January last year, she choreographed and staged a 20-minute su-odori, a dance that dispenses with elaborate costumes. The number focused on Lady Shizuka, who dances for her lover Minamoto no Yoshitsune, the well-known tragic 12th-century martial hero. Yukari says she is attracted to su-odori because it consists of bodily movements that are realistic and meaningful, allowing her to simply be a woman while dancing rather than have to create the artificial illusion of being a woman — as kabuki dancers must. In creating “Shizuka,” the dancer realized the importance of understanding the human body thoroughly, and using it to evoke particular atmospheres in her movements.

“When I was finished with my performance of ‘Shizuka,’ ” Yukari says, “I decided to continue creating more su-odori numbers.”

Brought up in a family that has an electrical engineering business in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, near the U.S. Army base, Hanayagi Jutaichiro has an unusual background for a nihon buyo performer. Influenced by his mother, a minyo (folk song) singer, Jutaichiro took lessons in nihon buyo from age 6 under teacher Hanayagi Jutaro. Thanks to Jutaro’s generous guidance, Jutaichiro (born Hiroshi Yamaguchi) was certified at 17 as a member of the Hanayagi school, proficient in the basic skills of dancing in both male and female roles.

Over the past 10 years, the 40-year-old Jutaichiro has been recognized as one of the most attractive nihon buyo performers, noted for his free, lively and expressive style. In Part 2 of the National Theater’s forthcoming event, Jutaichiro will perform “Ryusei (Shooting Star),” one of three dance numbers written by Kawatake Mokuami and staged in Edo (present-day Tokyo) in 1859. An odori (dance) number that is light, brisk and humorous, Jutaichiro received a prize for his performance of “Ryusei” from the Minister of Education and Science in 2002.

“Ryusei” depicts what a shooting star does in the sky on the evening of Tanabata, the star festival on July 7. Jutaichiro says that he learned how to perform the current version from Hanayagi Hodo, a master of nihon buyo in the Kansai region. Dressed in a colorful Chinese-style costume, the shooting star appears and reports to two other stars, Altair and Vega, what he has just seen below: the comical quarrel between a kaminari (thunder god) couple whose child was crying loudly and the attempts of an old kaminari who lived next door to stop their fighting.

In addition to performing the shooting star, Jutaichiro depicts all the four kaminari characters by himself, changing horns to depict one or another. He believes that “Ryusei” is one of the most difficult nihon buyo numbers because the dancer has to give the impression that he is performing up in the clouds and because he has to distinguish the four different kaminari characters from each other.

For the past 16 years, Jutaichiro has been teaching odori and manners to about 20 children aged 3 to 5 years old in a nursery school in Tsuruoka. (Yukari, too, has begun recently to give dance lessons to young boys and girls, saying she has found great possibilities in teaching children.) He considers it important for children to experience a bit of Japanese culture while young, such as wearing kimono and tabi (socks) and using fans. He also teaches nihon buyo once a week at home to about 15 people, including a few women in their 80s.

Y ukari and Jutaichiro recently took on an unusual challenge for nihon buyo dancers. The two participated at the Theatre Ginza in a Japanese dance version of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” produced by the Original Dance Theater. After their turns as Williams’ characters Stella and Stanley, both say that they welcome any chance to perform for foreign audiences and spread the merits of nihon buyo as part of Japan’s traditional performing arts.

The roots of nihon buyo dancing

The history of nihon buyo (Japanese dance) corresponds to the history of kabuki, which was founded by the female dancer Okuni in 1603, who based her new art form on medieval folk dances and dances by people reciting the name of Buddha. During the first half of the 17th century, revue-like performances were staged by young women and men in Kyoto and Osaka. Soon women were banned from performing, though, as the availability of some of dancers as prostitutes started to attract lewder audiences. Thus in the mid-18th century, dance numbers based on noh plays such as “Shakkyo” and “Dojoji” were performed by famous onnagata (men playing female roles) exemplified by Segawa Kikunojo and Nakamura Tomijuro.

During the first half of the 19th century, dance numbers were inspired by scenes from the life of Edo (present-day Tokyo) townspeople. Their rhythmic expressions were rendered in fast, lively tempos that were accompanied by singing, shamisen and drums. Such dance numbers were soon transmitted to the common people, most of whom were fervent kabuki fans, through schools established by actors and other people involved in theaters. Thus, near the end of the Edo Period (1603-1867), women once again were allowed to dance nihon buyo, and schools were established for men and women who were anxious to learn how to dance the odori numbers they saw on stage.

The number of people giving lessons increased from the late-19th century through the 20th. Teachers belong to different groups (or schools) referred to as ryuha, and, at present, 120 ryuha are registered in the Nihon Buyo Kyokai (Japanese Dance Association). Each ryuha is organized around a head that is supported by his or her family members and disciples.

Three years ago, the National Theater of Japan began to present performances by promising nihon buyo dancers in their 20s, 30s and 40s from ryuha such as Hanayagi, Onoe, Fujima and Wakayagi. The next event will be held on Saturday Aug. 16 in the theater’s small auditorium, with three performances each starting from 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. (Rei Sasaguchi)