A principal of noh performance


Special To The Japan Times

The upcoming “Sakurama Kinki no Kai” is the 19th noh event in a series of performances by Sakurama Kinki of the Komparu School. Of the five noh schools still active today, the Komparu School is the most traditional, though it has, interestingly, taken the progressive step of accepting women. The school evolved in the Yamato region (present-day Nara) during the 14th century, and Kinki is one of its most eminent performers.

For this event, there are two shows “Yugyo Yanagi” (“Itinerant Priest and the Willow Tree”), a 1 hour, 40-minute performance featuring Kinki, and “Midare” (“Disorderly”), an hour-long version of a dance called “Shojo” (“Orangutan”), performed by two of Kinki’s proteges to the lively beat of a taiko drum.

“Yugyo Yanagi” was written in 1514 by Kanze Nobumitzu, the son of On’ami, the famous playwright Zeami’s nephew. Nobumitsu’s plays are often showy and include “Momijigari” (“Maple-viewing”), “Funa Benkei” (“Benkei on a Boat”) and “Ataka” (“The Barrier at Ataka”), which were later adapted for the Kabuki stage.

Kinki, wearing a Sankojo mask and a brown coat over a yellow kimono, initially takes the stage as an old man who leads a traveling priest (played by a waki secondary actor) to a withered willow tree growing on a mound, represented on stage by a bamboo structure covered in a dark-blue silk cloth and topped with willow branches and leaves.

The priest, a member of the Buddhist sect founded by Priest Ippen in 1274, has been traveling across Japan preaching the teachings of Amida (Amitabha) Buddha and distributing talismans inscribed with the mantra “Namu Amidabutsu.” It is on his arrival at the barrier at Shirakawa in the south of Fukushima Prefecture that he encounters the old man who leads him to the willow. In a way of explanation, the old man recites a waka poem that was read by another priest, Saigyo, when he also stopped under the same tree: “I have rested under a willow tree growing by the river along a mountain path. I thought I would stay just for a short while, but have stayed there for a long time.”

It is the poem, the old man explains, that made the tree famous. When the priest recites Amidabutsu’s name, the old man disappears under the willow and the priest realizes that he’s been talking to the willow’s spirit. After reciting Amidabutsu even more, the priest takes a nap near the tree.

The willow spirit appears to the priest in a dream as an old man with long, flowing white hair. Here, Kinki switches his Sankojo mask for the nobler Ishiojo mask and wears a black eboshi (cap) and a brownish-gold kariginu robe over moss-green oguchi (trousers). He thanks the priest for preaching the recitation of the Amitabha’s name as the path to Buddhahood for those who await the time of the Maitreya (the Buddha of the distant future). And to express his gratitude, the willow spirit emerges from the mound and performs an elegant jo-no-mai dance to the sound of flute, taiko and tsuzumi drums. He then disappears as the priest wakes from the dream.

Sakurama Kinki: years behind the mask


Sakurama Kinki is one of Japan’s top noh actors, following the style of the Komparu School of shite (principal actors), and a dedicated teacher and promoter of the art form to younger generations. For many years, Kinki has taught at several universities in Tokyo, including Dokkyo, Shukutoku and Meiji Gakuin. He also has around 20 private students.

1944 Born as Kikuji Seo, son of Noritake Seo, a well-known tsuzumi drum player .

1951 Starts noh lessons under Tamotsu Nomura of the Komparu School, while studying Japanese literature at Kokugakuin University, Tokyo

1964 Debuts as the principal actor of Ebira

1967 Graduates Kokugakuin University

1974 Takes on principal role of Dojoji

1976-83 Studies under then-Living National Treasure Sakurama Michio

1985 Begins playing various principal roles at the National Noh Theater in Tokyo

1986 Becomes a member of the Noh Association of Japan

1992-98 Gives a total of seven performances at the National Noh Theater under the name of Kikuji Seo.

1999 Assumes the name Sakurama Kinki IV and begins the regular “Sakurama Kinki no Kai” performances at the National Noh Theater

2005 Receives a Kanze Hisao Memorial Prize, a recognition of his contribution to noh, from Hosei University (R.S.)

‘Midare,” the second noh number of this “Kinki no Kai,” is presented after the kyogen play “Bunzo.” For this performance, Kinki himself is not on stage, but he introduces his two young disciples, Akira Shibayama, 29, and Masashi Nomura, 24, who dance as a pair of shōjō — orangutan-like creatures who like to drink. Shibayama and Nomura have studied under Kinki since their childhood and are debuting formally as noh actors in this performance.

Based on a Chinese legend, “Midare” begins when Kofu, a young man living in the town of Yozu, tells the audience a strange dream he had in which he became wealthy by selling homemade sake at the local market. He describes a boy who buys sake from him often, but who, no matter how much he drinks, never gets drunk. In his dream, Kofu asks the boy who he is and discovers that he is a shōjō who lives in the ocean.

Kofu goes to the beach and stays all night in the moonlight, waiting for the shōjō to appear. Eventually, a pair of shōjō come out of the sea and, delighted at finding Kofu there, they dance around on the waves, drunk with the sake provided by Kofu.

Though this all happens in a dream, Kofu finds a jar full of sake, which assures prosperity for Kofu and his family.

“Midare” is a fascinating number to watch as it’s a fun vehicle to show off the skills of two relatively new young actors. Dressed in red silk robes and trousers and wearing red wigs and Shōjō masks, which depict the face of young boys, their performance is dynamic, arms and limbs moving wildly to lively music and the rhythm of utai chanting. Starting with kamae (ways of standing), the audience will get to see a variety of moves that differ from the usual suriashi (sliding steps in walking) — this includes the midare-ashi (kicking steps) and nagare-ashi (gliding steps made on tip toes) — all of which allow the audience to imagine the amusing movements of mythical creatures playing in the water.

The “Sakurama Kinki no Kai” will be held at the National Noh Theater in Sendagaya, Tokyo, on Sep 30, starting at 2 p.m. Ticket prices range from ¥5,000 to ¥10,000 and are available from Sakurama Kinki, (fax 042-421-6637) or Sakurama Kinki Koenkai (tel/fax: 042-364-1386). www.kinkinokai.com.