Of Japan’s many traditional performing arts, noh is the most refined — and among its most prominent figures today is 55-year-old Kiyokazu Kanze, the 26th head of its largest faction, the Kanze School.
A descendant of the father and son pair Kan’ami and Zeami who perfected the ancient form of narrative dance-theater in the 14th century, Kiyokazu inherited his position at age 31 following the sudden death of his father, Sakon Kanze. Now, though, he finds himself overseeing another major transition with the closure of the Kanze School’s home in the Shoto district of Tokyo’s central Shibuya entertainment hub.
As Kiyokazu explained, “The Kanze Nohgakudo theater in Shoto has been renovated several times since it opened in April 1971, but since the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011, even in Tokyo there have been accidents with buildings collapsing. So we decided to move.”
After a brief interlude, audiences will be able to take their seats again next year when the dismantled theater is rebuilt in a new complex in the capital’s glitzy Ginza district — the same area where, in 1633, Shogun Iemitsu Tokugawa provided the Kanze School with premises in which it staged plays until 1869, after the Tokugawa regime was overthrown and the Emperor was restored as head of state the year before.
For Kiyokazu, though, it’s the Shoto theater that is full of memories, as it was there that he began learning his art.
“I was in junior high school when the Nohgakudo was built,” he told The Japan Times recently. “The stage is made of solid Kiso hinoki (precious Japanese cypress from the Kiso valley in Nagano Prefecture), and I remember how wood dust kept on appearing and I would be dancing through clouds of it.
“I was always being scolded by my father and he never praised me, but once when I was in a play titled ‘Okina,’ in which he was the lead, I remember going to pay my respects afterward and he seemed to have a faint smile on his face for a moment — just that once. Yet although the suffering and strictness outweighed the fun, even so I feel sad to be leaving Shoto.”
To mark the end of that era, Kanze School actors from around the country — along with leaders from the other noh schools — will this month stage the “Kanze Nohgakudo Sayonara Performances,” culminating in the 7,307th and final show at that venue.
Then, besides the new beginning in Ginza, the future also beckons in the shape of Kiyokazu’s son and heir, Saburota, who on March 1 performed the ceremonial hatsuomote (literally, “first mask”) dance marking his entrance into the world of professional noh actors.
Regarding his son’s training, Kiyokazu said, “Noh is a unique masked theater where the actor playing the protagonist doesn’t show his face to the audience, but I always tell my son that we have to do the same training whether we wear a mask or not.
“It’s important for a parent to let his actions speak rather than his mouth because, as Zeami said: ‘There are limits to a human life, but there are no limits to noh training.’ So I want to continue devoting myself to my studies as well.”
Meanwhile, Kiyokazu is hopeful the new theater’s central location in Ginza will attract new audiences, and — mindful of the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics — he said, “Noh is one of Japan’s representative traditional arts, so I want foreign visitors to come and see it — and we’ll have the latest subtitle facilities installed, so we’ll work it out.
“Also, the Kabukiza theater will be right in front of our noses, so we’ll be able to inspire each other and encourage audiences to go to both.
“People have this image of noh as being peculiar and rarefied, and naturally that’s part of it, but it’s not everything. There are many different plays, and I hope people will be able to feel comfortable dropping by the Nohgakudo.”
“Kanze Nohgakudo Sayonara Performances” run March 27-30 at Kanze Nohgakudo in Shibuya, Tokyo. For details, visit kanze.net. This story was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.