Japan’s musical dance-theater form known as noh was honed to its sublime simplicity in the 14th century by a father and son named Kan’ami and Zeami, and since then it has changed very little.

Performed on a roofed stage with open sides and posts at its four corners, noh involves just a few actors supporting a masked shite (central character), a chorus, and musicians who play a flute (fue), hip-drum (ootsuzumi), shoulder-drum (kotsuzumi) and a taiko drum.

In this highly codified performing art every role is crucial, and among ootsuzumi players the designated Living National Treasure Tadao Kamei, and his son, Hirotada Kamei, are renowned for their dignified and deeply emotional expression.

As they spoke together recently to The Japan Times ahead of a national tour in October, Hirotada, 41 — who this year succeeded his 74-year-old father as head of the Kadono school of ootsuzumi — explained: “In European traditions and some kinds of kabuki music, the players all tune to the same pitch, whereas in noh they each tune up as they like — so to a beginner’s ear the result may sound strange.

“Also, ever since Zeami wrote that song and dance should be fundamental elements of noh, ootsuzumi musicians have been key actors in the dramas, with their playing and calls heralding the principal actor taking the stage to dance.”

Then, referring to the “universal power” of noh, his father, Tadao, recalled: “When I was young I performed noh in New York. After the curtain fell, someone embraced me and said ‘Marvelous!’ — and it was the great composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. My son had the same kind of experience with the famous conductor Seiji Ozawa in later years.”

Smiling at that memory, Hirotada observed: “Even modern Japanese cannot understand the old noh words well, so they must be very difficult for non-Japanese. But anyone can enjoy the ootsuzumi, which can call up rhythms of the body like a beating heart.”

Then, reflecting on his career, Tadao — whose own father, Toshio Kamei, was also an ootsuzumi musician and a designated Living National Treasure — explained that though noh artists don’t need to go to college, he went to Nihon University College of Art because he “was interested in other performing arts.”

“When I was student,” he continued, “I saw many plays and also acted in a production of Kan Kikuchi’s famous 1917 play ‘Chichi Kaeru’ (‘Father Returns’). I was particularly struck by how rehearsals went on for a month, because in noh the performers train by themselves and they only rehearse together for one day.”

Then speaking of his own development, Hirotada — who initially followed in the footsteps of his mother, Sataro Tanaka IX, one of kabuki’s female musicians who are (unlike male musicians) kept out of sight of the audience — said, “I and my brothers grew up learning from our parents’ way of life.

“However, since my father became a Living National Treasure and I saw him take responsibility for all the play’s elements, I thought I couldn’t ‘win’ unless I trained even more than he did.”

To this his father responded, “The noh stage is a kind of battlefield on which you are fighting against other players — and the relationship between teacher and student is similar.

“Many masters, including myself, taught our children to risk their artistic lives on stage. So they must be ‘ultra’ first-class players, not just first-class, because they shoulder the tradition.

“But we have not suffered in vain. Now, at last, I’m sure Hirotada has become greater than I,” Tadao added.

As for his vision for the Kadono school he now heads, Hirotada said: “I will decide moment to moment. My father follows mainstream noh , but I also have kabuki blood in my veins so I hope to try to further a flourishing coexistence of noh and kabuki.”

Tadao Kamei and Hirotada Kamei will both play (though not together) in “Ebizo Ichikawa’s Invitation to Classics 2016,” which tours nationwide Oct. 1-26. For more information, visit www.zen-a.co.jp/koten2016.

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