The challenge facing Kazufusa Hosho is one that many guardians of traditional Japanese art forms know well: ensuring the survival of a centuries-old culture by attracting new and younger audiences.
The 32-year-old is a 20th-generation head of the Hosho Noh School, which is based in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward and is the second-largest of its kind in Japan. When not acting on stage, Hosho plays the roles of director (for modern noh performances), researcher (scouring old texts for possible revival ideas) and cultural ambassador (traveling to places such as China and Italy to introduce people to the theatrical genre).
Currently, Hosho’s focus is not overseas but squarely on Tokyo. He has teamed up with novelist Seiko Ito and translator Jay Rubin to present “Mizukagami of Noh: Hagoromo” (“A Reflection of Noh: The Feather Mantle”).
Supported by the Tokyo Arts Council, Hosho’s project aims to emphasize the essence of noh’s original texts. Ito, a cultural powerhouse whose “Imagination Radio” (2013) won the Noma Prize for New Writers, and Rubin, an acclaimed translator of the works of writers Natsume Soseki and Haruki Murakami, are both devoted fans of the literary side to this theatrical art form.
“There’s so much going on inside the texts of noh,” Rubin says. “There’s language play, there are constant puns, one sound will lead to another sound, cleverly linking the words within a phrase. The density of the text in Japanese is beyond anyone’s ability to absorb it on the run.”
“Hagoromo,” which will take place at Chiyoda Ward’s Nikkei Hall, literally puts the texts center-stage: A thin, transparent curtain will act as a “reflection” allowing phrases in both English and Japanese to be projected onto the stage alongside images inspired by the text. It’s a marked departure from normal stagings of noh, which is known for its limited use of props and scenery. The hall will open ahead of the show to allow visitors to peruse a display of noh costumes and masks. This will be followed by a discussion panel led by Hosho and Ito on how best to enjoy the art form. The talk is titled “Enjoying Noh the Easy Way.”
Taking it easy is precisely what Hosho believes will draw modern audiences to noh.
“There’s an irony in today’s diverse, eclectic society that entertainment is defined in just one way,” he says. “All kinds of entertainment aim to surprise, impress, make the palms sweat or otherwise elicit a strong emotional response.
“Strong emotion is important, of course, but it’s also important for entertainment to calm the mind and soothe the soul. Noh theater does not just relay information, but provides people with the time and opportunity to think deeply.”
Ito adds that experiencing noh is as close as we can possibly get to the unconscious.
“We have moved away from this unconsciousness in modern times, the stillness at the core of being,” he says. “Through noh we can once again experience unconsciousness and it will help us get back to living our lives more fully in the moment.”
Ito, who first fell in love with the theatrical style by studying the chants with famed noh singing instructor Noboru Yasuda, was tasked with taking the original text and translating it into modern Japanese. He says he purposefully aimed for a contemporary balance.
“In my experience with some translations of ancients texts, I’ve found they are either too technically dry or overly florid in description,” Ito says. “I wanted to do something between the two extremes.”
Rubin’s love for noh began 50 years ago when he was still a student. Enchanted by the poetry of the words in translation, he became determined to read them in the original Japanese, bringing annotated texts to noh performances in order to study the wordplay. Over the years he has headed up two separate research groups on noh and admits “it’s a serious hobby.”
The choice of this particular play, “Hagoromo,” resonates deeply with Rubin in the current environment of fake news.
“So much of noh is not dramatic, it’s just lyrical and narrative,” Rubin says. “But in this play there is one stunningly dramatic moment between the angel and the fisherman in which she shames him for his lack of trust. And within the play, we realize how much people want to trust, want to desperately believe in others. It particularly resonates now with the prevalence of deception and lying within our political landscapes.”
Hosho adds, “Noh is especially necessary in times of social unrest, like today, and it can help overcome the fear of an uncertain future. It’s like when long ago people turned to noh to relieve their anxiety when they were worried about the harvest or about the outcome of a battle.”
Haruo Nishino, a noh expert at Hosei University in Chiyoda Ward, agrees.
“The best noh frees the mind and moves the soul,” he says. “Civilization may have advanced, but culture has not progressed as much. The same thing can be said for modern-day Japan. Many things — including the political situation — have been deteriorating. That’s precisely why it is important for modern audiences to become familiar with noh, which is said to be the essence of Japanese culture.
“Plays are a reflection of society, so noh is also a way for modern audiences to learn about the mindset of the people long ago when noh began.”
Nishino says he will be in the crowd for “Hagoromo,” and looks forward to hearing how this innovative staging might stir modern imaginations. Of course Ito and Rubin will be on hand as well.
“I became so involved with this production that I didn’t want to miss it,” Rubin says. “I’m really looking forward to it, crossing the Pacific with fingers crossed.”
The “Hagoromo” production provides an opportunity to discover something new about noh, the world’s oldest major theatrical art form that is still regularly performed. For Hosho, however, the event is about safeguarding tradition and forging a path forward.
“Our aim isn’t to do something completely different but to improve noh’s presentation to make it more appealing to a modern audience,” he says. “I really hope that many people will rediscover noh’s appeal through this wonderful program, and that it will be the impetus for more projects like this in the future.”
“Mizukagami of Noh: Hagoromo”is part of a multifaceted program that starts at 1 p.m. on Feb. 12. The discussion “Enjoying Noh the Easy Way” begins at 2 p.m. and the actual performance is from 3 p.m. For more information, visit www.artscouncil-tokyo.jp/en/events/19132.