Mark Oshima first wanted to study Japan’s prewar colonial policy and become an academic, changed his mind and decided to earn a doctorate in 19th century kabuki, and ended up studying “kiyomoto” — musical accompaniment to kabuki dancing.
Oshima, a Japanese-American born in Colorado in 1960, recently received a lesson from his mentor, Kiyomoto Shisaodayu, in a condominium near the Kabukiza theater in Tokyo’s Tsukiji district.
Shisaodayu chose a part from “Michitose,” a composition for shamisen used in 19th century kabuki. In the scene, recuperating courtesan Michitose has a secret rendezvous with her boyfriend, Naojiro, who is being pursued.
Playing the shamisen, Shisaodayu recited a line for Oshima, who tried to emulate him, repeating “Oiran, Naohan. . . . ” But his mentor interrupted, saying: “You failed to pronounce Naohan. Without the ‘n’ it sounded like ‘ah.’ Do it again.”
Oshima said the line over again and again.
In the professional world of traditional music such as kiyomoto, the master’s word is absolute. Pupils are not allowed to question their master or contradict him. Learning is by imitation and dogged repetition.
Shisaodayu said Oshima’s pronunciation sounded like a foreigner’s when he recited the lines, but the master also told him: “You are cut out for kiyomoto. Have confidence in yourself.”
Kiyomoto features a combination of kimono-clad shamisen players and vocalists sitting on a stand on the stage. It is subtle and requires great phonetic skills on the part of its practitioners.
Oshima has been practicing kiyomoto for 15 years and has earned the career name Kiyomoto Shimadayu. “Dayu” is a title accorded to kiyomoto performers.
Shisaodayu, son of the late kiyomoto wizard Shizudayu, started learning the art early in life and could recite the lines of “Osome Hisamatsu,” a tragic love story in kabuki, by the age of 4. He also studied at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music.
Shisaodayu says Oshima still needs to become more natural in putting the senior members’ “zori” sandals in order and in placing his hands on the floor to greet them.
Oshima grew up in an English-speaking environment with American values. His father and mother are both from Tokyo, and both studied in the United States, where they met and married.
They spoke English at home every day except for when they chose Japanese to communicate on confidential matters.
In high school, Oshima listened to jazz and classical music. He took up Japanese in earnest after enrolling at Harvard University. After deciding to study 19th century kabuki, he came to Japan and became a student of Shisaodayu in 1987.
He intended to delve into the history of kabuki but was captivated by kiyomoto. Learning the kiyomoto lines proved difficult, but he persevered.
Oshima, who is single, lives in Tokyo but often performs in other cities, including Nagoya, where he appeared in early September.
Oshima is a vocalist of the third rank, after the “tate” first and “waki” second vocalists. He frequently plays parts that require him to sing in a high-pitched voice.
He has no time to feel deflated because the lead vocalist may rob others of their parts and always keeps on singing once he gets in the right mood.
As the first non-Japanese professional kiyomoto performer, Oshima has already made appearances in major theaters, including Kabukiza. Offstage, he also supports himself by translating kabuki guide information from Japanese into English and interpreting at meetings introducing traditional Japanese entertainment to foreigners.
He has not begun his dissertation, and neither is he sure he will be elevated to tate. But some of those around him urge him to become a bridge between Japan and other countries by using his onstage experience, and some hope he will become the first person to hold a doctorate in kiyomoto.
But Oshima says he is not giving too much thought to the future. He just wants to do properly the things he is told to do.
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