Written by Tsuchiya Komei, Photos by Takahashi Noboru
Noh is a famous form of musical dance-drama that has been performed in Japan for about 600 years. The actors often wear masks and sometimes dance while performing. A play has a number of actors, with one leading character (shite) and one supporting character (waki). A chorus (jiutai) chants the vocal parts and an ensemble (hayashi-kata) provides the musical accompaniment.
At 53, Umewaka Rokuro is the 56th head of the illustrious Umewaka family of Noh performers. This extended family practices the traditions of the Kanze-ryu, one of several Noh schools that produces leading actors. One disciple who is acting and learning Noh traditions under Rokuro's direction is Umewaka Shintaro, his nephew's 17-year-old son.
Rokuro explains, "Noh apprentices live in the master's home and adapt to his way of life. Under this system, they learn Noh techniques by doing. Shintaro has been brought up in the world of Noh, and started appearing on the stage when he was very young. So he now has a good grounding. If an apprentice were to begin living with me as an adult, it would be very difficult for him to absorb Noh traditions and make them his own."
Shintaro adds, "I was 3 when I began practicing Noh. They say I wasn't a willing student at the beginning. But the first time I acted on stage, when I was 5, I really enjoyed dancing in front of an audience."
You might expect that carrying on the traditions of an ancient form of entertainment would make him seem different from the average guy, but he's usually just like any other senior high school student. "School takes up a lot of time, so when I get a part in a play I have to concentrate really hard during training sessions. I was in the school soccer club, but I quit recently to make more time for Noh practice."
Shintaro appears mentally prepared to follow in the footsteps of Noh masters. "Up until now I never thought much about the stage parts they gave me. But from now on, I need to look at the role carefully and interpret it my own way."
I asked Rokuro about his teaching method. "I don't give my own interpretation when teaching I simply show them what I know. It's important they observe how different kinds of people live, and experience life fully over time. People think Noh technique is passed on verbally, but that's not exactly true. A Noh actor must portray his character as a fully human individual, and to do that he must have plenty of experience as a human being. That, at least, is what I believe."