Noh as Requiem

Kanze Kiyokazu is the twenty-sixth grand master of the illustrious Kanze School of dancers and singers in the noh theater—a traditional Japanese stage art born over six centuries ago. Many noh plays recount the tales of the deceased, whose souls appear before priests and monks to seek salvation. A noh play in itself can be considered a requiem for departed souls.

Kanze Kiyokazu is the twenty-sixth grand master of the illustrious Kanze School of dancers and singers in the noh theater—a traditional Japanese stage art born over six centuries ago. Many noh plays recount the tales of the deceased, whose souls appear before priests and monks to seek salvation. A noh play in itself can be considered a requiem for departed souls.

Noh is one of Japan’s leading traditional performing arts; it was founded six centuries ago during the Muromachi period (1333−1568) and is still actively performed today. It was proclaimed a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2001. There are over 20 schools in this theatrical genre (including those specializing in specific roles and musical instruments); Kanze is the largest and traces its lineage directly to noh founders Kan’ami and his son Zeami. Here, the head of this school discusses his reactions to the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

INTERVIEWER: Can you tell us what you were doing at the time of quake?

KANZE KIYOKAZU: I was in a car headed for the National Noh Theater in the Sendagaya district of Tokyo. I saw the street-side electric cables swinging to and fro and realized that there had been a major earthquake. I looked up at the sky. It was sunny but hazy, and I had a premonition that something terrible had happened. It was the same sky that I saw following the 1995 Kobe earthquake.

INTERVIEWER: Were you near Kobe when that quake hit?

KANZE: I had just performed in Kobe the day before, and I was staying at a hotel in the city. For some reason, I woke up a few minutes before the quake struck at 5:46 a.m. There was a tremendous thrust from below. At first I thought there had been a gas explosion. The shock was so powerful that I—along with the bed I was sleeping on—was thrown into the air.

INTERVIEWER: What was your immediate reaction this time?

KANZE: I realized this was going to be a major disaster. I vividly remember the horrific scenes of destruction in Kobe, so it was easy for me to imagine the extent of the devastation. Right after a major quake, everything you had taken for granted in life vanishes, and you lose your sense of reality. You’re suddenly left with nothing, and you desperately look for some way to survive. Images of people confronting such a reality in the most heavily devastated areas ran through my mind when I learned about the disaster.

INTERVIEWER: What did you subsequently do?

KANZE: I quickly returned home to confirm the safety of my family, and I once again headed for the noh theater. After I got there, I remained outside the building until the aftershocks subsided, and then I started rehearsing, which was what I had been scheduled to do. I spoke to a number of my colleagues, and we decided that we should go ahead and practice as usual—not in spite of the dangerous situation but precisely because of it.

I had a performance the following day in Osaka, and so I caught the last flight to Itami Airport. Osaka was not affected, and life was perfectly normal there. Later, I was asked by someone in the audience how I felt on stage. I said, “I performed the play as if it were a requiem.”

No matter which play, all noh performances are a requiem of sorts. There are some works that are full of exuberance and gaiety, but even they are underscored by prayers for the salvation or repose of the soul. Noh is truly unique in the history of world theater in that the leading characters are generally not living human beings. Many of them are spirits of the deceased, and through their eyes, audiences are able to see everyday reality from the perspective of dwellers of the afterworld. (Interviewed on April 1, 2011; to be continued.)
 

Kanze Kiyokazu

Kanze Kiyokazu

Born in 1959 as the eldest son of Kanze Sakon, the twenty-fifth grand master of the Kanze School. First performed on stage at age five, and succeeded his father as the head of the school in 1990. Received the Minister of Education’s Art Encouragement Prize for New Artists in 1996 and was designated a Chevalier of the French Order of Arts and Letters in 1999. Performs actively in foreign countries, including France, the United States, India, and China. Certified as a possessor of an important intangible cultural property. Chair of the Association of Kanze and the Kanze Foundation.