Charity Noh

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

INTERVIEWER: Many of the main characters in noh plays are not living human beings. Why is that?

KANZE KIYOKAZU: I think part of the reason is the fact that noh was born during the Muromachi period [1336–1573], which was marked by warfare and famine. Death was not something that happened in ripe old age; it was an everyday reality.

Take the great famine of the Kanshō era [1459–62], for instance. There was a long drought in the first year, followed by a period of incessant rain, leading to a very poor harvest. The following year, crops were ravaged by locusts; more than 80,000 people starved to death in Kyoto alone. Contemporary records show that the Kamo River in the city was full of corpses. On top of all this, there was ongoing warfare, so the boundary between life and death must have been a very tenuous one.

In such a context, I don’t think it would have been strange at all for theatrical works to focus on the world of the deceased. And I think Zeami, the founder of the noh theater, was inspired to write works that move seamlessly between the two worlds. 

INTERVIEWER: What are some examples of works that revolve around the stories of departed souls?

KANZE: There is an entire category of noh plays called shura-mono, or warrior plays, whose leading characters meet an untimely death on the battlefield. Tomonaga and Kiyotsune are good examples. These plays feature a military commander from either the Genji or Heike clan who recounts his tale to an itinerant monk who happens to visit the scene of battle.

In Buddhist thought, warriors who die in battle are forced to relive the horrors of war in a hell called shuradō. Obviously, they want to be free of suffering as quickly as possible, and what Zeami has mercifully done is to have such fallen figures recount their most glorious feats on the noh stage.

These souls are allowed to present themselves at their best. After this, the monk offers prayers for their repose and ultimate enlightenment. The reason noh has survived as a stage art for six centuries is, I believe, because it deals squarely with the universal issues of life and death.

INTERVIEWER: So noh isn’t just entertainment. It’s a form of prayer as well.

KANZE: Death isn’t something we can avoid. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to confront it. What’s important is to strike a good balance and live our lives more fully with the knowledge that death could be just around the corner.

One of the tragic things about the March 11 earthquake and tsunami is that it has led to a nuclear crisis as well. Radiation is a new problem that we’re going to have to deal with. The reconstruction effort is going to be a very long process. But it’s precisely in times like these that we need to remain calm. One important feature of noh is its emphasis on maintaining poise, even in the face of death. So in that sense, I think performing noh has great relevance to our lives today.

A scene from the noh play Kakitsubata.
A scene from the noh play Kakitsubata.

INTERVIEWER: I understand that you’ll be performing in a charity event later in May.

KANZE: Throughout noh’s history, actors have performed in the wake of emergencies as a way of contributing to society. As far back as the Muromachi period, when shrines and temples were destroyed by war or a natural disaster, noh performances were held to solicit donations from the public. In noh, prayers for a peaceful world and an abundant harvest have always been very important themes.

INTERVIEWER: Will you be performing a shura-mono warrior play for the charity noh event?

KANZE: No, I’m actually thinking of something more colorful. I took part in a charity event after the Kobe earthquake as well, and at that time I performed Momijigari, which is set in the mountains of Nagano, famous for their beautiful autumn foliage. It also features many beautiful women, but later in the play, these women are revealed to be mountain demons in disguise. I chose this piece in the hope that people would be able to forget the misery of their post-quake reality and immerse themselves in a more beautiful world for a while.

I often find that coming into contact with something that is truly beautiful can be a very soothing and comforting experience. This time, I’ll be performing two plays: Kokaji and Kakitsubata. I’ve asked members of my school as well as noh musicians and actors to volunteer their time so we can be of service to society in our small way. (Interviewed on April 1, 2011.)

In This Series
Charity Noh (May 19)
Noh as Requiem(April 21)

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.