Yamai Tsunao

The first time I saw Yamai Tsunao, his arrival was heralded by chants and a drum beat. All eyes were drawn to the demonic figure that slowly made its way to the stage. The second time, nobody so much as glanced in the direction of the smiling man in his late thirties who entered the café and took a seat opposite me.

Yamai Tsunao is a lead actor, shi-te, in the Komparu school of Noh, the traditional Japanese performance art that combines the use of masks, movement and music. As well as playing traditional roles, he has collaborated with musicians, appeared with the Mugensha Theatre Company at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and performed in the USA. He took a break from rehearsals to talk about his life in Noh and his desire to bring one of the world’s oldest performing arts to a wider audience.

“My grandfather on my mother’s side was a famous Noh actor, Heishiro Umemura” he explained. “My mother and father didn’t really want me to be a part of the Noh world. It should have been my uncle who carried on the tradition, but he didn’t want to take on the job after WWII. He thought there were more important things than Noh at that time, just after the war.”

Yamai took part in his first Noh performance at the age of four. After his performance, his mother believed that she felt his grandfather’s ‘spirit’ beside him on the stage, and so began his Noh career. It was something he had mixed feelings about, however, while he was growing up.

“As a teenager, I thought it was really uncool. I would have preferred to play in a rock group like most other teenagers. But after failing to enter university, I remember one friend who was looking for a job telling me I was lucky because he had nothing, but I had Noh. I had never seen it as something special before. I started to rethink things. I thought, maybe I do have something different. From around that time, Noh began to become part of my identity.”

Yamai began to train hard in a bid to gain respect as a Noh actor. It’s training which requires a different range of skills from most other performance arts. There are physical problems to deal with—balance, managing the costume’s weight, the fact that the holes in the mask are hard to see through.

“Focus and concentration are very important,” he said. “For this you have to learn how to breathe correctly and this comes from deep down, below the navel.”

Watching Noh requires a little training, too. Many see it as a ‘difficult’ art form. I asked if he had any advice for the Noh novice on what to look for in a performance.

“Of course, the mask changes depending on the position. A Noh actor can show emotions by a small movement, like a tilt of the head, so keep an eye on the main character,” he said with a grin. “The performers create an atmosphere with movement, positioning, and music. All this is important, but the audience should ‘feel’ more than they actually see. That’s the power of Noh.”

Although it is respected worldwide, many Japanese have little knowledge about Noh. A recent government survey indicated that only 2.5 % of the Japanese population had actually seen a Noh performance. For Yamai, this is the country’s loss, and he believes that Noh still has a role to play in modern society.

“After the war, there was an idea that Japan should start again, have a clean slate after the mistakes that led up to WWII. And this was important—people abandoned a lot of bad ideas and beliefs, but all things traditional were rejected, too. Japanese people started to focus only on material items and this created an unbalanced society where materialism was everything. Noh has something important for Japanese, something that we have lost. By learning Noh, we have a connection with the past, something of the original spirit of being Japanese.”

One of the reasons for Noh’s lack of popularity seems to be that, unlike Kabuki, it was always considered an art form for the elite. Noh was supported by the shogunate government during the Edo period and performed for members of samurai families. During the Meiji restoration, it was maintained by patronage from leading zaibatsu figures so there was no need to make it more audience-friendly or look for widespread public support until after the war. Given the difficulties of the current situation, Yamai believes that the government has a responsibility to preserve Noh until it can generate a bigger audience and become more self-sustaining.

“In Europe, arts are protected and publicly funded, but in Japan Noh actors don’t get a yen from the government. There is also no system in place to teach Noh at public schools. We Noh performers also have a responsibility to try and spread the word to keep it alive, so I visit schools and try to raise interest. Children can understand it much more than adults sometimes. Adults think it is difficult, but kids can ‘feel’ it more.”

As a late-thirties performer, Yamai is still something of a spring chicken in a world where most don’t achieve recognition until they are in their 60s and 70s. This fact also seems to have a negative effect on audience numbers, with younger adults seeing Noh as having little to do with them. In a bid to attract an audience below retirement age, Yamai and other similarly-aged members of the Komparu school have formed a group known as Za-square. The group tries to introduce Noh through workshops as well as television and radio appearances. Yamai also runs a Noh dance class, teaching a part of Noh that might have more immediate appeal to a modern audience.

Considering the problems he faces in getting people to understand Noh in Japan, I wondered how the reaction had been to his performances abroad, where even less is known.

Yamai smiled. “In New Orleans, the audience was really funny. During the kyogen performance, which is used as a kind of light interlude, there was an actor playing the part of an owl. He made a kind of hooting noise. When he did this, people started joining in…making noises like owls. I thought this would never happen in Japan. I also thought it showed the character of the New Orleans people. Houston was a bit more serious!”

Yamai finished his tea, thanked me politely me for my time, then headed back to the National Noh Theatre, to that other world where his masked alter-ego roams: a world of ghosts, demons and vengeful deities. To spend an evening in such enlightening company, the National Theatre in Sendagaya and the Yarai theatre in Kagurazaka are still the best places to see Noh in Tokyo. For non-Japanese speakers, the National Noh Theatre has a brief written description of performances in English. Both theatres are small, with seating space for less than 700, making watching Noh an intimate experience. Fukuoka also has a beautiful Noh theatre located in Ohori Park. Acquainting yourself with the content of a Noh performance before attending is recommended, and to this purpose Royall Tyler produced a highly-regarded collection of translated Noh plays, Japanese Noh Dramas (Penguin 1992).
















山井はお茶を飲み干し、僕に丁寧にお礼を言って国立能楽堂に戻っていった。そこは役者たちが神、亡霊、鬼などを演じる世界。千駄ヶ谷の国立能楽堂、神楽坂駅近くの矢来能楽堂で能の世界を覗いてみよう。外国人向けに国立能楽堂には英語のパンフレットもある。どちらの能楽堂も700席足らずなので間近に能を楽しめる。福岡の人には大濠公園内に能楽堂があるので行ってみよう。そして実際に能楽堂に足を運ぶ前にちょっと予習しておくともっと楽しめるだろう。洋書ではロイヤル・タイラー著「Japanese Nõ Dramas」(Penguin Classics社より1992年出版)が英語による能の詳細な説明があって分かりやすい。

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