STORY: Mansai Nomura | British Council | 60 years in Japan

Hiroshi Yoda

Image: Photo © Hiroshi Yoda


[Movie] STORY: Mansai Nomura (Kyogen actor) - YouTube (Japanese)

The opportunity to study in the UK

In 1994 and 1995 the Program of Overseas Study for Upcoming Artists sponsored by the Agency for Cultural Affairs provided me with the chance to spend a year studying abroad in the UK. This came about as a result of the Japan Festival that was held in the UK in 1991. The festival was intended to introduce various aspects of Japanese culture to the British public, and I was given the opportunity to present a newly written Kyogen play, Horazamurai (The Braggart Samurai). This was in fact an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor into the Kyogen genre by Yasunari Takahashi, a scholar of English literature, and it was performed in London and Wales. Shakespeare and Kyogen: at first they might seem worlds apart, but as dramatic forms rooted in medieval times, they share a surprising number of common elements. Prior to this I had also performed the lead in Hamlet, and I wanted to further explore the meeting points between Kyogen and Shakespeare. I think I also felt that climbing into the ring with a heavyweight like Shakespeare might be an opportunity to make Kyogen more widely known in the world. The UK is a country that respects the tradition but is at the same time quite contemporary. I was driven by a desire to see how the Shakespearian tradition was being kept alive in the contemporary world, and see a country that has grappled with this issue in performance.

Similarities as a medieval drama

In the contemporary theatre visual effects play an extremely important role, but Kyogen and Shakespeare both derive from medieval drama and display very little visual imagination. They come from an age in which words alone were the primary means used to stimulate and appeal to the imagination. They present a poetic realm constructed from the dialogue alone, and the epical unfolding of the language of the plays. That everything is expressed verbally is something that Kyogen, Noh, and Shakespeare all have in common. Also, if you look at the Globe Theatre in London and a Noh stage, you would be surprised at how much they resemble one another in form: a very simple construction, with a square stage at centre and pillars at its corners supporting the roof. This simple space is filled with language, with lines delivered in a characteristic recitation style. If the actors say it is night, it becomes night; if they say dawn has come it becomes morning. A world is shaped by the verbal imagination, and unfolds through the exercise of the voices and bodies of the actors. In this fundamental sense, the two traditions are the same.

Using a country as a mirror

When I give workshops on Kyogen in the UK, I have difficulty explaining things like the fundamentals of the stance, for which we use the expression koshi o ireru (“put your back into it”). When Japanese hear this expression, they instinctively understand that it means to lower your centre of gravity, but this is difficult to get across to a non-Japanese audience. This forced me to ruminate internally for some time on what koshi o ireru really means as a physical experience before I could translate it into English. At first I tried “feel the gravity.” Then I thought about where it should be felt, and arrived at “concentrate on your centre.” While studying abroad, I encountered many occasions where I had to revisit and reassess for myself a variety of things that Japanese people simply take for granted. The UK became a mirror by which I  re-examined my very being.  I think this is what makes cultural exchange so intriguing and is the whole point of studying abroad.

What is born from “Kyogen Shakespeare”

In 2001, I participated in the Japan 2001 festival, staging Machigai no Kyogen (The Kyogen of Errors), an adaptation by Professor Takahashi of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors done in a style that adhered quite closely to the conventions of Kyogen. For this convoluted tale of mistaken identity among two sets of identical twins, we used the masks which are traditionally employed in some Kyogen performances. This is a technique not available to English performers, but I think we were able to capture something fundamental to the character of the original play. We performed it at the Globe in London, and it has become a precious memory for me. I might add that a song we wrote for this piece, “Yayakoshiya, yayakoshiya” (How Complicated) was popularized in Japan through a children’s television programme, so the phrase born through the encounter of Kyogen and Shakespeare can now be heard on the lips of children throughout Japan—a happy phenomenon, indeed.

The concept of art in service to society

During my period of study abroad, both giving and participating in workshops, I came to feel that in the UK there was a very deeply rooted idea of theatre and the arts as a contribution to society. In Japan we tend to think almost exclusively in terms of the technique of our craft, such as Kyogen, but British actors seem to think that their stagecraft should have some utility for society at large. In Japan the sense of artistic pursuits as exclusively private interests or hobbies is very strong. There is nothing wrong with that, but it makes artistic pursuits something limited to a small circle of people who share that interest. But the workshops led me to think about what Kyogen might be able to do for the wider society, regardless of the level of interest in Kyogen per se. Workshops are a spur to personal exploration and growth, whether one is a participant or a leader. And I realized that the UK is quite an advanced nation in the way that it considers the relationship between art and society.

What the UK means to Mansai Nomura

I think it could be summed up by the word “unique.” I think the radical blend of tradition and modernity that the UK has achieved is unique. There is a living tradition in the UK, and at the same time it is the birthplace of punk. Though I suppose you could also say that experimentation is made possible because there is tradition. The reason I decided to study abroad in the UK was because I was drawn to this polarity. Kyogen has been inscribed in UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, and it represents an accumulation of some 600 years of hard-won human wisdom. I would like to be able to share more of this with everyone. One way of doing this has been to borrow Shakespeare and see what new fields might open up through performing his works using the techniques of our tradition of Noh and Kyogen. Our engagement in this process should work to deepen cultural exchange. The focus for cultural communication should not be solely contemporary; we should put the past and tradition in service to our efforts to engage with the rest of the world. And this is exactly what I hope to keep on doing.


Profile: Mansai Nomura

Kyogen actor. Designated Holder of Important Intangible Cultural Property. Leader of the Kyogen Gozaru-no-za. Studied with his grandfather, the late Manzo Nomura VI, and his father Mansaku Nomura. After making his stage debut at the age of three, he has participated in countless Kyogen and Noh performances in Japan and abroad, and has made a major contribution to bringing Kyogen to a wider public. The breadth of his activities has included appearances in contemporary theatre, film, and television, as well as staging and direction of modern dramatic works employing classical techniques. He has also staged performances of Machigai no Kyogen (Kyogen of Errors), Kuninusubito (The Country Stealer), and Macbeth (based on Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, Richard III, and Macbeth respectively). In 1994 he spent a year studying in the UK in a program sponsored by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs. He has served as the artistic director of the Setagaya Public Theatre since 2002.

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