At 87, philosopher Takeshi Umehara hopes to breathe new life into the age-old Noh musical drama theater, by interjecting modern language and storylines that should appeal to a wide variety of audiences.
Umehara, who has also attempted to modernize Kabuki and "kyogen," two other Japanese traditional performing arts, laments the fact that few people see Noh today.
“Its outdated words prevent people from enjoying Noh,” he said. “If spectators cannot understand the dialogues, naturally they cannot enjoy Noh.”
While classical plays are normally performed in old-fashioned Japanese, Umehara's works use modern language and feature dramatic storylines that are geared toward today's audiences.
“The strength of classical performing arts is their excellent techniques to grab their audiences' attention, which have been polished over a long period,” he said. “Using modern-day words, they can grab the hearts of a wide range of people.”
Umehara, who has written numerous books on Japanese culture, became interested in the classical performing arts decades ago. He won the Order of Cultural Merit and several book awards.
Umehara has strongly sympathized with the Noh view of the world where death and other fleeting things are seen as beautiful.
Noh was perfected as a theatrical art by Zeami Motokiyo, often simply called Zeami, in the Muromachi Period (1338-1573), when death was close to people’s lives. In the plays, people often die with regrets, appear as ghosts and their souls are eventually comforted. Noh is a distinctive performing art, characterized by its special masks, which the performers wear to portray female, non-human or other characters.
In Umehara’s new story, titled “Zeami,” he focuses on its three main characters: Zeami, his wife and his son Motomasa. The story portrays the difficulties Zeami faced in creating the performing art of Noh and finding a successor to carry it on.
In the latter half of the story, Motomasa, who dies young, appears as a ghost and comforts his mournful parents.
“Zeami” will be first performed in April, in the National Noh Theater in Tokyo.
His modern works for Kabuki and kyogen are known as "super Kabuki" and "super kyogen," respectively.
Kabuki is a traditional dance-drama theater and uses special makeup to emphasize the actors’ role. Umehara's super Kabuki scenario “Yamato Takeru” was first performed in 1986, and achieved stunning success, attracting many kabuki novices with its innovative dialogues written in spoken Japanese.
Kyogen, a Japanese traditional skit centered around ordinary people’s daily lives, has a greater abundance of humor than Kabuki and Noh. Umehara’s super kyogen story “Mutsugoro” first appeared in 2000. It sharply satirized civilized society, and its highly ironic storyline gained great popularity overseas.
In 2008, Umehara wrote his first Noh script, “Kawakatsu.”
“I had written it before I understood what the Noh performance is really like," he said. "It was a mere prototype.”
Umehara hopes “Zeami” will become his first "super" Noh work.
“Into this work, I compiled all I have learned,” he said.
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