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Special Dialogue Toshima City Mayor Yukio Takano and Noh Actor Yoshimasa Kanze

The Cultural Communication Power of Toshima—A Collaboration Between Traditional and Modern Culture

Toshima is on its way to becoming an International City of Arts & Culture that will convey Japan’s rich cultural appeal to the world. Toshima Mayor Yukio Takano visited the Yarai Noh Theater in Kagurazaka to talk about Toshima’s future vision with noted Noh actor Yoshimasa Kanze. In addition to carrying on the knowledge and perspectives of Noh through video games, anime and other new modes, Kanze helps plan the annual Toshima Noh Performance and also performs in it.

Culture Originates from Where People Gather

Mayor Takano: As part of Toshima’s International City of Arts & Culture program, we reopened Minami-Ikebukuro Park last April after major renovations. That autumn the park was the main venue for the Daidengaku Ikebukuro Emaki performance by famed kyogen actor Manzo Nomura.

It is my understanding that the Japanese performing arts were originally presented in outdoor venues, so I would like to honor that tradition by building an open-air Noh stage in this park.

Yoshimasa Kanze:The characters for shibai—the Japanese word for theater—literally means “place of grass.” As you noted, classical performing arts were first staged outside on grassy grounds. When takigi-noh was performed long ago at Kofukuji Temple in Nara, it is said that warrior monks would lay Japanese writing paper on the grass and walk over it in their bare feet to see whether the the grass was dry enough to proceed with the performances.

Furthermore, since Noh originated as a sacred Shinto ritual, it was normally performed on the grounds of temples and shrines, which in the past was where the largest numbers of people gathered.

There is always entertainment available where people gather, which leads to trends and makes that place a source of new culture. In the case of Minami-Ikebukuro Park, it is as if the city has created a place that serves the same function temples and shrines did in the past.

Takano: In addition to Minami-Ikebukuro Park, we are building a cluster of eight theaters at the site of the former city office to serve as yet another new cultural hub. The complex will include a new civic center equipped with a training hall for Japanese theatrical arts.

I understand that you teach Noh to members of the general public.

Kanze: Yes. Even during the Edo Period, Noh was taught to those outside of the circle. I figured that if a structure to teach Noh were available today, people would cultivate a more lasting interest in it. With that in mind, I offer courses and put on events where people can learn and experience Noh. A large number have taken part, and many have become Noh fans as a result, which made me realize that if we continue to succeed in spreading interest in Noh, it is a performing art capable of capturing the hearts of even more people.

Similarities between Noh Six Centuries Ago and Anime Today


A collaboration project with the popular browser game Token Ranbu-Online at the 29th Toshima Noh Performance
© 2015–2017 DMM GAMES/Nitroplus.

Kanze: When I was young, there was a tendency for youth to gravitate toward Western music and entertainment. A shift occurred around the start of the twenty-first century, however, with the emergence of a sort of Japan boom—namely, a natural trend to reexamine traditional Japanese culture.

For example, at fireworks exhibitions before, although young women would often wear yukata to such events, their boyfriends were not generally fond of such attire. These days, however, many young couples attending these displays show up in yukata together! I also feel the same wave affecting Noh and other classical Japanese performing arts with an increasing number of young people showing interest.

Takano: You may recall that many young people came to the 29th Toshima Noh Performance last year. That was definitely a first over its long history, and even I was quite surprised. I attribute much of that success to your own stellar efforts in producing a pamphlet involving a collaboration with a popular online game. It really generated a lot of attention, and in fact became so popular that I don’t have any more copies!

Kanze: There is a trend in recent games and anime to base characters on historical events or legends. This is proving extremely popular for being unique and innovative. But many people don’t realize that Noh has been doing the same thing for six centuries.

For example, in the play Kokaji—which I performed at last year’s Toshima Noh Performance—I played the role of the deity Inari Myojin. I’m pretty sure that audiences six centuries ago thought it was absurd for an actor to take the stage as a god. That’s no longer the case, however, and mainstream games and anime are doing the same thing Noh was doing back then. I believe the fusing of Noh with games and anime is a natural progression.

Takano: I understand that today you’ve brought the original drawing of the character used in the pamphlet for the 30th Toshima Noh Performance to be held on April 30 …….

Kanze: Yes, here it is. I asked manga artist Kazuhiro Fujita—who works here in Toshima City—to create the image for the latest performance, Tsuchigumo.

I want to show that collaborations like these between the historical art of Noh and contemporary art like manga and anime are possible and viable.

Takano: That’s a truly amazing drawing. It gives me the feeling that the upcoming milestone 30th Toshima Noh Performance will expand this performance series.

High Hopes for a New Influx of Theater Fans

Kanze: The Toshima Noh Performance began with takigi-noh performances staged at the base of the Sunshine 60 building many years ago. I was still a university student the first time I performed.

Unlike the quiet forests or temple grounds I was used to, the view of Sunshine 60 towering overhead was stunning. The mix of classical performing arts and the modern atmosphere had already begun.

While Noh may be seen as the classical performing art that is the farthest away from everyday people, takigi-noh and other outdoor performances have acted as gateway entertainment throughout history. With this role being passed down to the Toshima Noh Performance, I believe that becoming interested in Noh is not as difficult as people think. If a Noh stage can really be built in Minami-Ikebukuro Park as you mentioned, everyone can enjoy classical theater both inside and outside, which would attract a new group of fans.

Takano: The view of the skies over Minami-Ikebukuro Park is truly spectacular, especially on a starry night. Since it has become a park that reminds us of just how beautiful the skies over Toshima can be, I hope many people will visit the place.

Kanze: In terms of the flow of new fans, we are also seeing a major increase in overseas visitors to Japan. Over the past two years I’ve been making efforts to attract such tourists to Noh performances, as well as young Japanese who have never attended such plays before. That includes supplying multilingual commentary of the plays and other information on electronic tablets for use during performances.

Takano: That’s a great project. Ikebukuro is currently gaining fame in Japan and abroad as a mecca for anime lovers through projects such as hosting the international Tokyo Anime Award Festival.

At the same time, we are determined to cherish the classical arts—the foundation of Japanese culture—by fusing them with the contemporary to make Toshima City even more appealing to the people of the world. I hope you continue to lend us your expertise.

Kanze: It is deeply inspiring and reassuring to hear of your plans to develop Toshima hand in hand with classical culture. Above all else, I am pleased with the concept of fusing such arts with new cultural developments.

Dojoji (upper left), Matsukaze (lower left) and Kokaji from the 29th Toshima Noh Performance (right)

Shite actor Yoshimasa Kanze in all three

Profile: Yoshimasa Kanze

A shite actor with the Kanze School of Noh who studied the art under his father, Yoshiyuki Kanze, Yoshimasa is also the chairman of the Nogaku Performers’ Association. He stages numerous performances in Tokyo and other parts of Japan, as well as overseas. He also works to popularize Noh through initiatives such as holding Noh lectures and workshops and introducing electronic tablets to provide multilingual commentary during plays.