I Hope for You to Feel the Power, Spiritual Essence, and "Fragrant Dignity" of the Japanese Language Through "Noh Online"

Originally published on Tokyo Tokyo FESTIVAL 2021.03.11 release
If you were told you would be watching Noh theater from the stage instead of from the audience seats like normal, what do you imagine it would look like?
For "Noh Online: Funa Benkei," which was streamed for both Japanese and international viewers, powerful footage was captured by cameras on-stage, and English subtitles were added. We asked TOMOEDA Takehito, the Noh Actor who also proposed this groundbreaking video project, about his thoughts on the project and how the COVID-19 pandemic affected on his theatrical activities.
Noh Actor: TOMOEDA Takehito (Photo: FUKUMA Umi)
Noh Actor: TOMOEDA Takehito (Photo: FUKUMA Umi)

Just When I Thought It Was Hard Enough Already,
the Entire 2020 Schedule Was Postponed.

— With the novel coronavirus being confirmed in January 2020 and becoming a global pandemic, we've had to put up with social distancing and other restrictions being imposed on us. How has this affected you, Mr. Tomoeda?

At first, around February, I got the feeling that it might affect performances, and in fact, around March, stage operations gradually started to stop. By the end of the Japanese fiscal year in March, performances scheduled until early summer had all been cancelled or postponed. When we started social distancing, the first thing I felt, to put it simply, was "How can the world just stop like this?"
It was a new experience for me, so a lot of different thoughts were going through my mind. I had enough time to confront what performing on stage meant to me and to reexamine what my Noh performances should be like. My theatrical activities had never been like this before, as I had never had so much spare time. In other words, I had abundant time to develop my skills.

While Social Distancing, I Spent an Hour
Walking to the Rehearsal Hall.

— Were your rehearsals also affected?

In the past, my focus during rehearsals had been to put on good performances for the audience, but now, my focus is on how to express myself as an artist.
Also, while social distancing, I was avoiding public transportation, so I would spend about an hour each day walking from my house to the rehearsal hall. I was strolling around Tokyo, getting lost on unfamiliar streets, and making discoveries like, "Wow, I didn't know there was a shrine here," as if a new landscape had suddenly opened up.
A lot of thoughts were going through my mind when I spent my time that way, and everyone alive in 2020 was having these experiences, not just me. That's why my first thought was that, although this kind of experience had the potential to be negative, I needed to turn it into something positive, so I thought hard about what I could do to make things better.

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(Photo: FUKUMA Umi)

To Give an Example, It's Like
Watching Baseball at Home on TV.

— Did you come up with the idea of "Noh Online" while you were spending your time that way?

Actually, I'd been thinking about a video streaming for a while. However, with my daily theatrical activities, I didn't have much time, so I had to put it on hold. So now that the COVID-19 pandemic was preventing people overseas from visiting Japan, I consulted with Arts Council Tokyo, and we concluded that "now is the time to give overseas audiences an inside look at Japanese culture through streaming."
The way I've always thought about it, to give an example, is that there are two ways to watch a baseball game: going to the stadium, and watching it on TV from home, right? If you go to the actual stadium, you can see the baseball players' superhuman performance right before your very own eyes. You can see them throw an unbelievably fast ball and then hit it for a home run. I think there's a sense of presence and power that you only get from watching in person.
On the other hand, if you watch baseball on TV from home, you see the kinds of pitches thrown, the players' expressions, you get easy-to-understand explanations from the commentators, and you even get slow-motion replays. These things all help to deepen your understanding of how skillful they are.
You could say that "Noh Online" feels similar to the latter. For example, I wanted to be able to offer a new way of watching Noh by filming and also editing video to include the parts of Noh that people who love Noh cannot possibly see even from the first row of the audience seats. Noh theater has been broadcast on TV before, of course, but I wanted to do it differently and give people a closer look, so this time, I filmed with cameras on the stage as well. The result, I believe, is a more elaborate video production through which people can feel the power of Noh theater in a different way from previous Noh theater broadcast programs.

I Chose Funa Benkei Because It Is
Dynamic and Easy to Understand.

— Is it unusual to have cameras on the stage?

Yes, it is. I've shot digest videos on the stage for theater promotions and things like that before, but this is first time (for me) spending over an hour shooting an entire Noh piece. Since video is something that is recorded and stays around, it would be inappropriate to perform without solid technique, so you need a great amount of determination. At the same time, I thought that people might get bored if the video lacked dynamic action.
When I started "Noh Online," I thought it would be nice to do a performance that people watching Noh for the first time could enjoy, so I decided to select the Noh masterpiece Funa Benkei because it uses a naginata (sword) and has a lot of dynamic action. It is also a simple story that has been popular for a long time.
People tend to think that Noh is "difficult" or "has a high threshold to entry," but I want them to see that, on the contrary, it has aspects that are connected to modern, everyday life. I also talked about this with the video director.


(Photo: FUKUMA Umi)

I Also Dance in Casual Clothing
in the Video.

— Have you known the video director for a long time?

I've known him for five or six years. His name is OHTSUKI Satoshi, and his requests were always a bit surprising (laughs), but I knew he had understood my intentions when I saw the finished video. For this video, he also asked me to dance while wearing casual clothes, and he actually filmed it. I suppose he was focusing on the fact that modern people use artistry and dance in Noh theater that has a history spanning some 700 years. I hope you pay attention to that part as well.

Combinations of carefully selected words.
That Which Emerges from Them.

— I'd really like to see it. Do you have any advice for people watching Noh for the first time and for overseas viewers on how to enjoy Noh?

First of all, cherish your first impressions — what you see, what you feel.
As you watch and listen, you will notice unique word choices. When it comes to words, Noh emphasizes the importance of kotodama (the spiritual power inherent in language). Combinations of carefully selected words together with the kotodama, the voices, the musical accompaniment, yelling, and various other things all come together to ultimately form music.
With regard to the importance placed on words, I asked a specialist who translates Japanese literature to come up with the subtitles for this video. English-speaking viewers who watch this video might encounter many words that are not used much in everyday situations. Although it is difficult to transcend language, we have devised thoughtful ways to convey the meaning and sound of words with the help of various people.
So I think there is a kind of "fragrant elegance" in those words, and it would bring me the utmost joy if viewers were able to sense that with the video.

I Want to Overcome in Silence
and Reach a New Place.

— "Fragrant elegance"—what a beautiful expression. From your standpoint as someone involved in the performing arts, what do you think the future of theatrical activities will be like?

First of all, as I stated earlier, Noh has been around for about 700 years. I think the reason it has stayed with us for so long despite the changing times is not because it has "survived accidentally," but because it has "persisted intentionally." We're facing so many issues right now, but I'm sure people who lived 500 years ago or 600 years ago also faced their own problems. That's why I hope we can do the same as they did — quietly overcome our issues and carry on as if nothing had ever happened.
I think we should stay calm and pass on our traditions to the next generation. Even though there is actually a tension I've never felt before, I think this is, if anything, a challenge we've been given, and one that is worth overcoming. In that sense, I would like to continue forward through trial and error. Even if we might make various errors of judgment in the future , I hope we can discover the value of daily life through our search and our trial-and-error efforts. I think that's the same for everyone, and not just people involved in performing arts.
I don't know how long human beings will last, but I definitely don't want my generation to be the one to diminish something that has lasted for 700 years just because of COVID-19. I don't think we should ever do that.

I Hope You See Our Performance in Person Someday.
"Noh Online" Might Provide the Motivation.

— Finally, do you have anything you'd like to say to those who are looking forward to watching the video?

Attending performances in person is only possible when there is peace. I would like to say, as a performer, that it is only possible if there are people who will see and feel what is expressed. We are still trying to get back to daily life while living on the brink of danger. It would be my pleasure if the "Noh Online" video provided even a bit of relief under those circumstances.
And if you discover that Noh appeals to you, then please visit the theater. I want you to experience an actual person performing in front of you. The video is great, but I want you to appreciate the performance in person as well, so you can experience the essence of traditional Japanese performing arts. I would be very pleased if "Noh Online" offered that motivation.

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(Photo: FUKUMA Umi)

Special web page for
"Noh Online: Funa Benkei - Legendary Hero, Riding the Wave from Tokyo to the World":
* The video is no longer available.

"Noh Online: Funa Benkei" Making-of Video 1 - Behind the Scenes:
Promotion Clip 8: Dialogue with the Dead
Promotion Clip 9: To Live On

TOMOEDA Takehito

Born in Tokyo in 1967. Graduated from Faculty of Economics, Keio University.
Grandson of the late TOMOEDA Kikuo. Adopted by his uncle, TOMOEDA Akiyo.
Introduced to the late KITA Minoru, 15th Soke (head) of the Kita school. Studied under TOMOEDA Akiyo.
Made his first stage appearance in Kurama Tengu as a hanami-koji in 1970.
Played his first main role in Tsunemasa in 1977.
Performed in Shojo Midare in 1994, Dojoji in 2002, Shakkyo (Red Lion) in 2005, and Okina in 2010.
President of Gounkai and an advisor for Kannokai.
Won the Shogakukan Shirasu Prize in 2009.
Member of the Nohgaku Performers' Association.
Member of the Japan Nohgaku Organization.
Holder of Important Intangible Cultural Property (general certification).
Coverage and editing: HIGASHI Mitsuko