国際交流基金 The Japan Foundation Performing Arts Network Japan

Artist Interview アーティストインタビュー

Feb. 15, 2023
Misaki Setoyama



Fusion of Original Gidayu and Dance
Yae Yamamichi connects classic and modern

Yae Yamamichi (born in 1995) became familiar with Kabuki and Bunraku in childhood, she learned the Gidayu shamisen (the 3-stringed Japanese lute) from the age of six and traditional Japanese shamisen from the age of 10, and she is currently active as a composer and Futozao shamisen performer. Yamamichi has collaborated with contemporary dancers of her generation to present original Gidayu performances based on traditional Japanese works. She is attracting attention as an artist who connects the traditional and the modern with her young sensibilities. In this long interview, we talked with her about her initial encounter with traditional Japanese music, how she started composing music because of her involvement in dance, and her creative process.

Interviewer: Takao Norikoshi (dance critic)


Yae Yamamichi × Megumi Abe
“Dance: Orochi -the myth of Great Serpent- Retold”

(Oct. 2020 at Spiral Hall)
Photo: Yulia Skogoreva


You have collaborated with many contemporary dancers to present performances based on works from the classical Japanese repertory. Rather than using these traditional works as they are, however, you study the historical legends they are based on, take reference or partially quote from them, and reconstruct them in order to compose your own original Gidayu pieces. I would like to begin by asking why you became so passionate about and attached to these traditional arts and how your original encounters with them came about.
I was born in 1995 and am from Kochi Prefecture. My parents came from ordinary families that had nothing to do with the traditional arts, but they liked the traditional arts. They say that they played videos of Kabuki, Noh and Bunraku for me at home as if they were showing me children’s programs. Because of that influence, even from the age when I didn’t understand the old language used in the classics, I was very fond of Bunraku and Japanese traditional dance (Nihon Buyo), and when I was shown them, I would behave and sit and watch them quietly. So, my parents put together a “video for Yae (me) to watch” which was edited by them to run as a loop of the parts of the classic performances that made me happiest. Looking back over it now, it seems that I was watching the performances of the famous masters, because the tape contained footage such as Bunraku’s Minosuke Yoshida III’s Yamagura no Oshichi, Tamao Yoshida I’s Kumagai Jinya, Murasaki Fujima and Ennosuke Ichikawa III’s Sonezaki Shinju (Love Suicide at Sonezaki) and Tomijuro Nakamura’s Ukare bozu. Shikoku is a place where traditional performing arts such as local theater performances and Ningyo Jōruri (traditional Japanese puppet theater) are also popular, but my introduction to the traditional arts was purely through video.
It’s interesting that a child too young to remember anything got hooked only on the Japanese classics. These traditional performances certainly weren’t shown popularly on TV shows when you were a child, were they?
That’s right. But it didn’t bother me too much that my classmates were interested in different things from me. When I was in nursery school, I really wanted to do Kabuki, and because I was told that I could learn the recitations of child actors of Kabuki, I began taking lessons under the master Takemoto Yanodayu from the age of six. At first, I was just learning the recitation part, but as I continued lessons, I became attracted to the shamisen. In elementary school I would take a cassette tape of Nagauta (recitations of long poetic songs with musical accompaniment) and play it during recess and dance to it, and at the regularly held festival events, I would gather my friends together to perform things like the Kabuki classic Sannin Kichisa (The Three Kichisas).
At the age of 10, you started playing traditional Japanese music.
I really liked Shinokiri, in which the fox Tadanobu from Ennosuke-san’s Yoshitsune Senbonzakura (Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees) (*1) appears, and when I was little, I often used to have my parents pick me up and imitate riding in the air. When I saw the Hatsune no Tsuzuni (Hatsune’s tsuzumi drum) that appears in that scene, I became attracted to the drum. It happened that there was a master who taught at a culture school in the neighborhood (master Yoko Mochizuki) that I was able to study from, and I still go to take lessons from her today. Unlike the shamisen, there were people who played Japanese drums and flutes at festivals, so there were many children who were learning it.
For high school, you went to the Music High School affiliated with the Faculty of Music, Tokyo University of the Art (commonly known as Geiko).
I went on to Geiko and entered the major course in Hogaku Hayashi (traditional Japanese musical accompaniment). However, when I went to school, I realized that performances for plays, which I had always liked, and performances for concerts were completely different. For concerts, it is important to keep tempo very precisely, but I thought that dance is felt in the mind, so I said to myself, “In this case I will follow the tempo of the feet ... Hit it like this!” Of course, in my mind I could understand the rationale behind concert performance, but it was just so different that I often felt it was difficult for me.
I think there were more Western music students than Japanese music students at Geiko. What was that environment like?
There were about 40 students in a class each year, and it was interesting to have a mix of people from various genres of Western music, such as composition, piano, and violin, together with students of Nagauta shamisen and other traditional Japanese music (Hogaku) all in the same class. It was interesting to have all these students together in the same class regardless of the musical genres they specialized in. Apart from regular subjects, there were classes where we learned about Western music performance methods as well as music theory. I was also very interested in learning the meanings of the phrases in the opera, and how the chord progressions where different depending on the type of scene, and especially learning to understand the structure of the music. I also learned how interesting it is to analyze music and composition.
That’s something you wouldn’t have encountered if you had only trained in Japanese music.
Yes. I also studied hard a variety of practical skills such as solfege (applying sol-fa syllables to music scores to be able to “read” the sounds), but this was also a form of culture shock. Because, for example, the shamisen strings are tuned according to the sound of the Tayu’s voice, so it is natural that the tone is not the same every time. So, on a piano score, I really couldn’t understand that the notes there in the five-line staff sound absolutely the same every time (laughs). It was a lot of fun to expand my knowledge, though. While in school, I also wrote the score and directed a musical for our school culture festival.
Were you also interested in directing at that time?
When I was in high school, I was worried about whether I could make a living by performing or creating things for the stage in the future. Actually, when I was in the fifth grade of elementary school, I was shocked by the Cocoon Kabuki production of the play Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (Tokaido Yotsuya Ghost Story) directed by Kazuyoshi Kushida. The play was performed in two versions in different productions, Minami-ban (the south version) and Kita-ban (the north version), of which the south version could be said to be very similar to the current Kabuki version, while the north version was a new one created by Kushida-san, which included scenes that are not often performed, and it used a guitar accompaniment in the scene where Oiwa-sama’s hair is combed. I was honestly impressed to see such unique artistic expression.
That’s surprising. So, you didn’t dislike forms of musical expression other than the original shamisen?
That’s right. Although if I were the director, I might not use certain types of artistic expression, I remember being very impressed by seeing the reaction of the audience and realizing that making some kind of conversion could make Kabuki more accessible to people today. After that I was so attracted to the collaborations of Kanzaburo Nakamura-san and Kishida-san that I had long wanted to use that kind of traditional artistry to create plays that made people so excited to see, to help people discover the fascination of the traditional stages, and to create places where people could encounter the classical artistry. Because of that enduring passion I had, I wanted to study theater creation, so I entered the Department of Musical Creativity and the Environment (Onkan) at the Tokyo University of the Arts.
What kind of a department was it?
It was a department where there were people creating contemporary music and electronic music, and others studied cultural policy and art production, and for me it is hard to explain, but I would say it was a department where you could think about and try to create environments to be filled with music. When I first entered, my impression was that it was a place with a lot of people who you might say we’re on the cutting edge and thinking about what music should be in the here and now, So I felt strongly that I had stumbled into a world that was completely different from the one “analog” people were used to.

One part of the entrance exam for the Onkan department was a time when you were supposed to do something like self-promotion, and for that I created a new piece based on Funa Benkei where I performed three roles (Minamoto Yoshitsune, Benkei, and Taira Tomomori) while beating on the drum. On seeing that, the examiner seemed a bit worried and said, “I don’t think you will find anyone who can talk on the same level as you. Will you be OK being alone like that?”

So, because I wanted to learn about Kabuki directing, I tried to enter the seminars that were mainly in the theater department, but what I actually found was that most of the work that went on there was centered around the contemporary theater. It was the theater that didn’t have fixed characters like in the Japanese classics, and there were so many unbridled scripts that I couldn’t even find where to read them, so I was really at my wit’s end. So, eventually, I moved on to seminars in the music composition department.
Composition was Western music, wasn’t it? There is a course for Japanese music, but there is no Gidayu composition in it, and theater courses are limited only to contemporary theater. In fact, there is no place in Japanese art universities where you can study the traditional Japanese arts properly.
That’s right. But I really liked Gidayu, and I became seriously aware that I really wanted to create Gidayu music and works (narratives).
From what I’ve heard so far, it seems that you hadn’t had a real encounter with dance at that point.
However, many of the videos I had watched since I was a child were dance works such as Kagami Jishi (The Mirror Lion), Ukare Bouzu (The Floating Boy), Hane no Kamuro (The Bald of the Feather), and Yagura no Oshichi (The Seven of the Turrets). Even when I was practicing Gidayu shamisen or Ohayashi (traditional Japanese musical accompaniment for Kabuki, Bunraku, etc.), for a long time I practiced the music of the works with dance that I liked. I, myself, have never learned to Japanese traditional dance, but I really liked watching the bodies of dancers. So much so that I actually felt like I was dancing all the time I was playing the music, and so music and dance were virtually the same things for me.
In 2017, your fourth year at university, you presented your own original performance of Sagi Musume (The Heron Maiden): Gidayu and Contemporary Dance at the Senju Campus of Tokyo University of the Arts. It was a solo dance by Yoshie Kubo of Von no, but why did you choose to make it contemporary dance? Was there anything special that you were conscious of?
When it comes to contemporary dance, I hadn’t really watched a lot of it. When I did see it, it was regardless of whether it was contemporary dance or not, I thought that what was important was that it was performed with a modern body. I really like Monzaemon Chikamatsu, and one teacher wrote: “Chikamatsu, who was a great early writer of Ningyo Jōruri (traditional Japanese puppetry plays with narrative recitation and shamisen accompaniment), had also done Kabuki, and when he returned to Jōruri, he was influenced by Kabuki plays.” And about that influence, it said: “Rather than the use of puppets, it was through Kabuki’s use of the reality of human bodies that the traditional Japanese stage arts became alive as flesh and blood.” And that sounded very convincing to me.
What do you mean by, “the traditional Japanese stage arts became alive as flesh and blood”?
It means something like, “lifeblood flows through it.” Like, “lifeblood began to flow through the traditional subjects (stories depicted on stage) like the blood through the bodies of the people of the day. Of course, I also like traditional Japanese dance (Nihon Buyo), but rather than such a body well trained in traditional dance, what would happen if I used a rather rough type of body of people who live our modern daily life, I became interested in what would happen if I tried representing the sounds of Gidayu and traditional subjects with such contemporary bodies? That is why I started to work with contemporary dancers.
What kind of dance performances were you watching?
Of course, I watched Von-no’s, and others including Wataru Kitao (Baobab) and Ayane Nakagawa (Suichu megane∞). I was involved as a director’s assistant and in directing department work, so I saw also saw the work that went on in the contemporary theater. After all, the “body that can become anything” in contemporary dance has something in common with traditional Japanese dance, and even if you are dancing a role, you can see various scenes from there, and when it comes to reminiscence scenes, you can see completely different scenes. Of course, the methods and output you can produce are different, but I was relieved to know that this is what dancing is.

Creation based on a study of the traditional arts

By the way, from your first production Sagi Musume (The Heron Maiden), your credits have been listed as “Composition and Direction.” What is your intention with this?
Even if I was going to do a new work using the traditional arts, for example, I felt that just inviting a ballet dancer to dance with Gidayu accompaniment would be like a re-heating of the classics, and that the essence of my work would disappear. So, I decided to create new original lyrics and music when I did it. I thought that by recomposing new pieces with my own interpretations based in my own sensibilities, it would be possible for new things to be born. That’s why I chose the credits of “composition and direction.”
I see that Sagi Musume (The Heron Maiden): Gidayu and Contemporary Dance is also a new work.
Yes. The piece Sagi Musume (*2) is both in Nagauta and Gidayu, but in this work, I wrote a new piece while quoting the traditional lyrics, and also included an original new ‘ayashi (musical accompaniment). I referenced the original story depicting a woman falling into the so-called hell on earth, but the content was completely different. In my recent works, I have been working more broadly on the scope of my research and structure, and instead of taking or referencing parts of a single work, my compositions are becoming something more like a collage of various elements from different works based around the same motif.
There are any works that “put classic works into modern formats,” but you have created new works by researching the traditions that became the basis of traditional works and even the works that were derived from them, so there is a freshness and momentum that is of the here and now. Can you explain your creative process while citing some actual examples?
Originally, Gidayu was an art that had a method of creating new works by mixing various parts from previous works. So, in my second self-planned performance Miwa (2018. Performed in the main hall of Todaiji Temple. Choreography: Megumi Abe, Cast: Chika Araki) was based on the subject of Omiwa in Imoseyama Onna Teikin (Mt. Imo and Mt. Se: A Tale of Womanly Virtue) (*3). I collected some 20 previous works, folklore, legends, etc., that Omiwa appears in, and from them I feel I was able to create a composition that tells a different story from the ones in which Omiwa is talked about in the classics until now.

In the case of Daija (The Great Snake) I presented in 2019, the famous Japanese classics of the Great Snake are Yamata no Orochi (Eight-headed Giant Snake) (*4) and Anchin Kiyohime Densetsu (The Story of Anchin and Kiyohime) (*5). There are traditions about these snakes in various regions, and many people have created works based on them. First, we will thoroughly investigate such folklore legends and previous works. I also like to go to places where traditional legends remain, so for example, when I went to Izumo, I realized the theory that Yamata no Orochi represents the flooding of a river. In the process of researching, I also write down the words I encounter in songbooks and songs such as the “Man’yōshū” and the “Kokin Wakashu.” I have a strong attachment to “sound”, so I write down words such as “I definitely want to include this sound” or “The sound of this old word is cute and good”.

At the stage of research, there were various encounters, such as the existence of such a beautiful sounding ancient word, or the fact that the waka poems sung by Saigyō (1118-1190) and Basho Matsuo (1644-1694) in the same place resonate in this way. These are things that I can see because I live in this day and age, and I think it’s a tremendous privilege. If Basho has been writing answer songs for more than 500 years in Saigyō, I am encouraged that I should be able to accept the classics and create works that live in the present day.

Yae Yamamichi × Megumi Abe
“Dance: Orochi -the myth of Great Serpent- Retold”

(Oct. 2020 at Spiral Hall)
Photo: Yulia Skogoreva

Do you explain your research to choreographers and dancers?
From watching Noh and Japanese traditional dance (Nihon Buyo) together, you get a sense of what the meaning is behind this or that choreography, or how this or that poetry or prose (the lyrics recited in Joruri) was born, and I want to share those meanings with people as much as possible. For example, in the case of Musume Dojoji (The Maiden at Dojoji Temple) (*6), there is a famous choreography called Ranbyoshi, in which you draw a triangle with your feet. It also represents the shape of the scales of a snake, and in fact it is also reflected in the movement of Kiyohime as she climbs the steps up to the temple, and it can also be seen as the sickle neck of a snake…. But I leave it all up to the dancers to decide how they perceive it. Because it’s important to have the output fit the style of the person that dances it.

Also, I think it is the archaic words used in the traditional arts that can be misread. For example, when you hear the word Ame in its old usage, was used with the meaning of “heaven,” but people today think first of all get the image of Ame meaning “rain,” don’t they? So, I think it’s interesting to see the dancers coming up with choreography that suggests it’s raining. In response to such choreography, I may consciously choose words when writing my Shisho (songs or lyrics) that will become a sort of “hook.” However, sometimes I want to see what would happen if I had a ballet-trained type of body doing a distinctive Noh or Kabuki type of Ranbyoshi (wild rhythm) choreography step, or I ask for a dancer to attempt to introduce some point a “demon’s hand” effect, which in the traditional Japanese dance context means a three-fingered hand.
How do you compose music?
By the time I have written the shisho (lyrics) for a piece, the words or phrases used already have a sound or tone associated with them and there will be some scene or atmosphere that I have in mind, and from that point I use some image to expand on to compose the music. Also, in the classics, there are rules such as, “this kind of sound pattern will be included in the twilight scene,” so I abide by those rules as I compose. Because, in the past, people felt a sense of reality in those sounds, and I have a conviction that such expressions of sound will never be old-fashioned.

I will also refer to Western music sometimes. There is also a large snake that appears in Wagner’s opera Siegfried, so I may use that same type of sound to create the feeling of a snake crawling with semitones. In relation to the snake-related triangle I mentioned earlier, I may change the tempo to one based on threes motif, and thus change from a four-beat (common time) tempo to a three-beat one.
Some dancers aren’t used to dancing to a shamisen accompaniment, are they?
That may be true, but in such cases, we often do workshops before we enter the creative process. For example, I may choose five waka poems that I think suit the person and then ask them to choreograph something about one minute in length based on their favorite among the waka poems. If the waka poems are written using the kanji (Chinese characters) the poem’s meaning may become clear to them, so I write the poems out only in the phonetic hiragana characters for them to choose from. I also may improvise melodies and match them to the poems intuitively. Since they will then be dancing only with the sound of the Japanese hiragana, things like the “ama = heaven” and “ame = rain” difference that I cited earlier may occur. But since that’s how people today interpret words used in their old meanings, I think that can be pleasing too.
It’s interesting to hear that you can expand from the “sound” of the old-usage words in your imagination. When one is doing research on documented materials, there is certainly a temptation to want to convey the “correct meaning” or the “results of research” one finds. I certainly respect the richness of your sensibility that allows you to find the way the sound of such old language resonates in modern people as something “pleasing”.
I told the dancers that, “I thought the waka poems I selected reminded me of the lyrics of Aimyon (*7) songs,” and had them listen to her songs, and then I suggested that the danced to their choreography while listening to the songs. It’s easy to dance with pop music, but it’s hard to dance to shamisen accompaniment, and I wonder what the difference is. I’ve been researching for a long time because I want to know how people feel now. I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer. I often listen to J-POP music, and for example, depending on the work, I sometimes decided on the imaging, and in the case of Daija (The Great Snake), it was Aimyon’s song If It Is a Full Moon Night (a song about the feelings of a man on a long night when he is trying to win the love of a woman).
Do you mean that of the work you first share with the dancers the image of the world you are going to create in a new work, and then you work together with them on its creation?
Let’s see. Whether it’s waka or J-pop, there is no difference in my choice when choosing. In that sense, I have recently become aware that I am a native of the classics. I think it’s important to go back and forth between the classics and the current works without separation, and to have a sense of enjoying the “emotive quality” of both.
That’s your talent, isn’t it? Osamu Hashimoto translated the classic Makura no soushi (The Pillow Book) into modern language, translating “Haru wa Akebono” (literally “spring is dawn”) as in saying “In springtime, the dawn [is most beautiful]” worded to express the feelings of today’s young women, but that kind of emotive quality must have been the same for people in the past and people today.
I totally understand. I think waka encapsulates the feeling of wanting to write like that. It is as if the scenery that appears before our eyes is tightly vacuum-packed and frozen [preserved as it is]. Moreover, I like very much the fact that the method of thawing it out again later is left up to the receiver. I think that for us in later generations, we are allowed to play with it any way we want, so we have a strong desire to play as much as we want.
The reason why your attempts to connect classics to contemporary dance have ended up being like grafting bamboo to a tree may be because you didn’t have enough sense of playing such classics.
For example, kagura, which is said to be the origin of all Japanese performing arts, was actually practiced during farm work fieldwork in order to dedicate to the gods. The performing arts are between the extraordinary (hare) and the ordinary (ke). The people had to work for a living, but they also sang and danced. Personally, I think that this is directly connected to play. That’s why I want to create a place where I can bring together people and things and look at what comes out and go home with a feeling that “it was fun.” That is why I want to aim for performing arts that make the audience feel good about just being there.
Your third self-planned performance Shuten-dōji (2019) was held at the former studio of modern Japanese master sculpture Hirakushi Denchu. You did the composition, music, and direction, and the choreography and performance were by Momoko Shiraga of Momonga Complex.
Kanzaburo-san and Kushida-san teamed up to perform the dance drama Ōeyama Shuten-Dōji that I remember as a very impressive theater experience. The sight of the demon god, who was supposed to be the target to be exterminated as a bad guy, was playing in the mountains in the form of a child was very charming and somewhat sad. I wanted to get closer to this humorous and sad demon, so I asked Shiraga-san to perform in it.

Then there is a work called Tensho (Reincarnation) in the sculpture of Hirakushi Denchu. This is a work that depicts an oni (demon) spitting out a human from its mouth, based on the saying that “Even demons don’t eat lukewarm things, and though a demon may try to eat [a luke-warm human], it ends up feeling so sick that it ends up spitting the human out.” I wanted to try to do a work about a demon in a studio [like Denchu’s] related to demons. In the classics, it’s a world where it’s OK to insisted rather boldly that, “This and this are similar, so let’s connect them,” so I thought this might be the case, and I chose that studio as the venue.
Are there any motifs that you are particularly attracted to in the classical repertory?
At first, I often used works that I liked after seeing stage performances of traditional Japanese dance (Nihon Buyo) pieces such as Funa Benkei (Benkei and the Boat) (*8) and Noh and Kabuki pieces like Shunkan (*9). But after Miwa, I started to use more and more pieces in which young women were the subjects. I think that both Kiyohime and Hashihime (*10) had grown long traditions of development over the course of the 1,000 years they have been handed down. Maybe it started with something like, “That girl is dangerous,” or “She’s a stalker, isn’t she?” and in the end, she turned into a demon or a snake. But if you trace it back to the original, they were probably just regular young women, and that is what I wanted to find out about. I wanted to see the real picture hidden within these traditional figures, which could be likened to Russian nesting dolls.

As with the Shuten-Dōji (sake drinker child) I mentioned earlier, Tsuchigumo (earth spider) (A derogatory term for indigenous noble families who did not conform to the Yamato imperial court in ancient times. Since the early modern period, it is a yokai in the form of a spider) and Aterui (the leader of the ancient Ezo, who was executed for going against the Yamato Imperial Court. One of the roots of the demon slaying legend), there are an almost endless number of things that you want to explore when you start imagining that the people who, as antagonists to the regime, were labeled as yokai or demons and thus suppressed.
Since you are interested in the parts of the traditional arts that connect to the sensibilities of modern people, I guess it is easy to share the subject matter with contemporary artists, isn’t it?
Of course, I also like the more dramatic and flashy aspects of the classics. If it were Yamata no Orochi (The Eight-Headed Dragon), I would really like to do something like having eight people coming out on the stage to perform. When I read Chikamatsu’s original text, I was amazed by the feeling that had a similar sense of speed as Spielberg’s movie.
Speaking of which, you teamed up with Roma Hashimoto in the work ENIGMA (2021). The direction and choreography were conducted by Roma Hashimoto and you did the lyrics and composition, and it was quite spectacular.
Roma is the same age as me, and we’ve always watched each other’s work, and I always thought that I wanted to work together with her someday. At first, Roma proposed the idea that the past and present could be connected by waking up a monster that was sleeping underground in Tokyo, which led to a connection to the legends of catfish in the classics.

As for catfish, in the Edo period, a discourse was circulated through the Kawaraban (a type of Edo-period single-page newspaper) that “when catfish go wild, an earthquake occurs, so the gods hold it down with a keystone, but sometimes the stone shifts and disaster occurs.” Gradually, catfish became the allies of justice, and ukiyo-e prints of people helping others out of the rubble, helping with reconstruction after earthquakes, and prints scolding evil moneylenders began to circulate around the Ansei era (in Edo period?).
It was “Namazu (Catfish) paintings,” wasn’t it?
Right. I thought the ambivalence of both destruction and rebirth was interesting. But when Roma said, “Can’t it be seen as the catfish’s self-made and self-performed works?” I came up with the idea that it would connect to political propaganda, so it could be depicted as a modern phenomenon, and I named the unidentified monster “Enigma” (the Japanese title is a made-up word consisting of four Chinese characters to make a phonetic equivalent of enigma) and drew people who tried to take advantage of others or were taken advantage of.
Your father also performed the Katari (narration) in one work.
My father often appears in my works. He is not a professional performer, but I think he is a performer who embodies the entertainment type space that I cherish. Normally, he only does narrative recitation, but in the “Kitamari / KIKIKIKIKI” performance sponsored by Tokyo/Festival, titled Roka Yasou (Nocturne for the Old Flower) (2021. Choreography, Direction, Performer: Kitamari, Composition and Performance: Yae Yamamichi) he also performed at the request of Kitamari.
Roka Yasou (Nocturne for the Old Flower) (*11) is based on a play by Shogo Ota, and the whole is like a Noh stage, and the Joruri (Japanese ballad drama) performance that flows almost throughout the film creates a wonderful sense of unity.
Roka Yasou (Nocturne for the Old Flower) began with a study session with Kitamari-san and the dramaturg Naoyuki Niisato-san before the creative work started, and everyone shared together the background behind the work and an interpretation of the play. In the process, I found out that it was a collage of works by Kyoka Izumi and the Noh play Yamanba, and I tried to compose a work with music that referenced its structure. The main character, an aging prostitute, is in my mind the image of Sekidera Komachi (Komachi at Sekidera) (as an old woman, Ono no Komachi reminisces about the days of her past), and I wrote about 20 songs for the 90-minute work. There are more if you count the songs that I didn’t use.

Roma Hashimoto x Yae Yamamichi

(Dec. 2021 at KAAT Kanagawa Arts Theatre-Large Studio)
Photo: Yulia Skogoreva

Roka Yasou

Roka Yasou (Nocturne for the Old Flower)

(Oct. 2021 at Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre-Theatre West)

What would you do if you were asked to compose a dance performance without text?
The work Shiki (2021), for which I teamed up with Ayane Nakagawa-san, had no text at all. Of course, there is a theme for the work, but in such a case, I first ask the choreographer what he or she is interested in. We shared our favorite J-POP and Western music and asked about our favorite paintings at that time. Well, half of it is my curiosity to know about the dancers (laughs).
Ayane Nakagawa has been involved in both ballet and traditional Japanese dance. Do you feel there are some ways that she is different from other dancers?
When choreographing, I was aware that there were places where she could perceive music with more Japanese phrases than people who had only done contemporary music. Shiki was about “wanting to condole people in grief,” so I researched not only Japanese funeral rites but also those of ancient Rome, China, and other ancient and modern eras. There was a position called “crying woman” and there were places where clowns appeared, so I proceeded with the composition with the recognition that funerals were at times also partially festivals.
The works that you participate in are basically live performances. This is a valuable thing in the world of contemporary dance.
I take a shamisen when I go to the rehearsal studio. I always want to work with the dancers using live music, and when I say, “I’ll keep playing until you tell me you are ready to stop,” that often confuses them at first (laughs). If we keep doing that, a sort of understanding of each other’s responses and intentions develops, so that I may feel a response of understanding from them when I bring a crescendo to my playing, or if one side seems to be wanting to end the flow but the other side wants to continue a little more, and I find moments like that irresistibly fascinating.
So what is important for you is when the music and the dancers’ bodies influence each other in real time, isn’t it?
Yes. I think the reason why I was attracted to videos of performances of the Japanese classics when I was a child was that I felt an attraction to the sound. When I experienced a feeling from the heart that the shamisen phrase in the scene where the Bunraku puppet cries in a climax, called the kudoki, is indeed “the sound of tears falling,” I felt as if I were crying in response from my core, from my very cells. When I think that people in the past must have felt this way when they heard this sound, I want to create that same kind of moment in my work that will bring both the dancers and the audience together in a unified moment of that experience.
Listening to your story so far, it’s amazing that you have the ability to easily empathize with feelings across hundreds of years of time, as when you say, “I guess people in the past must have shivered here,” as well as your ability to give it reality in the present by using a contemporary [dancer’s] body, but it’s really interesting that it is possible for the two to directly connect without any apparent strain.
When you put it into words like that, you made me realize that that’s what I’m doing (laughs). The reason I chose the futozao shamisen (shamisen with a thick neck) in the first place is that I like Gidayu. Gidayu is basically a Jōruri story performed by two people, one Tayu (narration reciter) and one shamisen player, and it is different from Kiyomoto (a type of narrative performance) and Tokiwazu (style of Jōruri narrative used for Kabuki dances), which have a large number of people in the same narrative genre. Both feature just one Gidayu, and he does the narration for all the characters. Tayu is also amazing, and the shamisen that he plays together with the changing narration is also amazing. All the parts, from men and women, gods, and babies to grandfathers and grandmothers, from the world of mythology to the home dramas of the time, everything can be expressed with just the Tayu and the shamisen. I think that not only the music, but also the narrative that is performed has a great influence when collaborating with the dancers.
Finally, you have gotten a scholarship from the Kuma Foundation (*12), and you have continued to receive support for your activities even after graduation. As creators, the Kuma Foundation supports a wide range of talents through its scholarships. In 2022, the Kuma Foundation announced a presentation of Hashihime as a work-in-progress at a newly opened gallery.
Due to the nature of the Kuma Foundation, many of their scholarships go to artists who take on the challenge of creating new value, and there are few people like me who perform almost completely in the realm of the traditional arts. Many university students in the arts often have difficulty in getting constant opportunities to present their works and to finance their creations, so I am really grateful that the Kuma Foundation provides pinpoint support for me in this way.

For students, there is a screening process for each project, but it is possible to make new applications on a continuing basis, and you can spend 1.2 million yen per year on anything you choose. I used that money to pay for my own projects and my graduation project. For my graduation project I presented a work titled Furukotofumi - For Gidayu and Contemporary Dance, choreographed by Wataru Kitao-san and performed by Megumi Abe-san and Fumi Kumakawa-san.
Is there anything you particularly want to do in the future?
At the work-in-progress performance of Hashihime, I attempted doing a performance along with a lecture for the first time, and the audience was more pleased with that than I had expected. By giving a lecture before the performance, I was able to help the viewers temporarily erase any of the preconceptions or prior knowledge that they might have had about the classic. That increased my interest in creating that kind of theater viewing environment. I would like to be able to perform a repertory of classical works for which I introduce the contents of work, how I bring them to the stage and what interests me about them, about the music, and finally, to have them see what we present as a live performance.
Being able to provide that kind of introduction may be one of the strengths of the traditional repertory, and I think that the appeal of your work as an artist is that you can convey that in lively and inspirational language.
Thank you. Also, as I mentioned earlier, I would like to create places where people can gather in an atmosphere somewhere between the ordinary and the extraordinary, like the place where the “performing arts” are created. It’s a very big goal, but I will do my best to realize it.

*1 Yoshitsune Senbonzakura (Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees)
This is one of the Ningyo Jōruri (traditional Japanese puppet theater with narrative recitation and shamisen accompaniment, a forerunner of Bunraku) and Kabuki works. It is set against the backdrop of a six-year civil war at the end of the Heian period, commonly known as the Gempei Gassen (Gempei Wars, in which a samurai group led by Minamoto no Yoritomo overthrew the Taira clan government led by Taira Kiyomori). Yoshitsune Senbonzakura (Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees) is a later story in which Yoshitsune, who was credited with military successes in the Gempei Wars, after fleeing the capital because of being suspected of rebellion by his brother Yoritomo, and the warlord of the Heike family, it turns out that the supposedly dead Yoshitsune, is alive and plotting revenge. At the Kawatsura Hogen Yakata, Yoshitsune, who is hidden in the hall, is visited by his concubine Shizuka Gozen with the Hatsune drum given to her by Yoshitsune as a token through his family member Tadanobu Sato (an incarnation of a child fox whose parents were made into the drum skin). There are many devices such as quick changes and suspended flights, and the highlight is when the fox, Tadanobu, reveals his identity.

*2 Sagi Musume (The Heron Maiden)
This is one of the well-known pieces of Kabuki and traditional Japanese dance (Nihon Buyo). It is a dance that compares the figure of a maiden who is burning with love to the appearance of a white heron. A white heron spirit first appears in a snowy landscape and then transforms into a maiden whose dance expresses the thoughts that possess her and then transforms once again into a white heron, falls into hell because of her obsessive love, and is tortured by a sense of blame.

*3 Imoseyama Onna Teikin (Mt Imo and Mt Se: A Tale of Womanly Virtue)
One of the Japanese puppet jōruri and Kabuki performances. Jidaimono written by Hanji Chikamatsu in the mid-Edo period (a work that deals with historical incidents and people using a period setting before the Edo period). Set in the political upheaval of an ancient dynasty, it depicts the fate of various loves born between them by weaving in a number of legends. One of those loves is the unrequited love of Omiwa, the daughter of a liquor store, who falls in love with Fujiwara Tankai, who was doing it to defeat her nemesis, and goes crazy with jealousy. However, he is told that the living blood of a jealous woman will help him defeat his nemesis, and he dies hoping that he will be united in the other world.

*4 Yamata no Orochi (Eight-headed Giant Snake)
A giant monster (large serpent) with eight heads and eight tails appears in Japanese mythology. Once a year, he appears and eats his daughter, so he is exterminated by Susanoo-no-Mikoto.

*5 Anchin Kiyohime Densetsu (The Story of Anchin and Kiyohime)
Kiyohime falls in love with the mountain priest Anchin, who rented a room at an inn for the night while on a pilgrimage to Kumano Gongen. Anchin escapes, but Kiyohime follows him by transforming into a large snake with tremendous tenacity. After escaping to Dojoji, Anchin, is hidden in temple bell, but Kiyohime, in her new form as a large snake, wraps herself around the bell and burns Anchin and the others with her flames.

*6 Musume Dojoji (The Maiden at Dojoji Temple)
One of the Kabuki dance performances. A later story of the legend of Anchin and Kiyohime. A memorial service is held for the new temple bell dedicated to Dojoji Temple, and a beautiful shirabyoshi (traditional Japanese dancer), who is an the incarnation of Kiyohime that appears and dances in various ways, and finally dances in the body of a snake.

*7 Aimyon
Born in 1995. A new generation of singer-songwriter who has become an icon for many young people with her strong lyrics and pop songs that describe wavering feelings with the sensibilities of the present times.

*8 Funa Benkei (Benkei and the Boat)
Based on the Noh play Funa Benkei (Benkei and the Boat), it was made into a Kabuki play, and then into a dance. The main characters are Taira no Tomomori, who became a vengeful ghost after death, and Shizuka Gozen, the mistress who was abandoned by his nemesis, Minamoto no Yoshitsune.

*9 Shunkan
After being exiled to the island called Kikaiga-shima because of an attempted coup d’état to depose the Heike (House of Taira), the priest Shukan is not released even in a general amnesty and is left alone in exile on the island.

*10 Hashihime
One of the tales of women, demons, and goddesses that appear in Japanese folklore related to bridges. In the Heike Tsurugi no maki (Heike Sword Scroll) of The Heike Monogatari (The Tale of Heike), this character is depicted as a demon mad with jealousy and becomes the prototype of the later story of Hashihime. In the Noh play Kanawa (Iron Trivet), Hashihime is portrayed as a demon woman crazed with jealously after losing her husband to his second wife.

*11 Roka Yasou (Nocturne for the Old Flower)
Written in 1974. At Hotel Gekko, men come each night in search of prostitutes. It was said that “on the night of a lunar eclipse, prostitutes quietly wash their feet after finishing their last duties,” but Hana, an old prostitute who has not been able to get customers for another month, shows no signs of stopping. While indulging in memories of the men she had known, Hana has been waiting for a long time for a certain man to come again.

*12 The Kuma Foundation
Founded by Naruatsu Baba, Chairman and Chief Creator of COLOPL Co., Ltd., which develops and distributes popular games for smartphones. The foundation supports student creators under the age of 25 with scholarships (grant-type, free use, 1.2 million yen per year, to 50 people), and also supports the growth and activities of creators by providing creator scholarships for creators, activity support projects for scholarship students and graduates (300,000 yen to 5 million yen per year) and providing a place for creators to connect.