5th generation Kita School Noh performer Kinue Oshima presented a lecture about the various performance elements of Noh including the chant, instruments, masks and costumes on October 23rd and 24th  2015. Ms. Oshima is an internationally recognized performer who has played to sold-out houses across three continents including both England’s and China’s National Theaters. This was her first presentation in New York. 


In October of 2015 I met with Kinue Oshima, the first female Kita School Noh actor. Kinue had just given her first lecture & performance in New York, and I asked her about her thoughts relating to this experience.


Q: What are your thoughts about your experience of giving a lecture and performance in New York?

 A: The audience seemed to be watching with an intensity that exceeded that of a Japanese audience, as if they hoped to encounter the essence of Noh. This in turn gave a heightened intensity to the experience for me as well. What is positive about going overseas is that people who are new to Noh bring a seriousness of approach as they seek to absorb Noh through their own sensibilities. This gave me an opportunity to re-examine how I want to communicate through Noh, especially in a foreign context.


Q: Noh has a long history as a man’s art, and even today women actors are exceedingly rare. What is the position of women in Noh today?

 A: In the Kita School, women are still not permitted to train professionally, but this has not affected my desire to continue to study Noh. I studied at Noh music at the Tokyo University of the Arts, and after graduating, I declared my desire to perform as a woman. I have now been performing on stage for about 15 years. Unfortunately the Kita School does not have an active policy of recruiting woman, but I am starting to think that perhaps I should start training the next woman Noh actor.


Q: As a woman, how do you personally approach your roles?

 A: Whether nominally a man or a woman, there are many roles in Noh where the character is not a living person. Of course gender makes a difference in the technical aspects of the form, but above and beyond this, what matters is the world-view of the character appearing in the particular play. This is what I focus on in creating my character. Even when men are performing female roles, I think the approach of becoming that particular person is more important than focusing on the gender. Of course I research the piece and the characters, but in Noh how I conceive of the character is not everything. My grandfather taught me the phrase “practice 100 times”. This means practicing until the role becomes a physical reality and not a mental concept alone. In other words, to practice until my body moves even before I am aware of my thoughts. I think it is important for the role to be internalized to the point where the play would continue even if I lost consciousness. (Laughs)


Q: What are you feeling when you are on stage?

A: There is a term in Japanese - “ichi go ichi e” - that describes something as a once in a life time experience. This applies to every rehearsal and performance. In the heightened intensity that accompanies this awareness, I feel the fulfillment of pouring everything that I have into each performance. It is both terrifying and exhilarating. (Laughs)


Q: What do you think is the future of Noh?

A: Having been given opportunities to work with people from overseas, I think new forms of theatre based upon Noh could develop as more and more people from overseas study Noh. Even within Japan I think all traditional arts and traditional crafts are at a turning point. Some may die out due to a lack of successors to carry on the tradition. Others may spread their wings and grow through new creativity. Although Noh has a history of 650 years, each generation of performers have had to confront their own crisis and overcome them. The future of Noh hangs on what we do over the next several decades. How to make Noh relevant to the future is extremely important, and this involves more than just us as actors. I would like to see Noh being passed on to the next generation through performances and classes in the schools.


Q: Do you have a favorite quote from Zeami (the “father” of Noh)?

A: The words “Although life comes to an end, Noh must never end.” capture the most important aspect of Noh for me. In the long history of Noh, the role I play in passing the baton to the next generation is key. From this point of view I see the meaning of what I am doing in a context that goes beyond the personal. I am not doing Noh for myself, but I am receiving what others before me have cherished, and letting myself become the link that transfers it to the next generation. This is why these words mean so much to me.


Q: What is the attraction of Noh?

A: Noh is an art that transcends time and space to link the human world to the gods, and to the whole universe. Both the performers and the audience are able to travel in time and space to meet different characters and become involved with them. This, to me is the attraction of Noh.