Before he turned 3 years old, Munenori Takeda had entered a career path already paved for him.
Born into a clan of classical Japanese actors, Takeda began studying traditional Noh theater as a small child. He has gone on to continue a four-generation family tradition by becoming one of Japan’s leading young practitioners of Noh, a form of theater dating back to the 14th century.
The Tokyo-based stage artist, now 36, will display his refined prowess this weekend at ACT Theatre. In a rare Seattle performance by a classical Noh company from Japan, he will enact the title role in the ancient tale of “Tomoe.”
But in a chat recently with the graceful, blade-slender Takeda, he seemed most excited about the second act of the two-part “Beauty of Noh” show, presented by the Japanese Arts Connection Lab at ACT. It is “Yoshinaka,” an opera composed by Seattle’s Garrett Fisher, featuring the Fisher Ensemble.
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“This is my first time doing a nontraditional piece,” said the smiling, Japanese-speaking Takeda, through a translator. “If I hadn’t met Garrett in Seattle, I would not ever have thought of doing something like this.”
Garrett Fisher, head of the locally based Fisher Ensemble, has won accolades for melding aspects of cross-cultural opera, theater, film and musical traditions in his hybrid works. When Takeda was conducting a Noh workshop at ACT in 2013, Fisher approached him about collaborating on a project together.
The end product is an evening of back-to-back interpretations of the same mythic love story, drawn from a Japanese epic, “Tales of Heike.” It centers on the dauntless and beautiful 12th-century female warrior Tomoe Gozen, who agonizes when not allowed to join her master and lover Yoshinaka in death on the battlefield.
Takeda will perform the title role in “Tomoe,” in a company of fellow Noh performers. In Fisher’s “Yoshinaka,” he’ll appear (alongside American musicians and dancers) as Sho-Kannon (a Japanese deity).
Said Takeda, “In Japan the artists I work with are homogeneous, their families have all been involved with Noh for several generations. For me, to work with non-Japanese, is a very exciting departure, a great challenge.”
While broadening his artistry, Takeda remains a proud standard-bearer for an elegant, mystical dance-drama that emerged in 14th-century Japan. It persists today, along with the venerable classical traditions of Kabuki theater and bunraku puppetry that followed.
Developed from earlier folk-theater idioms, and originally patronized by members of ancient Japan’s high-caste warrior (samurai) class, Noh is steeped in formal discipline and tradition. The plays, serious and comic, are ritually performed in Japan by actors, singers and instrumentalists on a roofed stage with an angled, bridgelike ramp.(At ACT, they’ll use a simplified version of this.) Noting the supernatural aspect of many Noh dramas, Takeda explained, “The ramp is like a path from heaven so you can tell when a spirit is coming in.”
Most characters, all played by males, appear in striking, painted wood masks that express their archetypal identities (demons, warriors, old and young men and women). The masks are always constructed of fragrant cypress. (Takeda’s collection includes one that is 400 years old.)
Over the centuries, Noh theater branched into five sects, or schools. Each strictly guards its scripts and passes them down by lineage.
Takeda is part of the celebrated Kanze school, and his father, grandfather and several uncles have all been designated as “living national treasures” by Japan. (Several of his cousins will also appear in “Tomoe,” along with artists from other schools of Noh.)
Takeda estimates he gives 100 performances yearly, in a variety of male and female roles, at Noh theaters across Japan and in tours abroad.
As young Japanese turn to an ever-expanding array of techno-tainments, he acknowledges that Noh artists worry about the future of their art form. “A few young people in Osaka and Tokyo may be interested in it, but most of our audience is very old. That is one reason I am happy to be appearing in Seattle.
“It tells people in Japan, Noh actors are very well trained and capable of doing other kinds of theater, too. And at the same time we are promoting Noh theater to Western audiences.”
If Takeda fathers a son, will he urge him to follow his ancestors on the path of Noh? “He will have a choice, but the training and involvement is there if he wishes. It isn’t only blood that determines who should do this. It is people.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org