Interview with Mr. Toyohiko Sugiura

A Noh actor who plays the main roles called “Shite-kata”, wearing a lacquered wooden mask

Mr. Toyohiko Sugiura - He has original Noh DNA from more than 300 years of family Noh history. He explained to us about this, the oldest art performance in Japan, Noh.

Theatrical arts originally came from China in the Nara period (710-793) and one developed as Sarugaku, in which the comical mimic roles were played at Shinto ritual festivals during the Heian period (794-1192).  From it, the Noh theater was finally formed in the 14-15th century, thanks to the talented playwrights (father and son) Kanami and Zeami, with the support of the shogun, Yoshimitsu Ashikaga. This theatrical revolution was made by this father and son, who added musical accompaniments of rhythm and melody, using instruments and chanted recitation. They organized special performances played by more than two actors, with the principal role called “Shite” (masked) and the second role called “Waki” (usually without a mask), according to their plots. Usually the “Shite” wears a lacquer coated wooden mask and a colorful brocade costume, and plays on a specially built Noh stage where a pine tree is painted in the middle of the back wall of the stage.  Since the movement is quite restrained and the music is monotonic, Kanami and Zeami seem to have tried to create the spirit called “Yugen”, which means a mysterious universe that might trigger profound emotional feeling.  The topics of Noh plays express the lessons of life about the basic questions of life and the preparation for death.  Some stories even teach how to avoid becoming a hungry ghost through holding grudges in their lives – in this role the actor wears a scary demon mask.


The Noh performance world flourished in the aristocratic and Samurai societies until the end of the Edo period (1600-1867), and as a highly sophisticated art performance since then.  After the Meiji restoration in 1867, when modernization began, rich merchants began to enjoy watching Noh performances as their hobby.


Noh having a history of more than 500 years, there are now 4 different Noh schools, among them the Kanze school. Its special character is the players’ elegant movement, called “Ryurei”.  Toyohiko’s father was born as the third son of a traditional Noh performing family originally established in the Edo period, therefore having a deep Noh DNA origin, and he was adopted into another Noh family, the Sugiura. Toyohiko has now succeeded as the third generation main actor of the Sugiura family, which is one of the important families in the Kanze school.  With this family background, his first debut on the Noh stage was when he was a 3-year old boy. He could easily accept his fate thanks to his father’s generous attitude and teaching.  His father actually was his great master in all Noh performance arts such as acting, dancing, and chanting.


Toyohiko as the “Shite” (main role) Noh actor, keeps himself busy doing many annual performances, mainly in Kyoto but sometimes in other cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe and even overseas. He also devotes himself to teaching Noh acting, dancing, and chanting, to professional and non-professional students.

How the Noh theater is organized as total art performance, and Mr. Toyohiko's important role on the Noh stage.

For a Noh play, you need 15-20 performers in total, including the people who chant and play instruments (3 different types of percussion instrument and one wooden flute).  The “Shite”, main role, has to play important roles not only as an actor but also as a director and conductor.


The remarkable point is that the elegant atmosphere of this traditional art performance is great when all of these performers are playing together thanks to the special elaborate wooden Noh stage.  For example, since the old days – even 400 years ago – many big ceramic containers were put upside down under the stage to enhance all music and sounds, and that stage creates special sound effects just like the modern concert hall.


The “Shite” plays the main role wearing a mask, in front of the wall with the pine-tree painting. Since the eye holes in the mask are quite small, he can’t see well, so he aims at the two front poles on the stage to find where he is.  There are 100 different types of Noh masks, and Toyohiko said that not even one single mask is without any emotional expression. When he looks 5 degrees up, then the mask looks like it is smiling, and when he looks 5 degrees down then it looks sad.


The actors treat their masks as very sacred objects.  When he puts his mask on, then he can get the mask’s spirit, and is ready to naturally become this role’s personality.  He mentioned that when the mask’s quality is good then it gives the power of the role beyond the capacity of the actor.  On the other hand, when the actor is good and understands well the mask’s genius, then the expressions of the mask are enhanced as if the mask is alive and shining.


He also explained that the best masks were mainly made in the Muromachi period (15th century) when Noh plays started, because the Noh mask maker put his whole soul into just one mask.  Newer masks have been made as replicas.  He said the oldest original mask is therefore the best one if it has been kept in good condition with good care.


When he plays the main role, he said, even when he stops and is not moving he has to show power and strength in his posture. Because of the energy which emerges from the whole body, audiences can feel the force and the emotional feeling.  The heart, the skill and the body (Shin, Gi, Tai) have to be well balanced for playing a role with a mask.

His mission as inheritor of this traditional and historical Noh-theater, and his plan to succeed for the next generation.

Compared to other traditional art performers such as Kabuki and Kyogen actors, it is difficult for main Noh actors (Shite) to become famous and rich, because while they are playing they have to cover their faces with the Noh masks.  Therefore Noh actors are mainly doing their own business by themselves without having any offices and special managers.  When Japan had a serious long-term recession, fewer people were interested in Noh plays. Toyohiko said that now all Noh performers are having a serious financial crisis in trying to maintain their traditional performances.


Many people, especially younger people, don’t come to see Noh plays because the recitations are in old Japanese and difficult to understand.  A Noh play takes more than one and half hours at least, and a person might doze momentarily because of the slow movements and recitations.


Now he is operating two of his own performance groups. One is called Narutaki Noh; there he selects simple easy shorter plays, and gives lots of explanations about the plays and also about general things in Noh performances.  He once showed how to wear the special costumes and how to put on the mask before the performance.  The other performance group is called Narutaki Club, where he chooses one piece and explains all the words in the recitation, and also helps the people to experience playing the instruments and dancing.  Narutaki, in Kyoto, is where he has his house with a Noh stage, where he invites local neighbors to come, and helps them understand and enjoy Noh plays.


He is also thinking that the performances should be played in public places beyond the Noh theaters, since few people come to visit the Noh theaters to see Noh performances. He is planning to perform Noh plays in a part of Kyoto station under the big staircase, and in a hall of the Kyoto National Museum.


He has performed Noh abroad, in the USA and France.  With an English translation of the scenario, he played Tsuchigumo (The Spider) with lots of action, in the USA, and the audiences were quite amazed at the story, saying that the main role was the real spider man. When he played Noh in France, he presented more complicated plays, which the French audiences deeply appreciated, and which even ordinary Japanese may find difficult to understand.


He believes that some foreign tourists want to see Noh plays in Japan just as Japanese want to see musicals when they go to New York. Therefore translations of the plays into English and other languages are indispensable, as well as web-site information in English, for discovering the possibilities for going to the Noh theater.


Now he wants to change the images of Noh such as difficulty in understanding the story, or difficulty in going to these special Noh theaters.  He feels that it is his important mission to pass on this very sophisticated traditional art to a new generation.  His eyes are shining, even in the mask on stage, at the idea of carrying on the Noh.



If you want to get more information about Mr. Toyohiko Sugiura and Noh performances, please contact us and we can arrange a special visit.