Kyogen Actor Mansai Nomura on Directing the 2020 Olympic Ceremonies: “My Focus Is On Inclusion”

Mansai Nomura’s lilting pattern of speech and deep, dulcet tone rumbles like the curling surf washing ashore as he recites the opening line to Hamlet’s existential soliloquy. As he talks, Nomura scrunches his eyes in consternation. He arches his brow in sincerity. He twists his lips when delivering a self-deprecating joke.

His face lights up, and his eyes twinkle, as he talks about his 19-year-old son Yuki, the younger of his two children, who is following his father’s footsteps into the hallowed family business of kyogen, one of Japan’s four traditional theatrical arts.

“Kyogen’s history dates back over 600 years and I play a small part in this larger dimension of humanity,” says Nomura, 53. “However, only performing kyogen would be too restrictive, so I use it in a larger context. I don’t study kyogen’s techniques solely for performing kyogen. I use it as a method to touch on other forms of performing arts.”

To find Nomura we traipse through the underbelly of Setagaya Public Theatre located in Sangenjaya’s Carrot Tower, passing a whiteboard where the day’s schedule has been handwritten in black marker. The rehearsal for 5W1H is planned for 15:30. 

Tall and lean, Nomura calmly rolls his sleeves and places his tortoiseshell glasses on the conference room table. Behind him is a scale model of Setagaya Public Theatre, where Nomura has served as executive creative director since 2002. He is also preparing for his role as chief executive director for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

This month he launches the 5W1H program – named for the questions who, what, where, when, why and how – at Setagaya Public Theatre, the 30th edition of his Kaitai Shinsho series. In the culmination of the series, Nomura talks with Japan’s prominent actors, directors and technicians and breaks down different elements of performing arts, and asks the same question as Hamlet, why does it exist?

“We want to dissect and together rediscover what the appeal of the theater was in the past and will be in the future”

“We want to rethink the basic questions. Why do live performance arts? Why do audiences come and watch?” says Nomura. “We want to dissect and together rediscover what the appeal of the theater was in the past and will be in the future.”

Before he was executive director of anything, Nomura was a three-year-old practicing the exacting physical positions required for kyogen performance under the stern tutelage of his father, Mansaku Nomura, and late grandfather, Manzo Nomura VI, both named living national treasures of Japan. 

Like in kabuki theater, kyogen actors don elaborate garb and masks and share tales of old Japan, with the main distinction being kyogen performances have a comedic bent and are welcome to improvisation. Nomura’s family has been in the kyogen business for more than 250 years and as the oldest son Nomura began appearing on stage as a toddler, as he says, “similar to being a cyborg.”

Nomura, who dreamed of being a rock star, realized he could still bring joy to audiences through kyogen, and being part of a centuries-old tradition meant he was a part of something much bigger than himself.

His father made it a mission to spread kyogen overseas and as early as 1957 performed in Paris. Nomura further cemented the family legacy by implementing elements of contemporary theater, such as Chinese ballet and Le Theatre du Soleil, into kyogen performances. 

After studying theater in the UK in the 1990s, Nomura triumphantly returned to England in 2001 to perform the Shakespeare adaptation, Kyogen of Errors, at the Globe Theatre, the replica of the stage the Bard once called home. By the end of the performance, the English audience had joined in the ad-libbed chorus of “yayakoshiya,” or “how confusing.”

Performing in England opened his eyes to the idea that theater can contribute to society. It was this philosophy that Nomura brought to Setagaya Public Theatre, the cutting-edge playhouse where contemporary performances explore modern interpretations and innovative technology and techniques.

“I do feel a sense of crisis for theater with its traditional ways”

“I do feel a sense of crisis for theater with its traditional ways,” says Nomura. “Perhaps not the methods [of theater], but the vocabulary can be difficult. Shakespeare is sometimes said to be boring because of this. So kyogen must improve its delivery so people will find it appealing and interesting.”

His key phrase used when taking Setagaya Public Theatre’s helm was, “kono atari no mono de gozaru,” an expression that loosely translates as, “I am of this neighborhood.”

As a theater director, Nomura made his mark early, earning the 2006 Kinokuniya Drama Award for his adaptation of Atsushi Nakajima’s novels called Atsushi – Sangetsuki, Meijinden. Nomura, who appeared as a child in Akira Kurosawa’s final film, Ran, also acts in television dramas and films, most recently starring in the 2018 Japanese television adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Nomura put his kyogen skills to good use in the 2016 Toho Studios production Shin Godzilla, creating the monster’s movements through motion capture technology.

The theater always beckons, particularly Shakespeare. Nomura portrayed the title role of Hamlet in England under the direction of Jonathan Kent, and over the years he fused kyogen with Shakespeare’s works including The Merry Wives of Windsor, Richard III and MacBeth, with the Scottish play’s tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow speech being a favorite.

For the past 20 years Nomura mastered the production of playwright Junji Kinoshita’s Requiem on the Great Meridian, the tale of the final battles and internal conflicts of the Heike clan. Nomura’s 2017 production at Setagaya Public Theatre earned him the Mainichi Art Award for Best Director and the Yomiuri Drama Award for Best Play.

In July 2018, a 12-member selection committee, citing his experience and knowledge of both classical and modern Japanese arts, appointed Nomura to oversee all four ceremonies for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, a position for which Nomura feels a “strong sense of responsibility.” More than 300 million people worldwide are expected to watch the opening ceremonies alone.

“Looking at the ‘kono atari no mono de gozaru’ concept … there is a dignity there that correlates to the spirit of the Olympics,” says Nomura. “Simply put, my focus is on inclusion. I don’t want to just show diversity, but to create a harmony within it. This concept hails from my experiences through kyogen and I consider it my mission to share it.”

Feature image: “Macbeth” 2013 | Photo by Jun Ishikawa

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