Master-Actor Udaka Michishige

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Kongō-ryū Master-Actor Udaka Michishige (Photo: Fabio Massimo Fioravanti)

Udaka Michishige is both a professional Noh actor and a Noh mask carver. He was designated a representative of a National Intangible Cultural Asset by the Japanese government in 1991. He teaches and performs extensively in Japan, and has performed Noh and exhibited Noh masks internationally.

Udaka Michishige was born in Kyoto in 1947, but his family originally comes from Shikoku. He is descendent of two Shikoku families: Udaka and Kawada. The Udaka family had a castle in Niihama City during the medieval period and later served the Matsudaira clan feudal lords in Matsuyama as Noh actors from 1712 until the start of the Meiji period. Another of Michishige’s ancestors, Kawada Shōryō (1824-1898), was a samurai scholar and painter from Kochi who is known for debriefing castaway John Manjirō and documenting the account of his experiences in Hyoson Kiryaku (Drifting Toward the Southeast) in 1882. This account and meetings with Shōryō were instrumental in convincing Sakamoto Ryōma, one of the architects of modern Japan, of the need to end Japan’s policy of isolationism.

The collapse of the feudal system at the start of the Meiji period brought an end to the government support previously enjoyed by Noh. Michishige’s grandmother, Udaka Chiyo, was taken under the wing of an uncle when she was eighteen, after the death of her brother, Noh actor Udaka Takesaburō, and the marriage of her sister, Teruyo. Her uncle’s career eventually brought him and his family to Kyoto, where they became acquainted with Kawada Rantarō, a doctor, and the son of Shōryō. Chiyo and Rantarō married and had five children. Their fourth child, a son, was chosen to inherit Chiyo’s maiden name, Udaka, in order to carry on her family line. This son, Udaka Zuisei, a painter and historian, enjoyed Noh as an amateur and he encouraged his son, Michishige, to also learn chant and dance. The boy’s talent in Noh led Zuisei to investigate the possibility of an apprenticeship. As a result, after his graduation from elementary school Michishige entered the household of Kongō Iwao II, the 25th Grand Master of the Kongō School of lead actors (shite-kata), as a live-in apprentice (uchi-deshi). In 1969 (aged 22) he gained his independence as a fully trained actor and began his teaching and performing career in earnest. In 1991 he was designated a representative of a National Intangible Cultural Asset by the Japanese government in recognition of his proficiency and accomplishments as a Noh performer.

Teaching and Promoting Noh and Mask Carving

In 1970 Udaka Michishige founded the Keiun-kai, his group of students of noh chant (utai) and noh dance and mimetic movement (shimai). Interested from the start in sharing the traditions of Noh internationally, he welcomed students from other countries to join the Keiun-kai. In 1986 he founded the International Noh Institute (INI) in answer to the urging of foreigners who wanted to continue their studies with him after having taken part in his intensive Noh course in the Traditional Theatre Training (TTT) program in Kyoto. Since then, he has taught students from thirteen countries through INI programs.

Noh: 'Dōjō-ji'. Shite: Udaka Michishige

Noh: ‘Dōjō-ji’. Shite: Udaka Michishige

He is committed to training all students, amateur or professional, with the same exacting discipline. He has trained twenty licensed instructors (shihan), including three foreigners, Rebecca Teele Ogamo, John McAteer, and Monique Arnaud. He continues to promote Noh through seminars such as “Noh-mai Meditation” and training individually tailored to students’ needs. The only Noh actor who is also a highly skilled Noh mask carver, Udaka Michishige frequently uses his own masks in performances, often carving a mask, to traditional specifications, for a particular role. He founded the Men-no-kai mask carving group in 1978, sharing his insights into Noh and the role of Noh masks, with his students. The ultimate goal of Men-no-kai members is to carve masks to be used on stage. Group mask exhibitions, held every two years, include a free-standing display of some masks, performance pictures, and costumes to promote a deeper understanding of the world of Noh. Udaka Michishige’s efforts to promote Noh include performances and lectures, demonstrations and seminars nationally and internationally under the auspices of the Udaka Michishige-no-kai. He has taken part in numerous tours to Europe and the United States. In November, 2007, he led a tour to Europe performing Noh, offering workshops, and exhibiting Noh masks carved by himself and by Men-no-kai members, in Paris, France, and Dresden and Berlin, Germany.

Performances of Traditional Noh and Original Noh

A Noh actor takes on the challenge of progressively difficult roles (narai-mono), and performance variations (kogaki) of standard Noh as he matures. Dōjō-ji koshiki, Sotoba komachi (Komachi on the Stupa), and Tokusa are among the virtuoso roles Udaka Michishige has taken recently. In 2003 he started his Sanrinshōjō Udaka Michishige Kennō Performance series in Tokyo, a ten-year series to introduce great classics of the Noh repertory. In April 2007 he took the central role of Okina in the ritual performance Okina with Takasago at the Tokasai Festival at Itsukushima Shrine, the first actor of the Udaka family to perform this role in 260 years.

The poster for the performance in Hiroshima in 2010 of the new Noh Genshigumo, written and performed by Udaka Michishige

The poster for the performance in Hiroshima in 2010 of the new Noh Genshigumo, written and performed by Udaka Michishige

Beginning in 2001 Udaka Michishige began to write and perform original Noh in addition to performing the traditional repertoire of plays. To date, he has written and performed three original Noh. In 2001 he wrote and performed Shiki-Hototogisu, about the Meiji era haiku poet Masaoka Shiki in honour of the 100th anniversary of his birth. The same year, after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11th, he rewrote a Noh play he had begun thirty years earlier entitled Heiwa no Inori-Genshigumo (A Prayer for Peace-the Atomic Cloud), a prayer for the souls who lost their lives in the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. However, after the attacks, he felt an urgency to take some action for peace and wrote the Noh as a meditation on the spiritual effects of mass violence that also offers a process of hope and healing.

Genshigumo, for which he also created original masks, was first performed in Kyoto in 2003, followed by a performance at the National Noh Theater in Tokyo in 2004, and another in Kyoto in 2004. Retitled Inori-Prayer, he also performed it in Paris, Dresden and Berlin during his European tour in 2007. In 2010 Genshigumo he performed Genshigumo in Hiroshima for the first time. Also, in 2003 he wrote and performed Ryōma, based on the life of Sakamoto Ryōma one of the architects of Japan’s modernization, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Kōchi Museum. An exhibition of the paintings of his great-grandfather, Kawada Shōryō, was held at the museum at the same time. And, as the great-grandson of Shōryō, Michishige continues to carry on his father Zuisei’s research into his family’s activities in the final years of the Tokugawa shogunate.

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