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Thursday, February 7

Shinnai at Daibutsu (Great Buddha) Den

In my continuing attempts to experience all facets of Japanese culture, It was only recently that I got to experience something truly traditional and unique to Japan – Shinnai (pronounced shin-i) Joruri Narrative Song. Explaining this in my own words would be relatively tricky since this was only my first experience of it. Instead, this is what was sent out with the invitation to the gaijin who were obviously clueless as to what this is:

Shinnai is a form of traditional narrative song ("joruri") that was very popular in the Edo Period. Its origin was contemporary with several other well-known traditional musical forms, such as tokiwazu and kiyomoto. In the shinnai genre, one person ("tayu"), accompanied by two shamisen players, narrates the story and speaks the dialogue for all the characters in the story. Tsuruga Wakasanojo, the 11th iemoto of the Tsuruga style of Shinnai, has performed widely both throughout Japan and in many foreign countries, popularizing a new style of Shinnai that is easy to understand.

Now in my own words – Tsuruga Wakasanojo XI is the headmaster of a specific school of Shinnai and a National Living Treasure. What does this mean? Well, it means that he is the “Bearer of Intangible Cultural Property” and is personally vested in making sure that the Shinnai art form is preserved and spread to many so that it will not be lost in future generations… in my mind, a very noble act. Wakasanojo sensei has written and composed many pieces, which he really has performed all over the world.

The performance I saw included a really rare treat – Tsuruga Isefani. This is the given Japanese name of an American (who has lived in Japan since 1984) eight year student of Wakasanojo, and the first non-Japanese since the origin of Shinnai in the 18th century to be given a name for her performances in this story-telling art form. I have met her many times before and call her a friend. This woman is truly gifted in many art forms including painting, of which I have wanted to join her for a class since I first met her over a year ago. Hopefully soon.

The third performer for this day’s performance was Tsuruga Isejiro, a student of Wakasanojo for twenty years and another performer for part of the piece was Tsuruga Isetsuwa, a student for three years. There was definitely some variety in skill levels, with everything blending together beautifully with a very mesmerizing effect.

The stories that are told in Shinnai are often tales of woe about love, including many stories about double suicides, due to the period of origin having an epidemic of lovers’ suicides. At that time, the man who originated and performed the narrative style of song (called bungo bushi back then) has his art form outlawed. The Japanese government had felt that the cause of the suicide epidemic was the notoriety of the incidents as expressed in bungo bushi. Like many governments trying to establish order and control, they placed laws prohibiting the music from being sung or played. So the music would not be lost, the performers gave up their professional names under bungo bushi and adopted new names in a style named after themselves. The first Tsuruga Wakasanojo was one of the followers of bungo bushi who created the Shinnai style. Since then, Shinnai has remained rather unchanged and uninfluenced from other art forms, which makes it so important to preserve for the future.

This performance was held at a private residence at the Great Buddha in a truly beautiful and authentic Japanese tatami room overlooking an immaculately kept garden. While I must admit that I was initially a bit wary of the music, I really enjoyed it in the end. The songs and the way the notes are built using voice tones, accentuated by the stringed shamisen instrument, really draws you in. Being a largely Japanese audience, the lyrics were performed all in Japanese (Wakasanojo has performed in English in the States), but the provided interpretation of the musical story and the way the songs are sung were enough to make anyone feel the emotional depth of the piece. The length of a performance is typically quite long, so only two parts were performed for this audience. Certainly I am no expert at Japanese musical culture, but this one I would definitely give high marks to. And sitting Japanese style (read: legs dying as they were scrunched up tightly underneath me) in a traditional room and listening to traditional music, I again got one of those reminders of why I am so happy to be here in Japan.

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