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New Japan import: classical masters bring art to US

By Sara Terry / August 31, 1981



Los Angeles

Call it the flip side of Japan Inc. This team of five Japanese visitors didn't come to the US for a peek at American technology or an opportunity to size up US markets. They came to show a face of Japan not often found in the headlines telling of import after Japanese import. They came to share their art.

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Officially, these five artists -- masters who are known throughout Japan -- and 18 of their colleagues are billed as the Classical Performing Arts Friendship Mission of Japan, a first-ever teaching and performing tour featuring Japan's centuries-old classical arts theater, dance, and music.

As the title implies, however, the tour isn't just art for art's sake. Besides teaching six weeks of classes at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and performing in Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C., there are what one master calls "the invisible aspects of this program." Among other things, it is hoped that a little bit of culture will go a long way toward showing Americans that Japan is more than high technology and management expertise.

"We would like to show a new face of Japan," said Nomura Mansaku, a master of the comic form of theater known as Kyogen, through an interpreter during a recent interview. "Most people don't think of the Japanese as having a sense of humor. But Kyogen shows our unique Japanese humor. I would like to show that to Americans."

The $700,000 friendship mission was pulled together after two years of planning by UCLA's Asian Performing Arts Summer Institute and funded by dozens of donations from Japanese and some US businesses.

It marks the first time anywhere in the world, including Japan, that the five art forms represented by the touring masters have been included on one program. Grouping them together is as unusual as putting together a Western concert featuring performances by a classical ballerina, a string quartet, and a Shakespearean actor.

the arts represented on the tour are Noh, the classic poetic drama developed six centuries ago under the patronization of the ruling class; Kyogen, the gentle, Chaplinesque comic from which serves to balance the seriousness of Noh; Nihon Buyo, a classical dance form; and Shamisen and Hayashi, two types of classical music.

They are performed and taught by masters like Hanayagi Chiyo, a well-known dancer who has founded her own dance institute and who this year became the first person to put Nihon Buyo movements into book form. And there is Kita Nagayo, a 16th-generation Noh performer, whose visit here, says one American involved with the mission, would be the equivalent of Britain sending actor Sir Laurence Olivier to Japan.

According to Robert Gray, dean of UCLA's College of Fine Arts, the initial agreement on the mission involved only the six-week series of master classes. It quickly snowballed, however, into a national tour with performances in Los Angeles on Aug. 28-30 and Sept. 5 and 6; in Washington on Sept. 11 and 12; and in New York on Sept. 15-18.

It has also grown to include the commissioning of 12 posters by some of Japan's leading graphic artists; a three-day cultural conference at UCLA, and a television first -- an Aug. 30 live PBS broadcast which linked performers in Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Springfield, Mass., in a "master's workshop" that includes demonstrations and critiques by the visiting masters.

"If we have a greater understanding of the culture, perhaps that will enculturate us," explained Mr. Gray. "That's not to say that Americans will take up Noh, but perhaps they will begin to understand various connections.

"A lot of the ethic and work attitudes of the Japanese that we find in competition with us," he said, "are inherent in these art forms."