Looking at Kagurazaka from Shinnai Alley (30)
Thoughts about the “I-Ro-Ha” (ABCs) of Shinnai: 1
Shinnai is one of the Japanese traditional musical performing arts, a leading school of the Bungo-style group of Edo joururi. Tokiwazu, kiyomoto, and tomimoto, which are other well-known traditional musical styles, are the artistic siblings of shinnai, sharing the same parent art form, Bungo-style joururi.
Currently, traditional shamisen music includes approximately ten genres. Each genre has substantial, or in some instances, subtle differences in how the artist performs the story, and how the shamisen is held. Among the shamisen genres, the shamisen instrument itself differs in, for example, the thickness of the strings, the balance of the three strings, the thickness of the instrument’s neck; the height, shape, and position of the bridge; the thickness of the skin covering the body of the shamisen, the size and thickness of the plectrum as well as how it is held and moved when playing, and the place where the plectrum strikes the strings. Other differences include the style of kakegoe (the vocal downbeat given by the main shamisen player to the other performers) and the way the performers sit when playing.
The method of performance of joururi, too, differs among the various styles of Japanese traditional music, such as the way that the throat is narrowed, the method of using the throat when vocalizing, pronunciation, the melodies and spoken lines, and how feelings are expressed.
I don’t plan to explain all of these points. However, because I’ve heard that the publication of the Kagurazaka Community Magazine where these essays were originally published will end with the 100th issue, I want to write in my remaining essays here as a performer of joururi (tayu) about what I have learned and experienced in my career of more than sixty years. I’ll organize my comments in i-ro-ha order (see Translator’s Note below). I want to explain how I gained my knowledge of the art of shinnai through repeated trial and error, and give advice on how to approach the study of shinnai.
Translator’s Note: In school, all Japanese study a poem written around the 9th century called I-Ro-Ha in which each character of the Japanese syllabary appears only once. This would be comparable to a sentence in English in which each letter of the alphabet was used only once. The syllables in the order in which they appear in the I-Ro-Ha poem are often used to label successive items in a list, as writers in English use “A-B-C” to indicate items in a list.
In the rest of this essay and the following four essays, in addition to using the syllables I, Ro, and Ha and the rest of the poem to label the items in the list, Wakasanojo starts the heading of each item with that same syllable. For example, the heading of the third item, Ha, is Hana Yori Dango Yori…
Retaining that style in translation was impossible. In the translations of these five essays, the I-Ro-Ha syllables and the original Japanese headings are given in romaji (English letters) for each item, followed by a number to indicate the order in the list and a translation of the heading.
It’s not my plan to present this information as maxims or proverbs.
In spite of my inadequate knowledge and ability, I want to start my essays with my own dogmatic opinions and prejudices, ignoring ridicule from my elders.
Translator’s Note: The above phrase is a portion of the i-ro-ha poem. The full Japanese text and translations of the poem into English are available in many sites on-line.
・い 一声 二節
I: Ichi koe, ni fushi
(1) Training the voice is primary; learning the musical line is secondary
What do tayu practice, what do they memorize, and how do they train? Most important is to train the voice. Of course, performers have to memorize the musical line, but the main focus should be on training the voice while remembering the music. Through training, artists learn to create the vocal quality used when performing Japanese music.
Because the voice is generated by the vocal cords, the vocal cords are essential for producing the sound of Japanese music. Like athletes who work at training their muscles, tayu should train their throat muscles, opening their mouth wide and producing a loud sound.
It is rather easy to remember shinnai musical lines, but if a person’s voice does not have a suitable vocal quality, the person cannot become a joururi performer. That is why training the voice is primary.
Ro: Ron yori keiko
(2) Practice is more important than theory
This requires little explanation. It is important to dig into the contents of the story being performed, and to think about various aspects of the situation in the story, such as the age of the male and female characters, their psychological state, their occupation, the time, the place, and the relationships among the characters, so as to convey the story logically.
Rather than starting from a superficial understanding of the story, students should practice the lessons given by their shishou (shinnai teacher), without asking questions. In that way, students may be able to reach their teachers’ artistic level…
Ha: Hana yori dango yori…
(3) Something other than flowers or sweets…
Translator’s Note: Wakasanojo has modified a well-known phrase, “hana yori dango”. The meaning of the original expression is to prefer substance over showy things, or, to say it another way, items that are functional and useful (such as dumplings, dango) are preferable to items that are decorative (such as flowers, hana).
Members of the audience who have enjoyed my performance sometimes want to give me gifts. I’m grateful to them because they have bought tickets to my concerts; in addition, they bring me flowers, sweets, and other small gifts. Although I am pleased to accept their gifts, I have mixed feelings. Especially it’s a problem for me when I receive a lot of sweets, because I have diabetes.
Having too many flowers, sweets, and other gifts is not just my problem; the problem is common to many performers. I should apologize, though, for complaining about it…
Ni: Nikumarekko yo ni habakaru
(4) Even if we hate them, we cannot help but envy those who influence the world
Translator’s Note: This heading is a proverb from the traditional Edo Period card game, iroha karuta.
Even if others are jealous of someone’s plentiful talent, that’s not bad. However, some people without talent and without shame often try to succeed by using their connections and money to promote their own success. This kind of person is universally disliked.
Many people lack talent. It’s a question of character.
Ho: Hone ori zon no kutabire mōke wa nai
(5) It’s not correct that working hard is a waste of time, the only result being exhaustion.
If students are scolded by their shishou all the time, even if the shishou’s anger seems unreasonable, even if the students are scolded about matters unrelated to their study of the art and are asked to run errands…they should not think, “Oh, I hate this…”, or have similar complaints. This is a form of training that is unrelated to logic.
Of course, students’ feelings should not be hurt…. But even if they’ve worked extremely hard, students haven’t just wasted time.
(From Kagurazaka Community Magazine, February – March 2018, issue #96)