Ueno Honmoku-tei and Its Regular Customers

It has been a long time since the lights went out at Ueno Honmoku-tei. Ueno Honmoku-tei was a small vaudeville theater near Ueno Hirokoji (a major intersection near Ueno station) that was a venue for a type of traditional storytelling called kodan, and which also was a regular venue for shinnai performances. My generation of performers learned our artistic skills at Honmoku-tei.
After the original building was renovated and enlarged in 1972, a shop was set up on the second floor. I can still picture a man named Iwa-chan who ran the place, and I remember his voice and the scary look on his face. I also remember a famous short man who was the gatekeeper (kido-ban).
I have many fond memories, among which the most vivid are of the regular customers. These men, who were not students of any shinnai school, came to listen to any style of shinnai performance. They were completely addicted to shinnai and, with very discerning ears for the sound of shinnai, they vacuumed it up.
These regular customers sat cross-legged, leaning against the wall like geckos, with their arms folded, not looking at the stage but rather looking straight ahead. For drinkers, there were bottles of sake. If a performer wasn’t skillful or wasn’t interesting, they seemed to fall asleep… But when they heard good performing, they clapped their hands and shouted encouragement. The stage was surrounded by these unpretentious and lively connoisseurs. For us shinnai performers, they were scary fans, but they were a valuable audience who nurtured our shinnai.
I wish there were such a community venue now for shinnai, with the kind of warm and welcoming atmosphere that we had at Honmoku-tei, and with the audience close to the performers.
Both shinnai and gidayu (Edo) are joururi performances that touch the heartstrings and which were loved by the common people of Edo (Tokyo).
I hope to perform shinnai in a way that is refined, vivacious, and passionate, without unnecessary embellishments.

Tsuruga Wakasanojo XI, President, Shinnai Association
(from the printed program, Shinnai Association Concert, June 25, 2023)

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