Looking at Kagurazaka from Shinnai Alley (4)
Traditional Edo Music: Crisis of the Decline of Shinnai
I graduated from Tsukudo elementary school. My grandfather, my father, my son and daughter, and my grandchildren – five generations of my family – graduated from that same school. This may be rare in Kagurazaka.
My junior high and high schools were the Seijo school in Ushigome Haramachi. I don’t know how it is now, but in my time, many students from Kagurazaka went on to Seijo junior high from Tsukudo elementary. Even now, when I meet old schoolmates whom I remember, I feel at home.
My path in shinnai has not been smooth in spite of following my father.
In the midst of the fierce war, on June 6, 1944, I was 6 years old. For some years after the war, we were not able to do shinnai. My father started doing shinnai again around 1949, when I was in the fourth grade of elementary school, and I can say that I began my career at that time. However, that doesn’t mean that what I was given was real training. At that time, because we lacked adequate food and clothing, it wasn’t possible to put power and passion into the arts.
I continued to do shinnai even after I graduated, but it wasn’t possible to earn enough to live on just from performing. Concerned about my future ability to take care of a family and of my parents, I helped out in my mother’s restaurant.
One day, I found out that the NHK Hogaku [traditional Japanese music] Training School was accepting applications. My father was not so interested, but my mother strongly recommended that I take the exam. I rushed to the NHK test site at Tamuracho in Hibiya. I went wearing western clothes, but most of the other young students came with their teachers and were wearing kimono.
Because I went without knowing what kind of test there would be, I didn’t take anything with me, but just went as I was. When my turn came and I entered the room, I found the examiners and NHK traditional music staff lined up there.
Suddenly, they asked me, “What are you going to play?” As I had nothing with me, I said, “Excuse me, but may I borrow a shamisen and a plectrum?” Everyone seemed amazed.
Furthermore, when I asked, “What shall I play?”, they were even more astonished.
“This isn’t a nightclub. Play something you like,” the examiner replied, with an amazed look on his face.
“OK, then I’ll do Rancho”, I answered, and I played the shamisen and performed that work.
Besides that, I heard some difficult things that I didn’t understand.
I thought that I must have failed, and went back home in a dignified way.
Why did the wind blow in my direction? Maybe they thought I was an amusing entertainer. Anyway, I received notification that I had been accepted. Later I found out that it had been thanks to a strong recommendation by the late Yoshikawa Eiji, who mentored me, starting at that time.
It is no exaggeration to say that admission to the NHK Training School was the real start of my shinnai life. I’d been living in the narrow world of shinnai, like a frog in a narrow well. I began, for the first time, to see the value of other genres compared to shinnai, and came to realize that the world of shinnai was weak and there was a shortage of successors, although that was my fault because I hadn’t studied enough.
Although I was ashamed that I had realized the crisis of shinnai only because of seeing others’ situation, even so, looking at it objectively and calmly, I firmly established my way of living, if I can say that with a little exaggeration. This was my turning point.
Who else could do this but me! I was really steamed up.
Starting then, when I was in my mid-twenties, I became a daredevil young shinnai performer.
The mass media also cheered me on in this struggle. I was called a “revolutionary”, “biker gang member”, and so on.
Starting after my father died at 66, when I was 33, I had a hard time. I had to work twice as hard as everyone else. In a sense, it was good for me. It was both happy and sad ….
Moreover, I got a lot of support from some famous writers, including Obayashi Kiyoshi, Mukoda Kuniko, Enomoto Shigetami, and Miyagawa Ichiro, all of whom have already passed away. They were great benefactors of my shinnai life.
Now, I completely devote myself to the dissemination, promotion, and traditions of shinnai, and travel around both domestically and overseas to give performances. I’ll write in the next installments about the novelists and my overseas performances.