Kennosuke Nakamori’s sonorous voice fills a small room as he practises the lines of a traditional Japanese Noh play, even though he has not performed before a live audience in months.
He moves gracefully as he rehearses the studied movements associated with the ancient art, but his serene exterior belies deep worries about the future of Noh.
The coronavirus pandemic has shuttered theatres across Japan, and while other traditional art forms can rely on generous private backers or state subsidies, Noh depends heavily on staging shows.
With audiences and performers already dwindling even before the pandemic, some in the industry fear the virus may sound the death knell for an art considered one of the oldest extant theatre forms in the world.
“There are many performers who have stopped doing shows” due to the coronavirus, said 33-year-old Nakamori at his family’s theatre in the coastal city of Kamakura, near Tokyo.
“How many shows can we do during the pandemic … and can we earn a living? This is a big problem.”
In some ways, Noh faces the same crisis as other art forms around the world affected by coronavirus.
But while some governments are pumping money into performing arts, Noh actors say they are seeing little state support and what they have been offered is impractical.
There are government subsidies for performances, but Nakamori says social distancing measures mean theatres must be half-empty for shows, so even with subsidies, staging performances is a losing financial prospect.
“The more you perform on stage, the bigger the losses will be,” he said. “We need subsidies that compensate us when we cannot hold shows.”
Noh’s roots date back as far as the eighth century, but the plays performed today were largely developed around Japan’s Muromachi period from 1336 to 1573.
The art, which is on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list, combines dance, music and drama in a minimalist approach that sets it apart from the more elaborate sets, makeup and costumes of Kabuki.
Actors wear wooden masks and traditional kimonos, sliding along the stage in white split-toe tabi socks.
The plays are performed almost exclusively by male actors, who deliver lines in low, extended tones that can be difficult for modern audiences to understand.
They are accompanied by drummers and flautists on stages traditionally made from cypress wood and adorned with a single painted pine tree on the back wall.