“I'm going to Takachiho in Miyazaki from tomorrow. It's a place that is said to have the origins of Japanese music.” says Ryochu Miyako. He was born as the son of Itchu Miyako, 12th generation of Itchu-bushi (Shamisen: three-stringed traditional Japanese musical instrument), he is now on various stages both in Japan and abroad as a Joruri-kata (a narrative singer of the traditional Japanese puppet theatre).
In this interview, we asked Ryochu about new challenges that he would like to pursue in the future and what he thinks what the “essence” is.
Ryochu MIYAKO / Itchu-bushi, Joruri
Since the early days of his life, he began to practice Japanese traditional music, Itchu-bushi, from his father, and his predecessor, both Itchu MIYAKO. He regularly organises his own concert “Miyako Ryochu no kai”. He served as a Joruri-kata for concerts and dance performances, and appeared in many performances overseas (Berlin, New York, St. Petersburg, Shanghai, etc.). In addition to performance activities, he is also lecturer, guest at radio station, and Joruri instructor, etc. He also participated as a singer in the image album (CD) of the Studio Ghibli film “Spirited Away”
What is the Itchu bushi?
Itchu bushi is known as particularly elaborate and elegant music among shamisen music, and has been handed down for over 300 years since the Edo period. The number of notes are few, and the tones and knots and shamisen are soft and gentle, so that it may seem plain when you listen to them for the first time. However, each sound has its depth, and the fineness and quietness between each note is its unique attraction. During the Edo period, it was so popular that everyone listened and practiced, and it was loved and enjoyed by the upper class of trademan and craftsman.
It will never be completed. That is why it is always new.
- How do you manage your time?
I'm mainly spending time on three things now - Getting on the stage, Practicing, and Teaching.
Some of schedules such as lessons with students are fixed, but others are quite flexible. It is very difficult to secure time for my own lessons. Sometimes I spend a whole day practicing, and another time I only have 2 to 3 hours.
- Is there anything you have to keep in mind when managing your three tasks?
First of all, I will aim for the closest stage, but to be honest, I always feel like i is always unfinished when I am on the stage. Of course I am doing everything I can, but there is always something that is not still perfect. It may be the case in any field, but I don't think it will ever be completed no matter how much I do.
Therefore, I need to try something new all the time. It is necessary to learn music pieces that I will not be playing at the next stage. The accumulation of new things fills the remaining few percents toward the completion. Although, it is very challenging to keep doing new things that are not directly related to the stage in front of me.
I like singing, just as much as I used to as a child.
- I heard that it has been about 30 years since you started Itchu bushi. but how did you start?
My father has always been the Shamisen player ever since I was born, I had been practicing since the age of three. It had already been the daily routine before I realised.
When I was a kid, I loved singing anime, and I always used to sing on my way home from school or when I am riding a bicycle. I remember singing all the songs that each character sings, such as “Dragon Ball” or “Ranma 1/2”.
When I was a child, Itchu bushi was an extension of my favourite singing activity.
I still remember that it was frustrating that Itchu bushi was so difficult that I could not do it as well as I can do in anime song.
- I don't think there were many people studying Joruri around you, but what did you think of it when you were a student?
My father always used to tell me, “Do as you like.” “If you have a favourite job, you can choose that.” "If you don't like it, it's rather rude to Itchu bushi."
It was when I was a high school student that I actually decided which way to pursue. I started to learn about the contents and details of the song, and I realised it is somethign that I would enjoy the rest of my life.
Although I was still young when I made this decision, I was 17 years old when I was given the name “Ryochu MIYAKO” and began to appear on stage as a professional “Itchu bushi Joruri kata”.
- Making a decision when you were a high school student was a big thing, but what was the reason you were determined that you want to do it for the rest of your life?
Around the same time, I had a chance to travel to the United States with my father. It was my father's vacation trip, but a Japanese friend invited us to their home to organise a small music concert like a salon party. I remember that there were about 30 local Americans and Japanese people. After interpreting the commentary in English, my father played and sang, and I was just listening by his side.
After the performance, all the guests seemed very moved and came up to my father. Some people expressed their excitement and asked for a handshake. I was watching the whole scenes and felt very happy that the music I am practicing every day could make people so happy. During the trip, I went to see musicals and orchestra concerts and I was very moved by those. However at the same time, I felt proud that Itchu bushi is equally amazing. Those experiences gave me a great opportunity to think that I want to do my best.
- My image of your father Itchu is playing the shamisen, but the image of you are narrating.
I could choose to be the Shamisen player, but I chose the Joruri kata pathway. I always enjoyed to use my voice, so it was a natural flow for me. Basically, it will be either full-time narrator or Shamisen player. Although, I also learned the Shamisen in order to narrate Joruri, and I play Shamisen when I teach my students or play at a very small concert, I focus on the narrating when I am on the stage.
Some people do both, but that is quite unusual. First of all, it is hard to keep the balance and keep up the level at the same time.
The amount of "frustration" and "joy" increases over time. This is why I keep going.
- Why do you think you could continue Itchu bushi since your childhood?
There are two reasons that I am continuing - that are “Frustration” and “happiness”. The more I get older, the more I get those feelings.
- When do you feel the frustration?
There are so many things that I cannot do. Even if you can imagine, there are a lot that I cannot reach no matter how I try. But that is why I keep on trying to get closer to the completion.
Although I am able to do something I could not do in the past, my ideal level goes higher. The goals and ideals are always above me. It never gets closer at all. That's why I want to do more. I want to pursue it.
- So when do you feel “joy”?
Thankfully there are people who say "Please perform in my local area" and there are people who say "I listen to the CD every day''. I always feel afraid that they do not have to listen to mine everyday and they should listen to something else too, but I feel so thankful.
Shamisen music form varies, and Itchu bushi is a very quiet and there are a lot of silence between notes. It must be difficult to get the idea that it appreciates the quietness, but people listen to it patiently. I am very happy when people tell me "It was a kind of music that I had never heard before" or "Please tell me when you have a chance to perform again". This is one of the reasons that I continue Itchu bushi.
Telling the essence is what we do
- How is the reaction overseas?
Until now, I have had the opportunity to appear in performances in various places such as New York, Boston, St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Cologne, Berlin, etc., most of which is accompanied by my father.
Of course it is not the same reaction everywhere I go, but amongst all what impressed me was in Berlin in 2014.
It was held at the German-Japanese Centre in Berlin so I suppose there were many people who were interested in Japanese culture. But what amazed me that not only standing ovation, comments such as "very comfortable" and "the unique silence was wonderful", but also "the work was beautiful" and "I want to imitate the appearance", which relates to the concept of Japanese culture as a whole.
I often hear people around me perform overseas, and I hope it will increase as 2020 approaches.
- What are the things that you want to tell to people?
I want to deliver the performances that I do every day without faking it.
Recently, I hear a lot of new projects such as collaborating with something outside of Japan, or arranging the original song into another. It is very important to keep trying new things, and there are situations where it's necessary.
However, I would like to show what I am doing on a daily basis to the overseas audience who listen to music for the first time. This is because I want them to feel the original charm and the essence of the pure Itchu bushi. It is a challenge to continue to refine myself so that there are important elements in the connection of our predecessors over a long period of time.
For example, I don't want to change the song itself, even if I make an elaboration in the space, such as the location and lighting. It is fine even if it would be boring to the audience. The kindness for people to be understood is necessary, but there is also a risk that important parts will not be transmitted if you care too much about others.
Still, it will be difficult even for Japanese people today listening to Itchu bushi and understanding it without any prior explanation. Especially there is a language barrier to overseas audiences.
What I learned so far through my experiences is that it is quite useful to show the meaning of the music and what lyrics mean alongside the performance real time. Also audiences could naturally enter into the world of music and were pleased when I told the background story and the history of the content before I started playing.
- What do you think is the “essence” of the Itchu-bushi?
For example, when audiences could feel the spring air through the Joruri clause and the sound of the shamisen when I am narrating about the spring. Or when audiences could feel if the characters in the stories are happy or sad through Joruri and Shamisen. I think it is the essence of Itchu bushi that I can share the scenery and emotions with audiences via Joruri and Shamisen.
I would be happy if people could experience the beauty of Japanese sensibilities.
I am convinced that the essence can be told regardless of country, since I was in high school when I decided that I wanted to do it for the rest of my life. It is a theme that we must continue to think about, "How to create better performances and ways to convey while continuing to pursue the value of itself," and "what will change and what will not change."
Itchu-bushi is the origin of Edo Joruri-style shamisen music. The first generation of Tayu Itchu MIYAKO was the second son of the chief priest of Kyoto Meifukuji in 1650. He gradually integrated various forms of shamisen music that were popular in Kyoto at that time, and later expanded into Edo and Established as the Itchu bushi. During the Edo period, Itchu bushi was popular with the upper class of trademan and craftsman in Edo.
Even now, after more than 300 years, the music and spirit of the first generation are faithfully handed down. In addition, the music of the first generation was passed on to the disciples, and later developed into Tokiwazu, Kiyomoto, Shinnai, Tomimoto, etc. and became the source of various schools, greatly affecting the entire shamisen music.
Interviewer: Yuki Kitamura, Kaoru Kuribayashi Stanislaus
Photo: Atsushi Sakamoto
Place: National Noh Theater