A beautiful and commanding presence on stage with a deep and softer than imagined Noh voice, Ryoko Aoki is an artist who produces work through a collaboration of traditional Japanese Noh and contemporary music. She is the first and probably only independent professional female Noh actor in a world which dates back to the 7th century.
“I’m not necessarily a Noh actor per se. For myself, I do not regard what I do as a Noh actor. I want to push the boundaries which is why I don’t adhere to that title.”
Known as the only pure Japanese form of dance, Noh is said to be the oldest form of theatrical art in the world. Ryoko Aoki has been practicing Noh since junior high school. She continued her studies at the Tokyo University of the Arts, majoring in traditional Japanese music and where she focused on and continued to pursue the traditional art of Noh.
“I guess you could say I grew up in a normal household. When I was young, I studied ballet from reading manga. (laughs) However, I slowly started to ask myself why ‘even though I am Japanese, I am practicing ballet which is western and not things from my own country …..’ At a time I wanted to learn Japanese culture someday and then I became fascinated by the Noh shown from time to time on television.”
Fortunately, there was a Noh class at her local culture school which she quickly signed up for and where she was able to practice. Through this circumstance, by making use of this traditional culture, she wanted to challenge new forms of theatrical expression, which is why she then went to The Tokyo University of the Arts recommended by her teacher.
“I knew nothing about the world of Noh, so I was looking forward to being able to create ideas by collaborating with people from various fields at a hotbed of creativity like the Tokyo University of the Arts. However, when I enrolled, the students majoring in Noh were mostly from Noh families, and I was the only female in my year. The department was more like the environment of a hierarchical society. There was no interaction with other departments and it was nothing but Noh every day.”
Even though there was a concern that “tradition” and “creativity” were worlds apart, the passionate training of a top teacher inspired Ryoko Aoki to love Noh more and more. Also, it is said that not being from a Noh family had an advantage.
“I had wanted to go to graduate school to research the theme of ‘Women and Noh’ but at that time was the start of an exchange between other departments and I was able to take part and perform a collaboration with opera. But, those who came from a Noh family were constrained and were simply unable to mix with other fields. Being in a situation where I could be free made me take new steps.”
From then on, she decided to run away with her dream of “creativity”. Continuing her research at a university in London, she embarked on trying to fuse Noh with contemporary music.
“Though there has been an attempt to bring together Noh and theater before, it had not happened within the realm of music. I thought this would be fun but I found it difficult. Noh does not have a musical score, so I was wondering how to combine it with western musical notation. Not parallel to each other or where one dominates the other, I wanted to pursue a form of expression where they are truly balanced as one piece. Though trying times, I was able to meet some wonderful composers who wanted to create wonderful music and together we worked on exciting creations inspired by Noh. We understood what we were trying to attain without compromising and I believe we were able to produce something that represented me without wavering”
As I was trying to meet the intentions of these composers from outside Japan, something dawned on me as I was singing these new pieces of music written by them.
“However much I try to seek the expression they are looking for, a part of it will always become Noh. The Japanese tradition of Noh is inexorably within myself. I can only be myself and not anyone else.
At times I feel I can’t go any further, but I keep going as it’s because of me that I gave birth to this, so I want to keep pushing myself.”
Unfortunately, in Japan now, there is a section of modern music that can be too obscure to grasp for the general public therefore Ryoko Aoki’s activity is centered around Europe.
“In Europe, there is a strong belief that in order for traditional cultures to survive, boundaries have to be pushed for new creations. That is why there is also a footing for experimental theater. However, you cannot get your point across abroad if you acquiesce. I became acutely aware that you have no choice but to use your own willpower to win people over.”
Traditions that are passed down or things that should be created do not come from what is around us but always from inside oneself. That is why we are able to keep going forward towards our goals. This is where Ryoko Aoki’s unshakable desire to deliver new creations to the world that she calls her stage comes from.
Like stories unfolding on a theater stage
“This photobook was published to accompany the 2007 Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography exhibition ‘Suzuki Risaku: Kumano, yuki, sakura’. It was an exhibition that left a huge impression on me. The gallery space itself appeared like a single artwork, and Suzuki’s series — From the fire festival of Kumano, to snow, and then cherry blossoms―unfolded like a story on a theater stage. I felt a certain overlap with my own theater plays. How wonderful would it be to create a theater play in collaboration with Suzuki’s photographs someday?” (Ryoko Aoki)
Risaku Suzuki was born 1963 in Shingu in Japan’s Wakayama Prefecture. Suzuki received the 25th Kimura Ihei Award in 2000. Recent publications include “White” (Edition nord, 2012) and “Atelier of Cezanne” (Nazraeli Press, 2013). In February 2015, the Marugame Genichiro-Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art hosted a solo exhibition of Suzuki’s works.
Born in Oita Prefecture, Japan. Graduated in Noh theater at Tokyo University of the Arts (Specialized in the protagonist Kanze style). Completed master’s course in the music department. Working with leading modern songwriters and musicians in an attempt to create a new world of ‘Noh’. Active within Japan and internationally. Released her debut album ‘Noh x Contemporary Music’ in June 2014.