Japan’s classic Noh theater is meeting the Protestant Reformation as a Japanese Lutheran scholar is developing a play featuring the 16th-century German reformer Martin Luther.
Toshifumi Uemura, a professor at Japan Lutheran College in Tokyo, said he intends to stage his play, called “Luther,” in 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. An art form dating from the 14th century, Noh drama usually features heroic themes, stylized acting and masks, music and slow, grandiose gestures.
“I composed the poetry and prose [of the Noh play] by aiming principally at letting the Bible speak, as in Handel’s ‘Messiah,’” Uemura told ENInews. “And in the second half, I used a portion of a Lutheran hymn, ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.’”
Uemura said he was inspired to “express Christ on the soil of Japanese culture” through several significant encounters.
“The new Noh play is a theme I’ve been nursing for many years after I was enlightened by [the Rev.] Kakichi Kadowaki, a professor emeritus and a Catholic priest at Sophia University [in Tokyo],” he said. Kadowaki wrote a Noh play in 1988 called “The Baptism of Jesus,” which was performed before Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.
In addition, he said, he encountered Christ through a Shinto teacher and was inspired by a performance by Tadao Kamei, a drummer for Noh plays who has been designated a “living national treasure” by the government.
In October 2010, Uemura gave the original experimental performance of the Noh drama together with a Japanese bamboo flute player at a JELC’s Minoridai Church in Chiba, northeast of Tokyo, in the form of a fantasy Noh in two parts.
The first part included him alone playing three roles of Luther, a supporting role, and an old man. As questions and answers about salvation and sin were repeated in the performance, he then symbolically expressed the Latin words “Instructio summaria,” which referred to documents that authorized the sale of indulgences in Germany.
The play showed that these were the documents that inspired Luther’s attempt to reform the Catholic church. The dialogue then repeated “faith only,” the key theme of the Reformation.
After a Japanese bamboo flute-playing, the second part included Luther dancing as words from “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” were sung at the end.
On Feb. 17 this year, a revised experimental performance of the drama was given at the International Research Centre for Japanese Studies in Kyoto in the form of a modern Noh, in which the protagonist plays the role of a realistic human.
Kimitake Ueda, a professional Japanese Noh performer, played the role of Luther, along with two other professional Noh performers and a flute player. Uemura was the narrator.
This version also featured the spirit of Luther celebrating the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, an understanding of justification by God's grace through faith in Christ that was adopted in 1999 in Augsburg, Germany, by the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation.