Udaka Michishige, master actor of the Kongō School of Noh, and noh mask carver, passed away peacefully at home, surrounded by his family, on March 28, 2020, after living with a very aggressive type of lymphoma for over a year.
Born in Kyoto on September 18, 1947, Michishige entered the Kongō School as a live-in apprentice in 1960 at the suggestion of his father at the age of 13. The word around the theater at the time was that there were great expectations for the new member of the family who was said to be a little unusual and to like English.
Through the influence of his great-grandfather, Kawada Shoryō, a Tosa, Shikoku, clan samurai artist and scholar instrumental in debriefing John Manjiro, the castaway rescued with his comrades by a whaling vessel, returning many years later, and of his father, also an artist and historian, Michishige-sensei was always naturally curious about differing perspectives and drawn to them.
On becoming independent in 1970, he soon had international, as well as Japanese, students. A passion for making masks lead to the formation of the Men no Kai carving group in 1978. Members, attracted to his excitement in sharing the world behind the mask as well as the craft itself, followed him in seeking the goal of creating masks for use on stage.
Michishige also had a strong conviction from an early age of the importance of the jiutai, the chorus in noh, and the support and production groups Udaka Koenkai formed in 1983, and Noh-o-tanoshimu kai started in 1984, presented opportunities for him to choose challenging plays and to highlight the importance of the chorus leader, at times taking this role rather the main role. In consideration of his activities and excellence in all aspects of noh, he was designated by the government as a Holder of Important Intangible Cultural Properties in 1991.
Always challenging himself and the world of noh, Michishige never turned away a student, regardless of nationality or gender, convinced that Noh had a transformative and evocative power that anyone could respond to and embody themselves through training. His idea of a “Noh Renaissance” encompassed this embrace of a wide range of students and an approach to training that insisted on the development of concentration and intention through meditation, voice and body through exercises he designed to complement each person’s personal instrument, their body.
Through the noh he authored he sought to reveal how close to us the veil between past and present always is. In 2001 he wrote and performed his first original noh play, SHIKI-HOTOTOGISU on the celebrated haiku poet Masaoka Shiki. In the same year he wrote HEIWA NO INORI: GENSHIGUMO, A PRAYER FOR PEACE, for which he took the unusual step of inviting non-performers to take the stage in the role of spirits in a memorial requiem for those caught up in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The play was first performed in Kyoto in 2003. RYŌMA, focusing on Sakamoto Ryōma, one of the architects of the Meiji restoration and influenced by Kawada Shoryō, was performed in 2003 at the Kōchi Museum to celebrate its 10th anniversary, accompanied an exhibition of Michishige’s great-grandfather’s paintings.
In 2019 Michishige was chosen as the 29th recipient of Hosei University’s Saika Prize, awarded each year since 1988 to a person involved in noh for their lifetime achievements in supporting and transmitting noh. While in the hospital, in response to receiving this honor, he wrote about his hopes and dreams for continuing to make noh more readily accessible on an international scale through training in Japan. He also wrote both a noh and a kyogen play during the early days of his hospitalization.
The magnitude of what he shared so generously, exacting the same discipline and enthusiasm from others as he demanded of himself, is too large to comprehend as yet. He is sorely missed, even as we understand his was a life well lived, and his passing a journey he embarked on with the preparation and thought for others with which he approached every challenge. Members of INI, cherishing the gift each has received, will carry on his legacy.
Udaka Michishige is survived by his wife, Mariko, and their three children: noh actors Udaka Tatsushige and Norishige, and mask maker Udaka Keiko.