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Great Masters

Sakurama Banma (Sajin) (1835-1917)

A Master of Acting Technique

The Sakurama family of the Konparu school was in the service of the Hosokawa clan in Higo (currently Kumamoto), and has been one of the distinguished families in the Noh community. It has a long pedigree, originating in the court musicians in the Fujisaki Hachimangū Shrine, in charge of divine services together with the Tomoeda family of the Kita school. In the Edo era (1603-1867), the two families both became Noh specialists and were incorporated into the schools. They served both the Hosokawa clan and the Fujisaki Hachimangū, and competed with one another in Noh art.

Sakurama Banma was born in Kumamoto in 1835 (Tenpō 6), and was destined to be the 17th-generation head of the Sakurama family. He was held in high regard as a master performer even from his early years, and was praised by his local people. After he turned 21, he went to Edo (currently Tokyo) twice and studied Noh under Nakamura Heizō, a master performer of the age. Banma sat at Heizō's feet for five years in all. "Heizō was severe on his pupils," Banma often told his son, Sakurama Kintarō (Kyūsen), "so his practices were quite a strain." It was in this period that the art of Banma, one of "the Three Masters of the Meiji Era," was refined.

In the Edo era, the transportation system was not as well developed as those of today, so he required great determination to leave home and study in a different place. He had an inflexible determination not to come back until he had acquired outstanding skills. After having mastered the understated acting techniques prevalent in Edo, he performed a piece in Kumamoto, but most of the audience regarded the level of his performance as having deteriorated. However, it is said that only Tomoeda Saburō, a venerable master and tayū (the head actor) of the Tomoeda family in the Kita school, praised him for having really become an expert.

Although Banma was based in Kumamoto, the Meiji Restoration was a great change for him. In the Satsuma Rebellion (1877, Meiji 10), both his stage and his residence were burnt down. He managed to save his own life, and as many costumes and masks as he could carry from the flames. Then he went to Tokyo for the third time in about 1880 (Meiji 13), possibly by arrangement with Lord Hosokawa. He spent his remaining years in Tokyo. The Noh community in Tokyo was at that time starting to enjoy something of a renaissance.

After Banma participated in the opening of a new Noh theatre in Shiba in 1881 (Meiji 14), he became well known as a performer. After that, he was highly praised when he performed "Kantan" and "Dōjōji" at the theatre, and achieved recognition as a master performer equal to the two leading figures, Hōshō Kurō Tomoharu and Umewaka Minoru. In particular, in "Dōjōji," he won a nationwide reputation by performing an impressive and unique "kaneiri," the highlight scene. After coming to fame, he even more dedicated himself to improve his skills and established a solid reputation, both in name and reality, as one of "the Three Masters of the Meiji Era."

He enjoyed robust health and appeared on stage even in his last days. The number of his performances surpassed those of Kurō Tomoharu or Minoru. When the Konparu school was in a period of struggle, he was active in supporting its head family and the entire school. When he was over eighty, in 1915 (Taishō 4), he took the leading role in Part One of "Takasago," which was his last performance as a Noh actor wearing formal costumes. He died in 1917 (Taishō 6), about three months after Hōshō Kurō Tomoharu passed away.

Nogami Toyoichirō, a scholar of English literature and a pioneer in Nōgaku research, and also the husband of the author Nogami Yaeko, once recalled that he had been fascinated by Sakurama Banma's performance and this had greatly influenced his life since that moment. It is said that Banma's style was both steady and beautiful, and he had subtle techniques. As the Three Masters, it was said that Minoru, Kurō and Banma excelled respectively in inventiveness, dignity, and acting techniques.

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