I think I set a personal record for the longest gestation period between parts of a post – 3.5 years baby! Honest to God, I completely forgot about this. Read up on parts 1 and 2. This covers the rest of the interview.
Kuwashima-san does not do too much anime work these days but she is still very much involved in her beloved recitals (rōdoku, 朗読), running regular Miyazawa Kenji-related performances under the Recital Night (Rōdokuya, 朗読夜) title. Her Twitter handle, first started to promote her 20th anniversary projects, is now used for the express purpose of promoting her productions.
Besides that, Kuwashima is a cultural ambassador for her home prefecture of Iwate and recently travelled to Paris recently to give a talk at a Fukushima Pride Fair event as part of a group from Fukushima Gainax, the studio that animated a series of shorts called You Can Enjoy! (Tabechatte Ii no ni na) to promote Fukushima produce.
The bulk of this interview covers Miyazawa Kenji who I’m sure some will be familiar with thanks to his works that were adapted into film or animation such as Gauche the Cellist and Night on the Galactic Railroad. My own point of reference to Miyazawa is having to memorize and recite his Ame ni mo Makezu poem in one of my Japanese classes. Proud to say that I still remember it by heart…!
The other topic covered in this interview is recitals, that very niche part of the seiyuu industry that few of us international fans have experience of – it is growing alongside things like improvisational theatre (sokkyōgeki) though, and many seiyuu, especially the older ones, assemble their own teams to put on performances. It’s something worth exploring to see your favourite seiyuu expressing themselves in a different, more sophisticated format…though I suppose your mastery of the Japanese language will need to have reached a certain stage.
Miyazawa Kenji will always be in my heart…
Q: Kuwashima-san, you perform recitals based on Miyazawa Kenji’s works – what inspired your interest in Miyazawa Kenji’s poetry?
A: It was my father’s influence. To tell the truth, it was a tradition in my household for Miyazawa Kenji’s poem Haratai Kenbairen (Sword Dancers of the Haratai Village) to be recited on occasions such as New Year and Obon. My father would often receive requests to perform recitals during wedding ceremonies and family banquets, so I had many opportunities to hear his growling*. When I was young, I used to think that my father was someone who did weird things (laughs) and it was only after I started becoming interested in acting that I gained an appreciation for what he had been doing. I even recorded his recitals and secretly tried to memorize them…what a thing to do (laughs)
*Popular renditions of Haratai Kenbairen often incorporate singing & chanting. See this for an example.
I had the opportunity to meet the representative of a local theatre company that performs only Miyazawa Kenji works when my piano teacher introduced us, and I was subsequently invited to see one of their plays. He’s still performing in Hanamaki City these days. Whenever he’s interviewed in newspapers etc, the topic will always be Miyazawa Kenji. When you think of Iwate prefecture, you think of Miyazawa Kenji,
I was a member of my junior high school’s broadcasting committee and during lunch breaks; I would go ahead and play Miyazawa Kenji’s fairy tales. I don’t think anyone was listening though (laughs). Even when I was doing vocal warm-ups in drama club, I would pick out a Miyazawa Kenji passage to use as part of my exercises.
After some time, I moved to Tokyo and at one point I thought to myself – “I need to find something that belongs to me, and me alone”. The first thing that came to mind was the fact that I am from Iwate. And within my Iwate-born self, lies Miyazawa Kenji.
There are of course, many people in Tokyo who love Miyazawa Kenji and continue to perform his works. These include respected veteran actors who treat [Miyazawa] as their life’s work. However, there are few like-minded people amongst the younger generation. I believed that I could find meaning in pursuing [Miyazawa].
The chance to perform recitals, born from a series of coincidences
Q: So how did you come around to performing recitals of Miyazawa Kenji’s works?
A: At Aoni, I have a senior named Hirano Masato-san who is also from Iwate – since his days in Bungakuza, Hirano-san has been performing recitals of Tōno Monogatari and Miyazawa Kenji poetry in local [Iwate] dialect. He really did look after me very well thanks to our mutual interest in Miyazawa Kenji and our shared Iwate heritage.
Coincidentally, the year after I joined Aoni Production happened to be Miyazawa Kenji’s 100th birthday year. A friend of Hirano-san’s who worked for JR (Japan Railway) requested for recitals of poems by Kenji and Ishikawa Takuboku in Tokyo Station to commemorate the milestone.
In another series of coincidences, there was a single day within that time frame where Hirano was tied up with other work commitments, so he gave me a call and asked if I’d be interested in reciting poetry. I did feel doubtful as to whether I’d be up for the job since it was only the 2nd year since I’d joined Aoni Production but at the same time, I was really happy to be granted such an opportunity.
Q: Which poems did you recite?
A: I had previously mentioned the story of my father’s Haratai Kenbairen recitals to Hirano-san, and he advised me to follow in my father’s footsteps – ‘Why not do a reading of Haratai Kenbairen?’…So I settled on this particular poem. I was just 20 years old at the time. Actually, my father first came across this poem when he was around 20 years old as well and since then, I’d been hearing many stories about his recitals throughout the years so that particular twist of fate now feels extremely surreal to me.
Q: Are there any aspects that you’re extra careful with when it comes to preparing for recitals, or do you see any advice from your father?
A: Apparently the reason why my father started performing recitals was because of a cassette tape that he’d received from a friend. It was a recording of a limited-edition flexi disc released by Miyazawa Seiroku, where he recited poetry based on his recollections of how his older brother Kenji would read his poems aloud. At the time of the recording Seiroku was already past 60 years and his reading wasn’t particularly lively or energetic. It’s an acquired taste, but my father seemed to find that it sounded somewhat like a sutra; full of vibrancy and youthfulness.
My Haratai Kenbairen was based upon my father’s version. However, it is still different from that of my father’s – I had one of my relatives listen to my rendition of Haratai Kenbairen the other day, and they remarked that they thought that my father’s version was better. It was an expected outcome – the thought has actually crossed my mind; that I would prefer to have been born male solely for the sake of reading Haratai Kenbairen, as the poem resonates better when it’s performed by a powerful male voice. Nevertheless, I hope that I will be able to perform recitations of Kenji’s poems at a level that transcends gender.
Reciting poetry, something that I wish to continue to do even when I grow old
Q: What are your views on poetry recitals as an aspect of your profession?
A: My agency and manager are both supportive of that desire of mine and thus, I have seen an increase in the number of Kenji-related job offers. When I was working with Bunka Hōsō for 2 weeks, the radio programme’s producers allowed me to do as I wished… halfway through, I brought up the possibility of reciting Ginga Tetsudō no Yoru (Night on the Galactic Railroad) and they gave the OK right away, so I read parts from it each episode. The listeners’ response to that segment was more favourable than I’d expected.
It’s just occurred to me that I first received an offer of a Miyazawa Kenji recitation at the tail-end of 2001, and we started to recital concerts in March 2001. I was only 20 years old, and a part of me did think that it was way too early for me to be reciting Miyazawa Kenji poems. In a way, I felt hesitant as the recital was green-lit on the premise that it was commercially viable since I was riding on the so-called seiyuu boom of that moment and [they thought] people would come to watch.
I had always believed that recitals hold more meaning when they’re performed by people with the necessary experience, and I myself knew of many seniors who I couldn’t hold a candle to.
However, I also thought that it would be amazing if I could start doing something from that [early age] and continue on until I was old and grey. I had no idea how things would go but all I knew was that I wanted to perform recitals now – even if following my gut instinct was akin to putting the cart before the horse, I wanted to give it a try. The offer that I received was an opportunity to take on the challenge right here, right now – who knows if I would ever be afforded a second chance to do so after I had grown older?
I was caught in a dilemma but I decided to take a step forward and go for it. Oftentimes, I would feel lost and at one point, I even deeply questioned whether I truly loved Miyazawa Kenji.
Q: What is the actual structure of the recitals like?
A: My recitations are titled Rōdokuya and last for around 90 minutes. They consist of a 60-minute fairy tale with talk intervals as well as 8-10 verses’ worth of poetry recitals. I don’t just read my favourite works – the audience would get bored if you dont’ change the programme for every show. My audience isn’t limited to Miyazawa Kenji fans, plus my own fans may not even be that interested in Miyazawa Kenji himself…
At one point, I did not like to do talks. Due to my hesitant nature, I would inadvertently end up making negative remarks during talk segments. You know, there are these questionnaire forms where you can write your comments directly and once in a while I’d request for them to be filled in and people would write their honest opinions for my reference. It may not have been my intention to express things in a negative manner; sometimes I am just being frank and telling it as it is, but people do get hurt and upset by my words. I’ve even read harsh comments questioning whether I actually dislike Miyazawa Kenji in reality, or saying that they don’t want a person who dislikes Kenji to recite his poems – whatever their views, I am thankful and I will take them on board and learn from them.
I honestly love Miyazawa Kenji’s poetry. However, I am not necessarily a Miyazawa Kenji fanatic. Regardless, I do believe that if I could give meaning to why I was born in Iwate and became a seiyuu, then what I should do is start performing Miyazawa Kenji recitals at this age.
Poetry recitals are extremely difficult for me. There are many words I do not comprehend, and there are many works that are too profound for me. As I do not limit myself to reciting only my favourite poems, it is a personal battle for me to wrestle with these esoteric works. As I’m pondering the magnitude of the task that I chose to take on (laughs), 5 years have already passed.
I want to treasure nobody else’s voice but my own
Q: How different do you feel Rōdokuya is compared to your other works?
A: I think it’s completely different. Rōdokuya is like running a long distance marathon. I do it alone for a long time, without anyone else’s help until I reach the finishing line.
Q: What do you believe is the ‘originality’ of Kuwashima Houko?
A: I think everyone thinks this way, but I am using my own voice to perform – so maybe I’d say ‘my voice’, which is unlike anyone else’s. It’d be nice to hear people say ‘this is what this would sound like if it was Kuwashima Houko playing the role’. I can’t say that I’ve done anything in any wildly popular show that you could call my signature role as yet; but I have to a certain extent, been transforming into and getting up and close with a variety of roles (laughs). There have been a few more eccentric roles coming in lately (laughs), and others that staff members and scriptwriters have been writing with me in mind. That really amazes me and I’m grateful. To be able to imagine a part of my voice and then illustrate it [in a character]; it makes me wonder how the role would change if someone else were to put their voice to it instead of me. It’s really nice to hear things like that.
Q: Is there anything you’d like to do in the future?
A: I’ll just go with the flow, as much as I possibly can (laughs). Slowly, along the stream, but if I have to fight against the current then so be it. I hope to live my life the way I want to (laughs)
Q: Do you have any advice for people who are hoping to become seiyuu?
A: If you’ve taken steps in moving towards your goal, that means you’re already running the race. People who can do that will definitely be able to take hold of an opportunity when it comes along. Having said that, I think it’s important to be humble. If you are merely satisfied to grab onto one chance. do be warned that there may not be anything else waiting for you down the road. For example, it is fine to celebrate landing a single leading role in an anime but if you have no idea of what you want to do after that, it will be tough to keep going on as a seiyuu.
What is important is to know what you want to do once you’ve become a seiyuu. There are many different types of seiyuu out there, and I’m using myself as an example here, but I went from thinking ‘I just want to perform’, to adjusting my trajectory as I progressed onwards, orbiting to where I am presently situated. Now, I can confidently say that I was not mistaken. It is imperative to always visualize what lies ahead. When you are a seiyuu, what do want to achieve? Do you truly want to be a seiyuu? I recommend that you look inside yourself once again, to find the answer.