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Actors in Cultural Role-reversal
Ishiyama Yuta's future was determined by a glance at the television screen. The image of the Monkey King in a Peking Opera performance captivated the seven-year-old so much that he began an odyssey to master the traditional Chinese theatrical art.

For nine years, he studied the Chinese language and Peking Opera basics after school, and then enrolled for a further nine years of professional training at the Beijing-based Central School of Traditional Chinese Operas. Ishiyama recently joined the Chinese Peking Opera Theater, becoming China's first foreign Peking Opera actor of professional caliber.

"When I first dreamt of being a Peking Opera actor, I never realized how difficult -- how painful -- the training is. But once the obsession to perform on stage takes hold, it's impossible to resist. And the art itself is so amazing; the deeper you dig, the more you find," enthuses the 27-year-old performer.

The newest member of the troupe had no expectations of performing a leading role anytime soon -- there are many more experienced performers ahead of him in the country's top Peking Opera theater, compounded by the fact that his specialty role, the chou, or clown, is traditionally a supporting role. In Shanghai, however, he will star in two shows, which are part of a series of performances commemorating the 30th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between China and Japan.

"I feel extremely lucky to be able to do this," he says in his small hotel room, surrounded by a heap of shabby exercise shoes and costumes. "This is such a wonderful opportunity. I know I have to turn back into a long tao (small supporting role) again when I return to my theater, so I'm eager to give audiences my finest work."

Ishiyama will co-present the performance with the young Chinese Peking Opera actor Yan Qingu, one of the best chou of his generation -- and a student of the Japanese theatrical art, Kyogen.

Yan, a member of the Shanghai Peking Opera Theater, is unusual as a Peking Opera performer -- he has a master's degree in theater and a passion for Japanese culture. While he was still at the Shanghai Traditional Chinese Opera School, Yan performed in Japan. "At that time, Japanese audiences were showing special interest in Peking Opera," he explains, "and my visits led me to the culture of the country."

He began to study Japanese in his early 20s, but his decision to study Kyogen in Japan was only made last year. His reasons are eerily similar to Ishiyama's: He became obsessed with the art of Kyogen after watching it on TV.

Kyogen, for aesthetic reasons, was assigned Noh theater roles, and for a long time was only performed in the intermission between Noh performances, as a humorous instrument to neutralize the serious theme of the opera.

A classical Japanese comic theater dating back 1,200 years ago, Kyogen dialogue is a somewhat stylized form of the common spoken language of the Muromachi Period (1380-1466), while the language employed in the Noh theater is highly literary in style.

"I am also interested in Noh, but Kyogen is much closer to the chou role in Peking Opera, and I can absorb more to add texture to my own chou performances," says Yan. Despite his fluent Japanese, learning his Kyogen lines has been a headache. "Even the Japanese may not understand what these ancient lines mean, to say nothing of an expatriate like me," he says, recounting that he had spent a month remembering the lines for the show "pen shan," which he will perform this afternoon. "To tell the truth, I am haunted by the prospect of forgetting my lines onstage," he says with a slight smile.

As a Peking Opera actor, Yan is well known for his performance of the Monkey King, a role usually taken by a chou. Thirteen years ago, when Ishiyama was still a student, he went backstage after Yan had performed a Monkey King piece in Japan. "He was so great, and his interpretation of the Monkey King helped me to make the decision to come to China," says Ishiyama. "But I never expected that I would have the chance to perform with him on the same stage."

Yan, for his part, says, "Ishiyama's perseverance is commendable - Peking Opera training is very cruel, and he only began professional training at the age of 17, when he was not a kid any more, which is more difficult," says Yan. But, he notes, it is difficult for a foreigner to find the core of Peking Opera.

Even a person like Ishiyama, who speaks flawless Chinese? "Yes, even Ishiyama," says Yan. "Take me as an example: I could never learn Kyogen as perfectly as a Japanese actor. It's the same thing."

Even so, both are persevering in their quest. Ishiyama will fly back to Beijing to continue his low-paid long tao job after the show, because "it's only a beginning, not the ending," he believes; Yan will continue his study in Japan with a new 40-minute Kyogen play which will have five times more lines than the ones in "pen shan."

Rarely have two individuals strived so hard to understand part of a culture not their own and, in spite of the limitations, continue to seek perfection.

(eastday.com September 10, 2002)

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