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BIG IN JAPAN
Yamaguchi Takashi

Yamaguchi Takashi
Courtesy of Sachiko Promotions

Actor Yamaguchi Takashi bubbles with the energy of a child. This year he undertook a Shikoku temple pilgrimage, an experience he recommends as a way to understand Japan and "real life."

Yamaguchi is perhaps best known for his samurai dramas and long stint as emcee of television' Quiz Time Shock program, yet there is a lot more to the man than meets the eye. Paralleling his acting career in television, film and theater, Yamaguchi has spent a life immersed in traditional Japanese music. He is a unique breed who has chosen to embrace the new, while maintaining a firm grip on the past.

Born on Awajishima, the birthplace of puppet theatre, Yamaguchi ironically admits having hated it as a child. He preferred his mother's koto music instead, explaining that "koto has a deeper sophistication, a clear sound that is attractive to children." At fifteen, Yamaguchi moved to Tokyo. He entered Waseda University to study English literature, but soon quit to enroll in NHK's acting institute. It wasn't long before Yamaguchi discovered kabuki and gradually came to enjoy it, along with noh and kyogen, which he has found helpful for his acting. At twenty he began playing shamisen, and has continued to play for forty years. Combining these dual interests, Yamaguchi has written modern plays which incorporate traditional Japanese music on the stage.

He is clearly a man of many passions. "Always doing something develops people, polishes them," he says. "Music and acting. It's all connected." He obviously enjoys the struggle involved in maintaining both. "Kurushii. It's a lot of work." He brings out a book of sutras from his bag. "Playing shamisen is like this pilgrimage. You walk and walk and walk. You are tired and yet you keep going. The walking is like meditation. It is a process. And then finally, you reach a temple. Ah! Paradise!" For this reason, Yamaguchi prefers acting on stage to television. "Even amateurs can act on TV. They shouldn't be allowed to, but they do. The stage is serious and the work is severe. Like a golf tournament, you can't do it over, so it has to be good."

As for the traditions of Japan, Yamaguchi is confident about their survival. After living abroad, Yamaguchi says, he realized what it is to know another culture and what it means to have an irreplaceable identity of your own. "Everyone has a traditional part inside. It's their identity, and that will never change. Even with new fads and interests, people will keep digging out the older traditions and re-discovering them." Yamaguchi himself is a prime example. For twenty-five years, he travelled all over Japan recording local folk stories. When asked why, he replies that these stories are minshu no geino, arts of the people, and felt a need to preserve them. For seven years, FM-Tokyo broadcast the stories on the radio; he has also published them in three books, "Mukashibanashi deai no tabi." Yamaguchi says, "Things like festivals and puppet theater and minyo used to be enjoyed in daily life. Now that people need more stimulation, they are leaving these dying arts for something new." Yamaguchi brings up America's Appalachia region and Alex Haley's "Roots" to illustrate. "You have to find your own identity." His large brown eyes twinkle. "Life is chaos. It's through art that we can find the meaning."

Janet Pocorobba and Makoto Nishimura

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