Donald Keene’s son’s musical performance pays tribute to his father who revived the traditional Japanese game

A photo of Donald Keene and his adopted son Seiki is seen during an event in Tokyo’s Chiyoda district on July 12, 2022. (Mainichi/Chinami Takeichi)

TOKYO — Donald Keene’s adopted son, Seiki Keene, paid tribute to his father, who helped revive a long-lost traditional Japanese play, through a shamisen performance at the Mainichi Newspapers Co. headquarters in Tokyo on July 12.

Seiki strives to fulfill his late father’s wish that he continue performing shamisen for traditional Japanese Bunraku puppet shows, as well as his duty to pass on Keene’s scholarly legacy and memory as the head of the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation.

The 72-year-old shamisen, or three-stringed lute, player met the late scholar in the fall of 2006. Seiki, who was looking for a mentor at the time, became determined to seek advice from Keene after reading his work on Bunraku, which he thought was “easy to follow, academic and fascinating”. Although he felt that other Japanese experts focused on the technical details of the art, he said Keene’s work explained Bunraku in a way that brought out its alluring qualities. Without a prior appointment, Seiki approached Keene during one of his lectures in Tokyo, and to his surprise, the famous scholar agreed to become his mentor.

Keene informed Seiki that the original script for the age-old Japanese play titled “Echigo no Kuni Kashiwazaki Kochi Hoin Godenki” (The Life of High Priest Kochi of Kashiwazaki, Echigo Domain), which was taken overseas during the Edo period (1603-1867), remained at the British Museum Library in London. This is a type called “Kojoruri”, an old form of classic “Ningyo Joruri” puppet plays. In 2009, the play was revived for the first time in 300 years in Seiki’s hometown of Niigata Prefecture, and Seiki also participated by performing the shamisen. The once-lost play was also performed in Britain in 2017.

In a room in the Palaceside Building, in front of an audience of around 50 people, Seiki strummed the shamisen with a plectrum and narrated the opening passages of “Oku no Hosomichi”, or “The Narrow Road to Oku”, by haiku poet Matsuo Basho. , which, according to Seiki, was his father’s “lifelong research topic”.

After the performance, he also shared rare stories about his father, including Keene’s experience as an interpreter for Crown Prince Akihito, now the Emperor Emeritus, when he visited Britain. to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, while Keene had been doing research. at the University of Cambridge. Keene had told Seiki that at the time he was unsure how to use honorifics in front of the Crown Prince, but continued to keep in touch with him and was occasionally invited to visit the Emperor Emeritus. and Empress Emeritus when still residing at the Imperial. Palace.

Seiki Keene is seen playing the shamisen while narrating poet Matsuo Basho’s “The Narrow Road to Oku” in Tokyo’s Chiyoda district on July 12, 2022. (Mainichi/Chinami Takeichi)

A home video also showed him cooking a steak while his favorite opera music played in the background. Seiki explained that his father often visited theaters to see live performances.

Seiki commented, “My dad and I often went to events where he provided explanations about Bunraku while I was performing. always encouraged to continue the shamisen for a lifetime, and I would like to dedicate my performances to him.”

A 72-year-old woman from Tokyo’s Nerima district commented, “As a child, I saw Keene on TV and remembered him as a Noh expert. Later, I think I saw him at music concerts. for a long time, and I would also like to read one of his books.”

(By Mainichi main writer Chinami Takeichi)