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Ever since its establishment in the Muromachi period, Kyogen has always been
considered a subordinate of the Noh Theater. It has been regarded as something
of less seriousness and of only a simplistic comedy play, which can never stand
on the same level as the more sophisticated and serious Noh. Whenever I hear
people talk about Noh and Kyogen, people refer to Kyogen as easier to be
understood of the two and funny, therefore there is no need to dwell deeper. For
example, a commentator at the beginning of Noh/Kyogen performance in Kanagawa
Pref. Introduced the Noh play, Takasago, in great detail. He touched on the
historical siginificance of Shinto shrines at Takasago and Suma and on how yugen
is portrayed in the play, whereas Kyogen was introduced in rather shallow
manner. He explained that since Kyogen is so much easier to watch and comprehend
there is not much need for him to go into detail.
The commentator does have a point in that Kyogen is easier to follow than Noh
plays when one considers only the outer surface plot line. In order to follow a
Noh play, one has to have some historical knowledge of the time and of the
complex emotion the characters are trying to portray, whereas Kyogen is, simply,
about silly lords, servants, son-in-law, priest, devils whom everybody can
somehow relate to. Yet in this paper, I will make a statement that Kyogen is not
just about following the basic plot line and laughing about the silly acts of
the characters. In order to really appreciate Kyogen, one has to try to break
through the outer surface and try to reach the core, where the essence is. And
the essence, I believe is that these silly characters are not much different
from us, the audience. Thus we must take a look at these characters and their
actions and compare them to our own. The mistakes we make everyday and the
embarrassing moment we face everyday are being portrayed by these Kyogen actors
and in the play for us. I believe Kyogen has been looked down upon throughout
its history in the shadow of Noh Theater. I am arguing here to reconsider this
distorted perspective on Kyogen by looking deeper into what I think is the
essence of Kyogen.
First, I will present some of the comments made by scholars and critiques who
have helped shape this distorted view that Kyogen is something less than Noh.
The Japanese encyclopedia says that Kyogen is a light, comedy play, which gets
played in between more serious and heavy Noh. It goes on to say that Kyogen is
played in order to loosen up the audience from the stiff performance of Noh.
Again this causes problem, because it bases its comment on the premise that
Kyogen is not a serious play. In order to enhance this distortion, other
respected scholars have commented on the same line. Ienaga Saburo states in
Nihon Bunka Shi that the manner of Kyogen, its bluntness, lacks profoundness and
its structure is very weak in imagination and uniquess. He goes on to argue that
one has to admit the artistic shallowness of Kyogen when compared to the Noh
theater (p. 212).
Tada Tomio in his article for Nogakushichou, touches on the shallowness of
Kyogen compared to Noh. He states that Noh, with is uniqueness and imagainative
manner, has created a world of its own. Whereas Kyogen lacks the proufound
script that is avilable for Noh and is only a skit for elementary kids. Tada
argues strongly the danger of performing only Kyogen, because he believes that
Kyogen is not a comedy in its true nature, since it does not try to answer the
problems we humans face everyday.
In my view, these two scholars are missing the whole point of how to view
Kyogen. They are only following the story line and forgetting the fact that the
silly situation like the one in Kamabara can happen to anybody. In Kamabara, the
husband decides to kill himself out of the fight he had with his wife. Yet he is
not able to follow through all the way and decides to postpone his death. It may
not be in the exactly same situation, where you might be faced to commit a
suicide but it could be in a less dramatic manner. For example, a friend of mine
at a flute jury test was asked the question, ?what do you play?? up on the
stage. The jury obviously wanted to know what piece she was playing with her
flute, but she answered, ?um, the flute.? This may seem stupid on her part,
but when one considers the fact that she was nervous and stressed out from
playing in front of people up on a stage, one can feel sympathy towards this
poor flute player. My point is that these embarrassing moments, where you wish
you have more guts and wit to do something about it, happens daily.
Yamamoto Tojiro, the head of the Yamamoto family of the Okura school, argues
in his book Kyogen no Susume that Kyogen is meant to be not dramatic and
imaginative. He does this by citing the term, ?dramatic?, from a Japanese
dictionary. It says, ?dramatic like seeing a play, not ordinary and does not
happen everday?. He argues that this is exactly why Kyogen lacks this ?dramatic?
nature, because it has to be ordinary, something that happens everday. The
audience must be able to feel that they are not much different from the actors
that are portraying the situation (p. 25).
Yamamoto also gives the reader a good example to illustrate his argument. He
asks us, the reader, how we feel when we hear about a major accident or disaster
like a plane crash and see the list of names who died in the accident. He
suggests that we would all feel sorry for the unfortunate disaster and
sympathize with the family who have lost their loved ones, but do we ?feel?
the death that is encroaching us daily. When a ?dramatic? disaster happens
it is not ordinary and does not happen everday, therefore we are able to
differentiate ourselves from what is shown on the news or the newspaper. He goes
onto suggests that the our reaction would be different if the news was more
open-ended and not as specific as a plane crash. For example, when we read in
the paper that the number of heart attacks in middle age men are increasing,
then you start to wonder about your own health and feel the death that can reach
you anytime. Yamamoto?s point is that this more open-ended news about heart
attacks is Kyogen itself. It is something that incorporates the mass and does
not locate single victim or casualties. It is something that everbody can relate
to, where people can place themselves in the shoe of the son-in-law, or the
Kyogen and Its History:
In order to understand why Kyogen came to be perceived the way it has, we
must look at the history and the path Noh and Kyogen took. In the Nara period,
an art form called sangaku was introduced from China. This new form came to
stand in an opposite direction from gagaku that was being played in the high
court. Sources state that sangaku was full of acrobats, songs, and dances and
was welcomed by the commoners.
With the Heian period, sangaku came to be known as sarugaku, saru meaning
monkey. Sarugaku dealt with similar themes as Kyogen plays today. One of its
play called Azumaudo no Uikyounobori dealt with a country man visiting the
capital for the first time and foolishly being intrigued by things in the
capital (p. 7, Kobayashi et. al).
It was in the Muromachi period, when the term Kyogen and Noh was used for the
first time. It was the emergence of Muromachi feudalistic society and the
emergence of two geniuses, Kanami and Zeami, that allowed the differentiation of
Noh and Kyogen. Before, the two were of the same origin, but with the Ashikaga
shogun in power, he decided to empower Noh as an art for the nobles. This action
to elevate the status of Noh from an art of the commoners to the nobles led to
the present day degradation of Kyogen. Since Kyogen was culmination of silly
movements, imitation, songs done usually in adlib, the bakufu did not pay as
much attention as it did to the cultivation of the Noh Theater. Thus from here
on, the two art form, which belonged to the same art in the beginning, came to
lead a different path; Noh as the elite, sophisticated play and Kyogen as the
simple, silly comedy.
Lowering the status of Kyogen in Muromach period under Ashikaga family was
its only beginning. The Edo period, especially, created a society where laughter
and silly acts were debased. The Edo Bakufu was a regime about total control and
did nothing much in promoting artistic sides of the Japanese. It created a rigid
class system, which eliminated any kind of human emotions or feelings to
develop. It closed Japan from the outside and the inside. It seized to have any
relationship with foreign countries other than the Dutch and the Chinese and
also prohibited any religion other than Buddhism inside Japan. In such a rigid
society, Kyogen, with its silly story lines, were lowered in status even more
(p. 20, Yamamoto).
The position that Kyogen was lowered to was even more enhanced after the
Meiji Restoration in 1868. The new government now turned their back to anything
traditional and pursued everything in European style. Then the hierarchical
governement turned militaristic and had no space for something as ?unproductive?
as Kyogen to grow.
The Essence of Kyogen in Actual Plays:
The essence of Kyogen, I believe, is that human beings are all weak. This
theme that we are all weak is represented by silly lords and stupid son-in-law
and the plays themselves ask us, the audience, ?don?t we make those silly
mistakes that this son-in-law is making right now on stage??. According to
Yamamoto, almost all Kyogen plays involve with this theme that people are
innately weak (p. 54). Here, I will present number of plays as examples to help
illustrate this universal theme.
Sadogitsune is a good example to portray human weakness. It is a story about
two peasants from an island of Sado and Echigo prefecture. The two are on their
way to pay tax in Miyako, when a discussion of which prefecture is better
begins. The two starts competing with each other by naming items that can be
found in their homeland. The peasant from Echigo at one point asks the Sado
peasant if the island of Sado is home to any foxes. Since Sado is an island,
foxes cannot be found, but out of this feeling of competition, peasant from Sado
shouts out that there are plenty of foxes found in Sado. Echigo peasant doubts
his remark and the two decides to bet their sword by asking the tax official for
guidance when they get to the capital. The story ends up with the peasant from
Sado failing to imitate a cry of a fox and loses the bet.
The most important part of this play, I think, is the moment when the Sado
peasant lies by saying that foxes can be found anywhere on his island. This
small lie he made becomes the central issue in this play. This peasant probably
had some kind of inferiority complex towards mainland Japan, thus made this
small lie about a fox, which does not really help judge if the Sado island is as
?good? as the mainland. Yet he did not have that little courage to admit the
truth. He had to lie to cover up whatever complex he had towards ?losing?
against the mainland in any means. With this silly mistake, he ended up losing
the bet and his precious sword.
If we take this peasant?s situation to our everyday life, I think we can
see things similar happening in our lives. As for me, I could think of tons of
situation when somebody points some kind of weakness about myself, which I do
not want to admit, so subconsciously lying in order to cover up the
embarrassment. All you need is a little courage to admit the truth, but I do not
think many of us has that.
Another example is the play Okadayu, which is a play about a son-in-law
paying tribute to his wife?s father for the first time. At his father-in-law?s
house, the son-in-law have few drinks and is offered a type of rice cake, which
he finds very delicious. The father-in-law tells him to ask his daughter, hence
the son-in-law?s newly wedded wife, to make him more when he gets back home.
He tells him that it is called okadayu and also that name appears in one of a
song and gives him the title. The son-in-law returns home to his wife and tries
to remember what he ate at the father-in-law?s house. With all the stress of
paying tribute to his father-in-law over with, the name of the delicious food he
had completely slipped out of his mind.
At first look, this story may seem stupid and unrealistic. You might be
thinking, ?how can one forget whatever he had for a snack, especially if he
liked it so much??. The only reason why the son-in-law forgot the name of the
rice cake was that he has just finished a nerve wrecking ceremony of paying
tribute to his father-in-law for the first time. He must have been nervous
throughout the time he was there and must have been relieved when he left the
I, myself, was in a similar situation when my mind went totally blank.
Recently, I was in an interview for a position in company in Tokyo. The
interview took rather long time and was intense throughout. At the very end of
the session, the interviewer asked me if there were other companies I was also
looking into. The interview was almost over and when this question came up, I
totally forgot the name of all the other companies I was looking into. The more
I thought about it, the further those names receeded. I think the situation is
similar to the one in Okadayu. Sometimes people forget or things just slip out
of their mind when under stress. Kyogen plays are presenting these moments when
human weakness rises to the surface.
Throughout history, Kyogen has had rough time, being in the shadow of the Noh
Theater. After the end of the WWII, there has been new light in Kyogen. The
popularity has been steadly increasing and series of new and young actors are
starting to bloom. With the new promising actors like Izumi Motoya of the Izumi
school and Nomura Mansai of the Nomura family, I think, the future of Kyogen is
bright. At the same time the audience must develop a stance where deeper reading
of the performance is encouraged. The audience must dwell deeper into the
essence and not just follow the story line in order to fully appreciate Kyogen.
Work Cited Page
l Ienaga, Saburo. Nihon Bunka Shi. Kodansha Press, Tokyo; 1967.
l Izumi, Motoya. A performance of Sadogitsune and Okadayu at Atsugi-shi Civic
Hall, Kanagawa pref. Dec. 24th 2000.
l Kobayashi, Seki et. al. Kyogen Handbook. Sanseido Press; Tokyo, 1995.
l Tada, Tomio. ?Kigeki to shite no Kyogen no ichi? Nogaku Shichou. Vol.
12, 13, 1960.
l Yamamoto, Noritada. An interview at A.S.I.J. Tokyo. Jan. 14th 2001.
l Yamamoto, Tojiro. Kyogen no Susume. Tamagawa University Press, Tokyo; 1993.
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