Kyōgen: The Comedy of Human Life through Centuries


"Kyogen Scene LACMA M.79.152.557" by Fæ


Japanese theatre famously consists of four forms: dramatic and elegant dance-theatre kabuki, intricate puppet performance bunraku, lyric and solemn nō, and light-hearted and playful kyōgen. The latter two are the oldest forms of traditional Japanese theatre. The first plays were performed long before William Shakespeare wrote Henry IV or King Lear and are making Japanese audiences burst with laughter or burst into tears to this day. Together nō and kyōgen create a unique dichotomy of tragedy and comedy, nōgaku.


Originally, most of the roles in nōgaku were occupied by Japanese men. Although modern theatre welcomes both women and foreign actors, it is still significantly more difficult for a woman to succeed as a professional nōgaku actress than for a man. This is largely due to limitations of deeply patriarchal Japanese social hierarchy.


While nō strived to preserve traditions and centuries-old performance practices, post-war kyōgen embraced rapid change of the modern world, allowing bilingual and even English plays on its stage, as well as experimental fusion with Western theatre forms. A fusion adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” was performed in early 1970s by a group of traditional Japanese actors, including nō and kyōgen actors. The conversational style of the narrative of Beckett’s play aligned harmoniously with their unique acting style, and the adaptation was well-received. However, the majority of nō and kyōgen plays performed nowadays are still based on the 257 classic scripts, since Japanese audience seems to prefer traditional theatre while remaining open-minded about fusion experiments.


"Neongyoku" by Yamaguchi Ryoshu (1886 - 1966)


Nō tells stories of fallen warriors and vengeful spirits, cruel gods and noble lords, blurring the line between the real world and the realm of the supernatural, accompanied by chanting and sounds of drums and flute. Nō is symbolic, introspective, and ethereal. Instead, Kyōgen focuses on the lives and beliefs of common people; lazy servants tricking their greedy masters, haughty priests stealing persimmons from farmers, mosquitos wrestling with men and being blown away by a swing of a fan. Simple, witty stories convey the unchangeable nature of human soul and allow the modern audience to see the reflection of their own foibles in archetypical characters from centuries ago.


When performed within the acts of nō play as an interlude, kyōgen is used to present a version of the same story from the perspective of a background character to make it more accessible and easier to understand for the general audience. It is then called ai-kyōgen, and lacks its distinct comical elements while retaining the archaic style of speech of Muromachi period. Ai-kyōgen is integral to the progression of the nō play.


Hon-kyōgen is a standalone form of kyōgen which can be performed both between nō plays and on its own. Its main purpose is to evoke laughter. With little stage prop and musical accompaniment, it relies strongly on the actors’ skills. The surrounding sounds, such as the creak of an old door – gyara gyara – or ring of a cracked temple bell – jaga jaga jaga – are delivered through onomatopoeia, which stimulates imagination, letting the audience fill in the missing pieces of the setting themselves and create a vivid image of the play in their minds.


The main character of almost every kyōgen play, regardless of their status, introduces themselves with the same phrase: “I’m from around here.” This creates a sense of relatability and connection, putting the character on the same level as the audience, unlike nō characters who are often portrayed as distant and elevated. “I’m from around here” is a birds-eye view of humanity which reveals flaws, hopes, and desires that everyone is susceptible to, be it a feudal lord from Edo period or a modern-day theatregoer.


Kyogen Performance at Goin Corner by ienyuan lee


In its early days kyōgen also served as a comic relief to alleviate the tension between different social classes. In a popular play called “Neongyoku”, a master orders his servant Taro-kaja to sing for him, but Taro-kaja comes up with various excuses to disobey the order. First, he claims that he can only sing when drinking, and the master offers him sake. Then he claims that he can only sing while lying down on his wife’s lap, and the master offers his own lap to Taro-kaja. Eventually, Taro-kaja gets so inebriated that he loses track of his lies and starts dancing, as his master angrily chases him away. The master was tricked by wily Taro-kaja, but in the end the established hierarchy was restored. This allowed both masters and servants among the audience to laugh at each other and at themselves without provoking hostility.


Contemporary kyōgen plays written in the post-war era also tackle social issues, such as immigration, financial debt, bureaucracy, and unemployment, making fun of modern society and government. Although these plays are rare and are mostly performed by amateur groups, they show how kyōgen gradually embraces modernization and adapts to the needs of the modern audience, evoking laughter and igniting compassion in people’s hearts, though making light of the complexity of human life.



Sources

1. Wells, M.A., Davis, J.M. (2006) Farce and satire in Kyogen. Understanding humor in Japan (pp.127-152) Wayne State University Press.

2. Kobayashi, S. and Kagaya, S. (2007) Kyōgen in the Postwar Era. Asian Theatre Journal (pp.144-177) University of Hawaii Press.

3. Brandon, J.R. ed. (1997) Nō and Kyōgen in the contemporary world. University of Hawaii Press.

4. Don Kenny, Kyogen in English. Retrieved March 17, 2022: http://kyogen-in-english.com/plays/

5. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2017, January 9). Noh theatre. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved March 17, 2022: https://www.britannica.com/art/Noh-theatre

6. Feldman, M. and Nixon, M. eds. (2009) The international reception of Samuel Beckett (ch.9) Bloomsbury Publishing

7. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (n. d.) Noh and Kyogen [Fact sheet]. Retrieved March 17, 2022: https://web-japan.org/factsheet/


Image sources

1. Image 1. Fæ (n. d.) Kyogen Scene LACMA M.79.152.557 [Photograph]. https://search.openverse.engineering/image/9aa07976-8aa3-490c-b615-25f31653df5a

2. Image 2. Yamaguchi Ryoshu (1927) Neongyoku [Photograph].

https://www.fujiarts.com/cgi-bin/item.pl?item=927679

3. Image 3. ienyuan lee (2015) Kyogen Performance at Goin Corner [Photograph].

https://web.archive.org/web/20161102120323/http://www.panoramio.com/photo/123815049

Author Photo

Lija Kocergina

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