by Samuel L. Leiter
Kyogen, Japan’s traditional comic theatre, dating back over 600 years, is making a brief return visit to the Japan Society in three pieces performed by the distinguished Mansaku-no-Kai Kyogen Company. Kyogen is closely associated with the more austere, thematically serious, classical music-drama called noh. Although kyogen is traditionally performed during the interludes on a traditional noh program, which contains multiple plays, kyogen–only programs are now common.
The three plays on view make a fine introduction to this ancient theatrical form, which, despite its reputation for comedy, often introduces elements of pathos as well. The performances take place on polished wooden flooring placed on the stage of the Lila Acheson Wallace Auditorium to simulate the unique arrangement of a noh-kyogen stage, with its four corner pillars and upstage-right bridgeway.
First up is Bonsan (The Dwarf Tree Thief), a purely comic, very simple number just long enough to get the evening off to a lighthearted start with a few good laughs. A man (Kazunori Takano), dressed in a costume suggesting his ordinariness, is upset because his well-off friend has an abundance of dwarf trees (bonsai) but won’t give him one, no matter how often he asks. He decides to try stealing one or two, but has to saw through a hedge to get into the house. The onomatopoeic sounds he makes as he saws get a chuckle, as do the other sounds he’s forced to produce when his sword-bearing friend (Shuichi Nakamura, December 10 and 12; Ren Naito, December 11), costumed like a high-placed samurai, investigates; aware of who the thief is, the friend at first teasingly pretends it must be a dog, so the thief howls like one. Soon the friend has the thief chattering like a monkey and improvising whatever a red snapper might sound like, only to conclude by chasing the thief off the stage.
The humor comes as much from the formalized kyogen acting style—with its impressive, guttural tones and extended vowels, masklike expressivity, and precisely calculated movements—as from the silliness of the childlike premise.
The second piece, Nasu no Yoichi (The Tale of Yoichi of Nasu), is not a conventional kyogen play but a monologue from a noh play, Yashima. Noh actors never appear in kyogen plays but many noh plays include a kyogen actor, often to provide a colloquial narrative explaining the situation (noh’s archaic dialogue is difficult to understand). Nasu no Yoichi is now generally omitted from Yashima but has come to be a stand-alone piece demonstrating an actor’s rhetorical powers. Unlike standard kyogen monologues in noh plays, this is a rather dramatic exposition of an episode in the famous chronicle, The Tales of the Heike, about the war between the 12th-century Heike and Genji clans.
The masterful troupe leader Mansaku Nomura, 84-years-old, remains on his knees throughout, wearing formal samurai garments—winged shoulder pieces and long, trailing hakama trousers—as he recounts the tale of the young archer Yoichi who, during the Battle of Yashima, was ordered by the Genji general Yoshitsune to meet the challenge of the Heike side and shoot a single arrow through a fan set on a boat from his horseback position on shore. Using only his fan, traditional Japanese theatre’s most versatile prop, the actor shifts positions as he assumes—more by attitude than vocal alteration—four different characters in the narration.
After the intermission, the robust kyogen Akutarō (Akutarō Reforms) is shown, its title role played by 49-year-old Nomura Mansai, popular in films, TV, and modern theatre, as well as kyogen. The heavily-bearded Akutarō’s uncle (Yukio Ishida) tries without success to dissuade his troublesome nephew from drinking so much. Akutarō gets so soused he falls asleep in the road. His uncle strips off Akutarō’s clothes and shaves his head and beard. He also tells the sleeping drunk that his name is now Namu-Amida-Butsu (“Praise to the almighty Buddha”). When Akutarō wakes, he’s not only shocked by his condition, but gets into an almost Abbot and Costello routine with a priest who seems to be chanting his name. By the end, though, a somewhat more pious mood prevails as he follows the praying priest.
The true test of the evening’s effect was the reaction of those who’d never seen kyogen before. If my guest’s joyful response was any indication, the performance had served its purpose, demonstrating the universal magic of laughter.
A Night of Kyogen with Mansaku Nomura
333 East Forty-Seventh Street, NYC
December 10, 11, 12
Photo:© Ayumi Sakamoto