Starting as a Monkey and Ending as a Fox
The Kyogen-shi acting on stage speaks in a very loud voice and uses amusing gestures when he laughs, or cries, or is in pain. Anyone watching Kyogen for the first time will be surprised at just how exaggerated the acting is, in comparison with a normal play. Each of these performances is called a kata, perfected over hundreds of years and inherited unchanged.
Even today, children born into Kyogen-shi families are rigorously taught these kata by their parents from the age of 2-3 years old. Around the age of 4, they make their stage debut playing the role of a small monkey. They then grow up learning lots of roles and after the age of 20, they work for the leading role in the Fishing Fox play to complete their training and become a fully-fledged Kyogen-shi. In the world of Kyogen, this is referred to as "starting as a monkey and ending as fox."
A scene from The Ibaraki Kid, a new Kyogen in which local children also participated. Kyogen-shi dons wooden masks to play the parts of demons and animals (Courtesy of Ibaraki City Cultural Foundation.)
Although the traditions of Kyogen are guarded and passed down from parent to child to grandchild, it is not only old tales that are performed on stage; new, modern style works are also released.
In fall of 2013, the new work The Ibaraki Kid was staged in Ibaraki City, Osaka Prefecture. This was a new Kyogen based on a locally-told tale of a demon. In the tale the friendly demon appears on stage with a young man whose hairstyle is all standing up on end, as is the fashion nowadays. The young man wreaks havoc with his mischief, but finally mends his ways after he is admonished by the demon. Taking advantage of this Kyogen performance, a workshop was held in Ibaraki City for local children to learn about Kyogen. The children who participated in the workshop gave great performances in the staged production, playing the parts of children who were friends with the demon.
Learning Proper Acting
These kinds of workshops and theatre appreciation groups aimed at children are held all over Japan.
A practice session where Kyogen-shi Manzo Nomura leads a workshop at the “Toshima Children’s Kyogen Studio. (Photo courtesy of Toshima Future Culture Foundation.)
Proper performance training from Manzo Nomura (Courtesy of Toshima Future Culture Foundation.)
Children act out the tale of the Mimic at a recital held at the rehearsal studio to commemorate the end of a workshop. (Courtesy of Toshima Future Culture Foundation.)
In the summer of 2011, a foundation in Toshima-ward, Tokyo held a workshop that lasted six months where elementary school children learned the basics of Kyogen under Manzo Nomura, who is one of Japan's leading Kyogen-shi. Initially the children were bewildered and not able to speak well in the unique Kyogen way, throwing their voices from their stomachs; nor were they able to “shuffle” properly without raising the soles of their feet from the floor as they walked. However, they rose to the challenge to give a full-scale performance at an event in Tokyo this fall.
A scene from Busu played by junior high school students from “Nabari Children’s Kyogen” at the “Folk Art in Toshima” event. Nabai Children’s Kyogen was the first workshop started in Japan in 1991 and it offers children proper tuition from professional Kyogen-shi. (Courtesy of Toshima Future Culture Foundation.)
Children standing for applause at the end of a stage performance. (Photo courtesy of Toshima Future Culture Foundation.)
The children acted out the tale of the Mimic. It is a story about a master who tells his servant "do as I say." The servant misunderstands this as meaning that he should mimic his master. The master gets angry as the servant ends up imitating his gestures one by one until he needs mimic no more. Whereupon the servant himself gets angry in the same way as his master and ends up throwing a guest out.
Junior-high and high school students from the "Nabari Children's Kyogen" who are learning Kyogen performance in Nabari City, Mie Prefecture also took part in the event and gave a very expressive performance of Busu. Both commanded great performances and there was much laughter and great applause from the audience.
Through the hearts of these children, Kyogen, the art of laughter, will securely be passed down to the future.