Kyogen is a type of play passed down from ancient times in Japan. It is a "comic” play where bright, humorous characters take the stage and make the audience laugh with their silly talk and strange movements. Kyogen is a style of acting that has remained unchanged for hundreds of years and is acclaimed throughout the world as "the Art of Laughter." There is an increase in the number of children learning how to appreciate it, and they will protect this splendid, important cultural heritage and continue it into the next generation. Some of them are trained by professional Kyogen-shi (performer) and give a full-scale performance on stage.
A scene from the Mimic a story performed by children at "Folk Art in Toshima", hosted in Toshima-ward, Tokyo. (Courtesy of the Toshima Future Culture Foundation.)
Handing Down 600 Years of Tradition
A formal "Noh Stage" where Kyogen is performed. These days the stage is built indoors, but it still has a roof attached to the top of four pillars. The Kagami-Ita (paneled backdrop) on the wall at the back of the stage simply depicts an old pine tree and virtually no props or stage equipment is used. (Photo courtesy of Cerulean Tower Noh Theater.)
Kyogen originated some 600 years ago and is older than Kabuki, the most well-known of Japan's traditional performing arts. It is said that an old art form of that era evolved and gave birth to two forms of theatrical performance; namely, Kyogen and "Noh." Kyogen expresses a story by means of dialogue between the stage characters, while Noh players wear masks on their faces and express the story mainly through the use of dance and music. In many cases both theatrical performances are still acted out on the same stage and this single cultural experience has been designated as "Intangible Cultural Heritage."
World-wide it is unusual to find an example of a single field of drama that is simply "comedy" and although Kyogen is said to be the "art of laughter" it is ok not to strictly think of it as so. Its repertoire includes many stories of human shortcomings that occur in everyday life, wrapped up in humor; and you can feel the "laughter" and "ridicule" that can even be understood by people living in today's world. And if the repertoire includes the appearance of animals and gods, you will likely be able to enjoy a world of fantasy, such as that in picture books of old tales.
On the Kyogen stage, the acting ability of the Kyogen-shi is the decisive factor in how amusing the play is. Here we see a performance by Sengoro Shigeyama, the descendant of a family of Kyogen-shi that has been going for around 400 years, as he uses a folding fan to eat syrup in the tale of Busu. (Courtesy of Ibaraki City Cultural Foundation.)
For example there is the famous tale of Busu (deadly Wolf's Bane). The story goes that two servants are given a pail by their master and ordered to "carefully guard it, as it contains the deadly poison Busu." However, the two servants end up eating the contents of the pail, after finding it is sweet syrup. Having eaten it all up, the two servants realize they will be in trouble and deliberately break one of their master's treasures to invent an excuse to give to their master when he gets angry; namely, "we ate the Busu to try and kill ourselves by way of apology...." When members of the audience see how full of contentment the servants look eating a delicious snack, they cannot help but think "Oh they really couldn't help it!" and they feel like forgiving the servants on the master's behalf.