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Young Leader of Traditional Theater Becomes Media Star

February 1, 2000

Izumi mastered the difficult drama Kanaoka at age 15. (Izumi School of Kyogen)

At the beginning of September 1999, amid the lingering summer heat, 120 students and over 100 members of the general public gathered at Sanyo Gakuen University in Okayama Prefecture. Wearing white tabi (traditional Japanese socks with a split big toe to accommodate a thong sandal) and holding fans, the 220 participants performed a kouta (short noh song) and a dance under the guidance of a visiting professor, who then delivered a lecture on the day's theme, Japanese performance art theory. The lecturer was Motoya Izumi, age 25, the twentieth head master of the Izumi school of kyogen comic drama. (Kyogen pieces are traditionally performed as an interlude between separate noh plays.)

"I don't want them to just acquire knowledge," Izumi says. "I want them to be able to experience for themselves the appeal of kyogen." The course, which includes both lectures and instruction in performance, has been more successful than expected.

Izumi chose to focus his lectures on his real life experiences as a performing artist, and he seems to have struck a chord in many students' hearts.

A Fresh Wind
Izumi, who is himself still a student at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, is the iemoto (head) of the Izumi school, one of the two major kyogen schools. The Izumi school dates back to the later part of Japan's Muromachi period (1333-1573). Izumi began studying kyogen when he was just one and a half years old, and made his stage debut at age three. Izumi became the twentieth master of the Izumi school at age 21, after the sudden death of his father, who had been the nineteenth.

Now, as the head of a large school with a venerable tradition, he leads a very active life. In addition to giving over 250 kyogen performances a year, he also appears in Western-style plays, movies, TV dramas, and commercials. In this manner, Izumi is using a full range of modern expressive forms to keep alive a traditional art form. The activities of young kyogen performers like Izumi have sparked a new kyogen craze and are drawing a whole new group of fans to noh theaters.

Timeless Humor
Kyogen has a long history. Sangaku, a performance art brought over from China during the Nara period (710-794) evolved into sarugaku during the Heian period (794-1185). During the Muromachi period, an actor, playwright, and critic named Zeami developed noh as a highly distilled form of drama incorporating song and dance. Dialogue-centered kyogen evolved alongside noh, meanwhile, as a comic counterpoint.

Kyogen revolves around familiar characters who speak in the everyday language of their time. Over the past 600 years, it seems, the things that make people laugh have not changed all that much: Kyogen can be readily understood and thoroughly enjoyed by modern audiences.

"Kyogen practice is a lot more fun than I expected," said a university student who took one of Izumi's courses. "I'm going to stick with the course till the end, and not miss a single day."

Both kyogen and Izumi seem to be attracting a lot of new fans.

Motoya Izumi's older-sister, Junko Izumi, is herself a kyogen performer--the first-ever female professional. Click here to read her interview in Nipponia.

Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.