Kyougen: Farce and Folly on the Stage

What is Kyougen? Why, I’m glad you asked. Cue 1950′s Informational Video music.

Kyougen (or Kyōgen) is a traditional Japanese form of comedic theatre that developed alongside Noh as intermission shorts aimed at making the audience laugh. It has since become its own rich art form performed separately from Noh. The stories are often parodies of Noh dramas and usually feature the servants Tarouka-jya and Jirouka-jya as the main character(s). These two and their master are usually up to some sort of shenanigans often involving sake.

The movement and voice of Kyougen are highly stylized and old, not unlike the movements and voice of original Shakespearean theatre. Much of the language used in Kyougen (and in Noh, for that matter) is no longer used in everyday speech, so even native Japanese speakers can have a hard time following it. The costuming is very traditional with kimono; hakama; and a sensu, a large folding fan, as an ever-present prop. Even the tabi worn during performance are special: dyed a particular shade of yellow and very expensive. They are only worn during rehearsal or performance.

by Joseph Woodworth

Unlike Noh, there are no masks unless a character is a fantasy creature like a demon or such. There is also no stage make-up or hair styling: hair is to be worn simply with no decoration beyond what is called for in the costume. This is because the focus of Kyougen is the story. Kyougen literally translated means “crazy words” or “mad speech.” It is the words and actions of the actor, not the actor’s appearance, that are meant to portray the story.

From what I’ve been told, there are two main families of Kyougen (there are more, I’m sure, but this is what I’ve been told). They are the Nomura family, now residing in the current capital of Tokyo and the Shigeyama family, residing in the old capital of Kyoto. The troupe I’ll be performing with is the latter. Apparently, the Nomura family became attached to various samurai and noble families. As a result, the style became more formal and strict. Meanwhile, the Shigeyama family’s style became more open and relaxed. Or so I’ve been told (I’ll be saying that a lot).

I got involved in Kyougen almost by accident: a friend of mine invited me and some others to witness his JTE performing with an amateur Kyougen group in Kyoto back in mid-February. I’d always enjoyed watching the short Kyougen pieces performed by Nomura Mansai on Nihongo de Asobo (a fun TV program, I recommend it highly), but had yet to see any in person. After the performance, my friend introduced me to his JTE, and we talked quite a bit. I told her of my work in theatre, and she invited me to come watch a rehearsal. I happily accepted! So, after clearing it with her Master, I was able to sit in on an actual rehearsal a month after that performance. It was all downhill from there.

I am rather lucky, however, to have found an open amateur group like this. Usually, traditional Japanese arts are kept within the family: the father teaching the son from a very early age. Beyond being kept in the family, teachers will sometimes take apprentices. These apprentices are present at every rehearsal, learn the script from every play & are often in charge of being ‘on book’ while others perform or rehearse. From what I know, they are still all men; all professional Kyougen performers are still men. However, times are changing – a mere 10 or so years ago, women weren’t even allowed in amateur troupes. Now amateur groups seem to be getting more popular, and this one in particular has a good number of female performers.

by Joseph Woodworth

It’s not cheap to be an amateur performer, though. Only professionals make any money; amateurs have to actually pay to perform! We pay for lessons (¥7000 per month); the special tabi (around ¥20,000 if you choose to buy a pair); and rental of the stage, costumes, and dressers depending on how many parts you are playing. I’m playing one part, so my total is a measly ¥18,000.

Plus, performers making their debut are expected to provide a small gift to each of the other actors as a “thank you for supporting my debut” kind of thing. No more than ¥500 each, or so I’ve been told. Plus, there’s the after-enkai, but that total is also worked into the rental fee, so I can’t say how much it is for certain. But when you think about it, it’s not unlike enrolling in a college course—you pay for the hourly credits, the textbooks & the materials needed for study. I think of it as added incentive to do my absolute best in the short amount of time I have.

Any other questions? Slips off cardigan, slips on smoking jacket. Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed the informational segment of the program. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll retire to the lounge with my brandy and cigar. Good day.

Paulette as Tarouka-jya in "Shibiri"

Paulette as Tarouka-jya in "Shibiri" Photo by Joseph Woodworth


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