This past Saturday before rehearsal I went to Munakata’s Yurix Performing Arts Center (I don’t know what a Yurix is…) to see the young kyōgen stars (sort of) of the Ōkura school’s Shigeyama family perform one traditional and four shinsaku (new) kyōgen. The event was illuminating, but curious, to say the least, as what the group performed really got me thinking about how amorphous kyōgen really is.
First there is the traditional side. I have already spoke about the idea that within every school (Ōkura, Izumi and Sagi) there are families (such as the Shigeyama’s, Nomura’s, etc) and within those families are different ways of performing. While the uniqueness of an actor is nothing new in the western world, because kyōgen is a traditional performing art, there is the expectation that what is being done is a preserved version of what once was. In the rules for being an intangible asset it says that it is expected of a recipient (person or place) that they will continue to maintain, with little deviation from, the style of the art that has been passed down through their respective generations. Typically, the weight of carrying on the family traditions resides primarily with the first born son of the main line. In the Shigeyama family, this is Sengorō XIV’s job today.
Then there is the innovation side. The Shigeyamas are kyōgen’s bad boys and are known collectively as “Ōtofu kyōgen.” In an interview with Sennojō Shigeyama the Japan foundation did, Sennojō explained that when his grandfather was performing, because his style was so “bland,” critics started calling Shigeyama kyōgen tofu kyōgen. However, this label was quickly embraced as a compliment by the family, and Sennojō suggests that because tofu goes with anything and everyone can enjoy it, being tofu is a good thing. I think this label enabled them to let their creative impulses fly in a way that may seem contrary to traditionalists. Sennojō, after all, was one of the first kyōgen actors whose inter-arts collaborations did not rock the foundations of the traditional performing arts world.
But Sennojō is not a first son, he is a second. The second, third and so on, born sons have more freedom to experiment because they typically aren’t saddled with the burden of exacting transmission. So, for example, since Sennojō was the second son of Sengoro XI, this is probably the reason why he had more freedom to pursue those non-traditional projects. Today. Sennojō’s son Akira and his son, Dōji, also enjoy such freedoms and have been long active in inter-cultural performances in Japan and abroad.
At Saturday’s performance, this push and pull between tradition and artistic innovation slapped me in the face. First and foremost is that while four of the five members of the production are not the main-line’s actors, Sengorō XIV is- in fact he the family namesake (as of 2016, which would explain his inclusion in this event, I think)! So what is the deal with him acting in these non-traditional kyōgen? More importantly, why are these plays being presented falling under the umbrella of kyōgen?
Watching the first play, the traditional Kaki Yamabushi, I could see how the Shigeyamas live up to their name while doing what most would call “kyōgen.” Compared to the Nomura kyōgen I had seen recently and the Sagi kyōgen I watch all the time, this was like kyōgen on speed. The gestures were bigger, the laughter more booming, the zaniness way more pronounced. Sengorō played the role of the offending yamabushi and watching him ravenously devour those persimmons spoke to the boldness of Shigeyama kyōgen. I found myself wondering if the Ōkura school’s 13th iemoto, Toraaki, who, if you remember criticized the Sagi kyōgen of the time for being “hectic” and “saying nonsense,” was spinning in his grave.
I then watched the group perform a collection of some truly odd plays. Form-wise, some could be considered kyōgen, while more extreme others were perhaps “inspired” by kyōgen and might better be considered experimental theatre. There was an air of modernity that all of the shinsaku kyōgen breathed, as they employed modern pop music, disco balls, sporadic contemporary dialogue, and other performing art forms. Michael Jackson’s moonwalk made not one, but two appearances!
At first, I grumbled “well, this isn’t kyōgen.” But then I thought, wait a minute, am I falling into the trap that all those traditionalists have set for me? I am in Yamaguchi to prove why traditional thinking has limited our understanding of kyōgen to the professional families and I am simultaneously lamenting innovation when I see it? What a hypocrite!
OK, this is kyōgen. So then is what I saw Shigeyama kyōgen because it employs Shigeyama style? Or is it Shigeyama kyōgen because it was performed by Shigeyama family actors? At what point does what a kyōgen performer does cease to be “kyōgen”?
Perhaps more important (to me, anyways) is at what point does kyōgen cease to be “Fill-in-the-blank-of-a-family” style kyōgen? The answer to this question has TONS of ramifications. Of course the family name is the obvious answer, but if the style a family chooses to employ is utterly fluid, then there is no so such thing as a style, per say. Does this make any attempt to describe its features moot? On the other hand, if it’s style is definable, then shouldn’t the family simply be the (albeit very talented) artistic vessels for which the form is being communicated through, implying anybody can do “Fill-in-the-blank-of-a-family” style kyōgen?
All of this makes my brain hurt- but it makes my heart happy. Art is pretty cool. Shigeyama family: shine on you crazy diamonds!