Rehearsal, July 15th and a chat with Itō-sensei

This past Saturday was the final lesson for the kyōgen classroom. It was also a chance for me to chat with one of the Yamaguchi Preservation Society’s longtime members, Mr. Itō, who is a career teacher and (practically) a career Sagi kyōgen actor.

Again, I was asked to play Tarō Kaja, which you would think that by now I would have learned my lesson and spent more time learning those lines. Since today was the last rehearsal, I tried very hard to focus on the rhythmic patterns of the language and the finer points of the staging. After the rehearsal, the director of the Furusato Denshō Center came in and everyone was presented with a certificate of completion. It’s hard to believe that three months went by so fast!

completion cert

I did it!

The main rehearsal began with Tarō and Bunmei splitting the group up. Tarō worked on Onigawara with Itō and Ikeda in the adjoining room while Bunmei worked on Busu with Suzuki, Masui and Yamasaki in the main room. I stayed in the main room, and today was definitely a blocking day, as Bunmei’s notes focused on movement. Putting on my director’s hat, I noticed how similar Bunmei use of blocking to help guide character is to western styles of directing. It was interesting to see that when Bunmei suggested an actor pay attention to a particular piece of blocking, the actor suddenly began making much more active choices that revealed the characters intentions.

This was made even clearer when Tarō returned and started discussing the schedule for an upcoming performance next week. Since the actors performing Busu today were not able to go to the show, Bunmei and Shinbo took over, playing the roles of Jirō Kaja and Tarō Kaja, respectively. It was fascinating to watch Bunmei play the role and compare just how attention to blocking details create a much more visually compelling story. For example, when the servants are eating up all the sugar, typically the actors I have watched focus only on the motion of dipping their fan (which serves as a kind of spoon) into the bucket. However, when Bunmei did it, each time his dipping motion got a little lower into the bucket- Narratively speaking, the servants are supposed to greedily eat all the sugar. While Bunmei’s attention to detail was something minor, it showed just how much better the story is told when you do so. Additionally, it really hammered home character trait of the two being greedy, because the gobbling was visibly obvious.

After the Busu rehearsals, the group was done rehearsing for the day, though a reporter from NHK was visiting so everyone was asked to stay and interview with him. I have spoken with this reporter myself and understand he is doing a big story on Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen sometime this coming fall. Should be interesting!


Mr. Itō in Shimizu during the annual 2017 Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen winter performance at Yamaguchi Prefectural University.

Anyways, I went into the adjoining room to interview Itō sensei who, as I said, has been performing for a long time- Since 1997 to be exact (that’s 30 years)! Itō sensei is now a grade school principal, but he spent many years as an English teacher, serving in middle school and grade schools in the Yamaguchi area. His entrance into Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen is interesting because he became a student after being introduced to Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen at his school’s (Ōdono Jr. High) bunkasai (annual culture festival) by his middle school students who performed it (Ōdono Jr. High has a long relationship with the Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen preservation society and they remain a fixture in the kid’s kyōgen classroom).

Itō sensei says he loves performing Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen because of its simplicity, but he made a very interesting point about the importance of ma, or “the pause,” which made it clear to me how hard being simple is. Itō sensei talked a lot about both Kobayashi Eiji (the group’s enigmatic leader) and Bunmei’s ability to capture the essence of the characters they play within the moments of ma in a play. I think the pause is something anyone who works in comedy, Japanese, Western, or otherwise can relate to. In an art like comedy, which is often considered an art of words (certainly kyōgen is, as the characters 狂言 are typically translated as “mad words”), it is interesting to note how important the lack of words is. A simple glance or facial expression can say much more than a word every could and, from Itō sensei’s perspective at least, this is really the art of kyōgen that one strives to master.

To that end, it was also interesting to learn from Mr. Itō that while Bunmei and Tarō have adopted a teaching style that is much more descriptive and dependent on words, Kobayashi sensei was a teacher who dealt little with words and asked his students to simply pay attention to the details that they saw and heard during other’s performances. So, kyōgen is an art of words, but so often its mastery comes from learning to read what is in between them!

Two Days with the Universities of Yamaguchi

Friday and Saturday (July 14th and 15th) I got the chance to help out the Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen actors do a workshop at Yamaguchi University and attend a Yamaguchi Prefectural University curated Tea Ceremony event being held at the Miyano train station near my home. These were fun chances to meet some of the University students and it gave me a chance to see what Yamaguchi University looks like.

Wait, I know you are thinking, “don’t you study at Yamaguchi University?” Actually, I study at Yamaguchi Prefectural University, which is located in the Miyano neighborhood. This is different than Yamaguchi University, which is in the Yuda Onsen area. Anyways, on Friday at 3:30pm, I met Tarō and we headed over to Yamaguchi University to perform for some of the foreign students who study there, as well as to do a Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen workshop with them. I thought I was just tagging along, but I soon learned that I had actually been invited so that I could translate the workshop part of the event for the English speaking audience. I had done translation work for Tarō before during the Noh no Katachi in Yamaguchi event a month or so back, but this was sideline translation, not immediate translation. Most of the students who were attending ranged from beginner Japanese speakers to advanced. So, I dusted off my brain and got ready.

Bunmei started the event with a brief introduction to the play and asked where people were from. The majority of the students were from China and Korea, but there were also a few from Taiwan, Thailand and one US student. I wondered exactly how many of them spoke English, but they insisted I translate, so…

Hikkukuri at Yamadai

The master (Yonemoto Bunmei, right) lets his divorced-to-be wife take whatever she can fit in a sack. Unbeknownst to him, his wife (Yonemoto Tarō, left) has decided her husband fits perfectly into a sack.

After Bunmei’s introduction, the group performed the play, Hikkukuri (Caught in a Sack), which explains why they have been rehearsing it so much (I was wondering about this). It was an interesting choice for a non-Japanese speaking audience since there isn’t a lot of action in it. However, it is short, which I think might have been the reason why it was chosen.

After the play, which was met with little response, since I don’t think the crowd quite got what was going on, or at least they didn’t feel comfortable laughing out loud, the workshop part began. This part was led by Tarō and he introduced the various costumes and props of the Sagi kyōgen style. After this, some of the students got up on stage and put on the costumes of Tarō Kaja and the Master, after which they were taught basic stance and movement. While there were only two students wearing costumes, the whole group often participated en masse, particularly during the vocal demonstrations. I think this was a good thing, since the students on stage were a bit shy and everyone speaking at once made it less intimidating.

Then, out of nowhere, Bunmei told everyone that I was practicing Sagi kyōgen and they made me get up on stage and do some of Shibiri. This was pretty humiliating since I couldn’t remember a bunch of the lines, but you know, anything for the audience!

If I was to compare Yamaguchi Prefectural University to Yamaguchi University, I would say that Yamaguchi University seems bigger, but the Prefectural University seems better funded. This may just be because YPU has undergone some major renovations recently, so it seems newer to me, though.

The next day I woke up to a text message from Tarō asking me if I wanted to come drink tea with him. I asked him when and where and he told me, now and to meet him at Miyano station. So I hopped to and walked over to Miyano station, which is about 10 minutes from my house. I initially thought that we were going to go somewhere from Miyano station, but I was surprised to find that students from one of YPU’s clubs (I think it was the Kimono Tea Drinking club) were holding an event right there in the station.

While Miyano station has no ticket office, it seems to be a cultural landmark for the neighborhood and has a rec room built in. Recently the station celebrated it’s 100th anniversary and local students had decorated the exterior of the station with murals and the trees were covered with tanzaku (wishes written on paper and tied to the tree’s branches), which I assume are for Tanabata.

Tanabata is Japan’s Star Festival and commemorates the annual reunion of the celestial beings Orihime and Hikoboshi, who are literally star-crossed lovers separated by the Milky Way all year, except during this time. The time varies because of the melding of Gregorian and lunar calendars so, depending on the region, it may be celebrated anywhere from July through August. In Yamaguchi there is an annual lantern festival which takes place on August 6th and 7th. Unfortunately for me, I will be in the US during this time so I can’t go. Boo!

tea ceremony at miyano station

Back to the tea ceremony. I met Tarō and, for 100 yen, I was given a really tasty blue mochi and some hot green tea. I was also given a piece of paper in the shape of a scoop of ice-cream and told to write down my favorite flavor- why, I have no idea- but they took it from me and I saw them hanging up around the station. While I had my tea, I filled out a survey for the event and decorated a coaster with ink-stamps. Then, at the end, I was allowed to choose a postcard which the members of the group had hand drawn themselves.

It was a short little event, but it was fun and it gave me the chance to experience another, if less formal, tea ceremony. A busy two days, but really fun!

Rehearsal, July 8th

Due to an insane amount of bad weather (June/July is definitely Yamaguchi’s rainy season) this week’s rehearsal was pretty low key and sparsely populated. The main topic of conversation before rehearsal was an impending typhoon, which I guess never came, since the majority of the weeks since has been cloudy, but fairly rain-free.

That being said, it is interesting to look around Yamaguchi at this time of year. The rice, which was planted in May, is growing well and all over Yamaguchi you can see verdant fields of green. The rain brings with it a host of newborn frogs, white lizards sitting under light sources and (unfortunately) a mess of mosquitos. Summer in Yamaguchi is almost unbearably humid, you sweat sitting still. So, thank goodness for the air con!


Also of note is the paintings of Jacques-Louis David are being displayed at the Yamaguchi Art Museum. The most famous of David’s paintings is probably The Death of Marat. I have yet to check it out, but it is definitely something I want to do before the exhibition is over. Plus it will give me an excuse to go to Tsuchimura’s restaurant again, which is right across the street.

Anyways, the kyōgen classroom again caught me off guard, as I was asked to play Tarō Kaja and I had spent most of the week trying to learn the master’s role. However, because only half of us showed up, I got to play the master role as well, which was good. After we had finished one of the actors asked “who’s play is Shibiri?” which brought up the important conversation about how kyōgen plays are grouped.

Kyōgen, being a series of stock plays is inevitably categorized based on who the main character is. The main character will always be listed as the shite, or leading role in a script, but sometimes it is hard to know who the main character is if you are just watching. Plus, depending on the school, sometimes the play is put in a different category. Basically speaking, however, there are 9 types of kyōgen plays:

Auspicious (God) plays, Daimyo plays, Tarō Kaja plays, Son-law-plays, woman plays, yamabushi plays, demon plays, blindman plays and miscellaneous plays.

A good way to explain the confusion is through Tarō Kaja, who will frequently appear in almost all plays besides Tarō Kaja plays. However, if there is a daimyo in the play, or a demon (real, like in Kaminari not pretend, like in Shimizu), chances are that even though Tarō Kaja appears, the play will not be considered a Tarō-Kaja play.

In the professional world there are roughly 250 kyōgen plays in the Izumi school and about 180 in the Ōkura school (with a total of 177 shared by both). Artistically and performance-wise, in the pro world the kind of play will be considered when creating a program of kyōgen performances or noh/kyōgen performances. However, with the Yamaguchi Sagi school, since they only have a total of 40 performable plays, the focus is more on what the senior members feel will make a good program and what the group is capable of doing.

The main rehearsal was also a little thin in terms of attendance so the group only worked on two plays. First they did Hikkukuri, which I am still not sure what they are prepping this one for. The rehearsal was going to end after this, but Shinbo-san showed up at the last minute, so the group also practiced Miyagino. This rehearsal was definitely focused on blocking as there were numerous stops and starts regarding the precise place actors were to stand, sit, etc.

Rehearsal, July 1 and a conversation with Tarō

This week I continued to work as an actor in the kyōgen classroom and, at the end of the main rehearsal sat down with Yonemoto Tarō, who is Bunmei’s son and arguably the backbone of Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen today. Like a professional, Tarō has been studying Sagi kyōgen since he was 3-years-old, which gave me a fascinating look into the process of growth he has undergone and some of the unique things which have informed his life and career.

In my own rehearsal, I spent sooo much time learning the role of the master. Even though I know what is being said, the lines have proved challenging for me to remember. I think this is because, when I act in a western play, I typically remember lines through the emotional choices I make- the emotion journey creates a kind of internal road map. With kyōgen, on the other hand, emotion is more of a subtle thing to be discovered through years of practice, so I have to focus on the rhythm and pronunciation, primarily. I am also trying not to spend the time translating the words others (and myself) are saying as I go along, knowing that this is going to keep me from focusing on being “in the moment,” and, will inevitably add incorrect emotions to my playing. However, today I was asked to play Tarō Kaja so it was kind of a disaster!

After my own rehearsal, the main group rehearsed only a few plays due to a lack of attendance. First, however, Tarō mentioned a host of performances that the group will be doing in the next few months. These shows include a performance for foreign students at Yamaguchi Prefectural University on Friday, July 13, another show (of which I am not sure for what) on the 29th, then a school show on the 11th of August and finally a show at the Densho center in September. It seems like the end of the summer, beginning of fall is their busy time.

The group first practiced Onigawara (The Demon Faced Tile) with Ito-san and Ikeda-san. Since these two have not been rehearsing a lot, there were a lot of lines missed, which I of course, related to. Onigawara is also an interesting play because of the way it ends- it just stops abruptly after the two characters laugh together, and then they walk off stage in silence. I think this is a kyōgen thing that a contemporary audience (foreign or otherwise) might find jarring when watching something comedic (or perhaps any play for that matter). Many a kyōgen has a fixed ending in which one character chases another off stage yelling “I’ll get you!”- this lets one know the play is over and, more importantly, lets the dropping of character occur off-stage. But in Onigawara, this shift happens on stage. The vibrant laughter and smiling faces suddenly disappear and the two actors walk off stage with neutral expressions. It is kind of weird. I am curious to find out why kyōgen adopted this strange convention- though there may be no answer…

The group then worked on Busu, and the two men playing Tarō Kaja and Jirō Kaja had clearly been practicing because, in particular, the dance they must do at the end of the play was so much better. This was interesting to me for two reasons. First, I wondered how they learned the dance in the first place. There was no rehearsal where the dance was focused on, so have they done this play before? Or do they watch old videos of the others doing it (the Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen people have a lot of videos)? Secondly, I am fairly certain that these two don’t practice outside the Saturday rehearsal. Since the dance is a duet in which they must move together in exactly the same way, I marveled at how well the two were in sync regardless of their lack of time together. The idea of a duet not being practiced to the point of ad nauseam by a pair is kind of unheard of in Western performance, so I think this is an interesting point when thinking about how an actor prepares in kyōgen.

Finally the group worked on Fukuro and it looks like Tarō is talking over the part Tsuchimura was playing. This makes sense since Tsuchimura has a huge role in Hone Kawa and Tarō, up to this point, was not in any of the plays being performed for the November performance. Watching the play, which was now back on book rather than up on it’s feet, I laughed to myself how ridiculous the play is. While many of kyōgen’s plays are humorous or witty, this one is down right kooky because it starts with one person hooting like an owl and ends with everyone (to their own shock I might add) doing it. Busu‘s plot where two servants told something is poison wind up eating it is definitely ridiculous, but watching two rather serious fellows suddenly turning into owls is the Mel Brooks kind of ridiculous. I like it.


The master (Yonemoto Tarō, right) catches a glimpse of the “uncle” who Tarō Kaja (Tsuchimura, left) has brought home.

After rehearsal I got to sit down with Yonemoto Tarō. Since he is the group’s major promoter, I decided it would be best to interview him twice, one time to talk about his experiences as an artist and one time to talk about the practical stuff. Today was all about him as an artist. I learned that while the Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen model is similar to the pros in that there are generations which participate, Tarō has never been taught by his father, they have always been students together. Tarō says there was definitely a senpai/kohai (think senior to freshman) relationship, but he has never been Bunmei’s student. This is interesting because it really speaks to the idea that the individual interpretation of Sagi kyōgen is very much a part of the model right from the beginning. A pro’s child is inevitably going to feel the pressure for retaining the style of his grandfather and father (with his own individual flourishes, of course) and this is, arguably, how the pro art has remained consistent over the last 600 years. However, with Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen, there is no family lineage to protect and, even among the family members in the group, they don’t seem to have any interest in preserving their style, though they could if they wanted to.

Tarō also told me that he planned on becoming a Kanze noh actor, which was why he went to Tokyo Arts University. However, when I asked him why he changed his mind, his answer was “Do you have three hours and a beer?” which I took to mean, “it’s complicated.” I can suppose the reasons for this based on the exclusivity of the iemoto system limiting Tarō’s options as a pro, but I suspect, based on how he thinks of Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen it is much more about his home town. When I asked Tarō who he felt responsible to for continuing to do Sagi kyōgen, his father or the art (a supposition on my part), he said neither. He then proceeded to tell me how little of Yamaguchi’s cultural history has been preserved and that Sagi kyōgen is something uniquely Yamaguchi. It is for this reason, he said, that his responsibility as a Sagi kyōgen actor is to his home town.

While I have yet to talk with Tarō about the number of artistic activities he produces in Yamaguchi, I have a feeling it will all flow back to this idea of maintaining a highly cultural environment in Yamaguchi. Tarō’s ideas about Yamaguchi also echo my own suspicions, that to fully understand the phenomenon of Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen, one must explore the environment which has fostered it.

All in all, a very interesting day!

Rehearsal, June 24, and an enigmatic conversation with a kyōgen master

Well, it has been awhile since I posted. The reason for this was I was in the US at the University of Michigan, where I participated in the Japanese Performance Theory Workshop. This event was aimed at students, artists, and faculty (not that being one means one is not also another), and its purpose was to discuss how better to integrate theory in the conversations we have about Japanese theatre and how such conversations might lead to improved classroom environments. The workshop was organized and led by Professor Reginald Jackson, who was an amazing guide for the week. I met some fantastic people and learned a lot about why being a professor right now is kind of the pits.

Still, it was wonderful to talk with people about the things that have been on my mind, and to hear about others’ projects. Anyone who is a PhD student probably knows how lonely it can be- it’s just you and your research. For me, as I thrive when I have other like-minded humans to converse with, this was a great experience. Of course, I talk to the Sagi kyōgen people, but as a researcher I have to be so careful about what I do and don’t say- the workshop was a nice change of pace.

One of my favorite moments of the workshop was watching the video Bunraku: Masters of Japanese Puppet Theater– It is a very telling example when it comes to understanding what it takes to be a master of an art form (at least in Japan, though I think maybe anywhere this might be true). If you have the chance, check out the video at 19:46 and look how strict the training is. My favorite quip, by bunraku master chanter, Takemoto Sumitayu VII, is definitely: Doesn’t it bother you that you can’t do it right? 

Anyways, I landed in Japan on Friday and it was back to rehearsal the next day, jet-lag and all. Because the kyōgen classroom had taken a holiday the week I left, I had only missed two rehearsals. However, something must of happened during those two rehearsals because everybody was off book! I felt kind of bad not knowing my lines, but the workshop left me little time to study them. Plus, I was asked to play the master role, which I hadn’t really been looking at since I was playing Tarō Kaja the last time.

The hozonkai rehearsal was brief, with only three plays being rehearsed. First the group worked on Miyagino. As with the classroom students, I really noticed bow much progress had been made with this group in just two weeks. After the rehearsal, Bunmei remarked that they rehearsed it as if they were actually performing. However, he did tell them there was a LOT of acting going on, which again brought up the idea of Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen being “simple” in its performance.

It was here where I wondered if the kyōgen classroom’s youngest member, who stays to watch the hozonkai rehearsal, was not having an effect on the group’s performance. She is a vocal young lady, who squeals with delight when something is funny and giggles constantly at the foolishness of the characters. If everyone in the audience were like her, Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen would be the most popular thing in Japan since onigiri. But I wonder if such immediate feedback over the past few months is having an effect on the group. This is not a positive or negative observation, merely an observation. I definitely think, at least this group of actors, has been working harder to seem more “funny” and the wackiness of the piece is being ramped up. While I can say Shinbo-san is definitely improved in terms of her kata, the other two seem like they are hamming it up more than anything.

This reminds me of when I was working as a grad student director at UCLA and a professor of mine came to see a rehearsal. After the rehearsal his first note was “don’t laugh at the actors when they are funny.” At the time I thought that was an insane note- why shouldn’t I laugh at something I think is funny? But I see where his point was now. If a rehearsal is full of laughs, it runs the risk of making the actors comfortable with certain schtick that gets consistent laughs- if then, during the show, they don’t get the laugh the failure lies not in the material (or also, in the case of kyōgen, the kata), but rather in their blind faith in the schtick.

The result of such blind faith, at the least, can be a joke falling flat and, at the worst, the rhythm of the whole performance can be derailed. So there are two issues that arise in expecting a laugh. First, a common one- tell the same joke over and over, it loses its punch. Second, and much worse in my opinion,, if you expect a laugh and YOU know it, the audience may see that and the joke’s reveal winds up being telegraphed, ruining the joke.

So, this was a good lesson on comedy, I think, regardless of style. As a director, don’t teach the actor’s what is funny, let the characters do their thing and the audience will decide. Second, as an actor, don’t EVER play for the laugh, play the material and the joke will come naturally. If you are playing the joke, you are not playing the character!

Next the group worked on Onigawara, which I hadn’t seen in awhile because Ito-san has been missing from rehearsals. I asked him about this and he said he has been forced to work a lot lately (he is the principal of a local grade school) and it has kept him from coming to rehearsal. In the past he has spoken about his passion for doing Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen, so I am glad he was able to come back. This rehearsal, unlike the previous one, had a lot of notes, mainly about intonation. It is here where the Yamaguchi flare is really prevalent, because, at least as I understand it, a note about intonation is typically a note about regional dialect. For home-grown sons like Bunmei, it comes naturally because he has lived here his whole life, but for others it is like learning a whole new language (myself definitely included!).

Finally, the group worked on Hone Kawa, and Bunmei left the room, leaving Tsuchimura to run the rehearsal. The group is still on book for this one and this is the only one left that is so. Interestingly, one of the two brothers in the group (not Tarō and Jirō) plays the role of one of the characters in this play. I never see them both at rehearsal…


Yonemoto Bunmei in his original kyōgen, Tanuki Damashi.

After rehearsal I finally got to sit down with Bunmei for an official interview. Coming into the interview I suspected it would be difficult, as Bunmei himself is kind of a cryptic fellow. His notes in rehearsal are always brief and typically followed by a witty joke. And he is humble to the point of extreme. He is very much a master, in spite of his humility, however, and I think his vagueness just adds to that stereotypical master-actor quality. I was not “disappointed”- pretty much any question I asked, he answered something else.

What I did learn, however, was the importance of the kyōgen classroom, which refers not only to the young people, but to the hozonkai as well, at least according to Bunmei. I learned that the start of the kyōgen classroom has had a dual effect on Sagi kyōgen in Yamaguchi. First, it spread interest in the art in Yamaguchi. Prior to this a very small group of actors participated. Secondly, it was started so that those practicing would have a chance to perform. Again, prior to this, performances were not as frequent (I really need to know more about this- Bunmei said annual performances didn’t even begin until 1986) and typically were limited to the group’s big dogs. However, the classroom gave everyone a chance to perform and this had a huge impact on the number of people who wanted to participate. I think the idea that people WANT to perform is a really interesting point I am going to further look into.

I also learned that the kyōgen classroom was not just an innovation thought up by the actors themselves, but was also spearheaded by a local City Hall worker, who is friends with Bunmei. I have mentioned before how Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen is unique because of its cooperative model of operation between artist and community- I am interested to speak with this City Hall official!

A Trip to Sado Island

After a quick trip to Nara, I hurried on to Niigata prefecture’s Sado Island to attend the annual Sado Sagi kyōgen performance. Sado Island, aside from being one of the two remaining places where Sagi kyōgen continues, is home to Godzilla, is the source of a multitude of Japan’s most famous legends, has the most noh stages per capita, and was the part-time residence of a number of Japan’s most famous figures. Over a short two days I got to see some of Sado’s sights and take in some of the island culture.

sado liner

Sado Island’s Ryotsu Port is 2 ½ hours from the Niigata port via the car ferry. You can take the more expensive Jetfoil, which only takes 65 minutes and runs more frequently, but I decided to enjoy the leisurely ride on the less expensive boat. Upon arriving in Sado I ran into some sort of sending off party at a nearby pier, where the island’s mascot, a giant Ibis (these birds were once the famed animals of Sado, but after they died off the species had to be reintroduced), along with a group of taiko drummers waved goodbye.

After a brief walk I arrived at the ryokan (Japanese style inn) I was staying at and I immediately worked with a kind woman at the front desk on how I was going to get to the Sagi kyōgen performance that evening. In doing some pre-arrival scouting, I learned Sado is not very convenient to those without cars, almost everything is at least a half an hour away from everything. Fortunately, the play I was going to see was part of the seasonal takigi noh performances (firelight noh), so there was actually a tour bus she booked me on that got me to Daizen jinja, where the show was being held.

However, I was also required to take a local bus half way, which basically meant I needed to head directly out, since the buses on the weekend run very infrequently. When I finally made it (literally 2 minutes before curtain) the tour group marveled at how many cars were parked nearby and the tour guide mentioned that the show we were going to see was the most popular event in the series.

takigi noh

By the time I walked the 50 feet I needed to, the Sado Sagi kyōgen actors were already entering. I was a little disappointed to find out that they were only doing one play, Bo Shibari, and the rest of the evening was other stuff.

What’s Sagi kyōgen doing on Sado Island, you ask? Well, much like in Yamaguchi, after the Meiji restoration, actors who learned from pros continued the tradition of the Niemon style of Sagi kyōgen (it’s Denemon style in Yamaguchi). In fact, the last real headmaster of pro Sagi kyōgen, Sagi Gonnojo, lived in Sado for a while during the Meiji period- though I don’t think he taught anybody while he was there. Gonnojo was kind of a weirdo who roamed around before dying penniless in a Tokyo rental room.

Sado Sagi kyōgen originally had several lines of actors based in different areas of the island, though today only the Mannomachi line of actors remains. However, because Sado Sagi kyōgen was not directly passed on from a professional and has since been retooled by lessons from the pro kyōgen schools, it is not an Intangible Performing art like Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen, but an Intangible Folk Art. Not throwing shade here, just noting an “official” distinction.

tied to a pole

“It’s the strangest thing… I thought I saw the reflection of our master in the sake bowl.”

As I said, the play that was performed was Bo Shibari, a kyōgen standard in which Tarō and Jirō Kaja, after getting tied to a pole and tied up, respectively, still find a way to drink the master’s hoarded sake. Comparatively speaking, Sado kyōgen seems a lot closer to noh than Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen. The rhythm was really hard to distinguish, though the trembling voice which you will hear in a noh was evident. There was not a lot of comedy, per say, but the actor playing Jirō Kaja certainly made a lot of facial expressions. As for props, while the Yamaguchi actors use the kazura oke as the source of where the two servants pilfer their master’s sake, this was mimed by the Sado actors (though they did use a little sake bowl which Tarō produces from within Jirō’s kimono).

After the kyōgen was over, some high school girls performed 3 shimai (noh chants with dance) and then the evening’s main event, a performance of Sei Oba or Queen Mother of the West. This is a deity play, which depicts the entrance of the notable Chinese Taoist figure (here Buddhist) and her celestial dance for some visiting envoys. One of the Sagi kyōgen actors was also in this play as the waki (supporting role). I’ve never seen a noh play with two masked figures, so that was interesting, but it was super cold (packed for summer when I should have packed for fall), so it required some perseverance in the end!

The next day, I got a bright and early start thanks to a cleaning lady opening my door at 9am to clean the room. I had two goals for the day. The first was to find some books on Sado Sagi kyōgen, which I know exist and I assumed I would be able to find on the island. That was kind of a mistake on my part. Though I did find one after I assured the bookstore clerk he had the book (a Sado person had confirmed this for me about a week ago). After we parted ways I found a whole section on Noh (which he told me the shop had no books on such a topic…), but sadly nothing on Sado Sagi kyōgen. But hey, one is better than none.

From there I wanted to go to a museum. I had the choice between the Sado History and Legend Museum and the Natural History Museum. In retrospect, I should have known the History and Legend Museum was a tourist trap, but…

So in this “museum” they have animatronic dolls telling stories about some of Sado’s famous figures and tall tales. As I said before, a lot of famous people have lived in Sado, but what I didn’t tell you is they were all exiled there. Yup, Sado was the place to be if you were going to get exiled throughout Japan’s history. I think even Sagi Niemon was exiled there for about 3 years after he offended Tokugawa Iemitsu with a particularly scandalous performance (though I am not sure about this one).

princess keikoWe were greeted by the Empress Keiko, whose husband, Emperor Juntoku, was exiled to Sado in the 1200s after his father (the retired Emperor Go-Toba) tried to depose the ruling shogunate during the famous Jokyu Disturbance. Afterwards, we met Nichiren, the famous Buddhist priest turned saint who did some of his most famous writing while exiled in Sado (he was exiled to a bunch of places though). Next, I came face to face with the man himself, Zeami Motokiyo, the father of noh. He was exiled to Sado after some tiffs with the Ashikaga shogun, Yoshinari, in the early 1400s. The story we were told was how Zeami supposedly did a wondrous noh dance that quelled a thunderstorm. And you thought noh was boring.


Zeami was a serious looking fellow.

The last part of the museum told 3 famous folk tales of Sado via an animatronic old lady. The first I didn’t know, but the second was a familiar one, Yuruzu, which tells the story of a mysterious maiden who, in order to help a farmer pay his debts, uses crane feathers to weave wonderful garments. However, she forbids the farmer to watch her doing this because she’s actually the crane. Well, the farmer discovers this one day, and away she flies. This story has particular importance in the pro kyōgen world because in 1955, Kinoshita Junji’s adaptation Twilight Crane, was performed by Shigeyama Sennojo and Nomura Mansaku. This performance is often considered one of the key moments when kyōgen stepped out of noh’s shadow and people’s interest in kyōgen started growing. It was also one of the first times there was cross-school performing, which was previously considered a big no-no.


I was most interested by the last story, however, because it is about Sado’s most famous feline, Okie-san. Okie-san was a black cat living with his (?) family who would regale them with dances from time to time. When the family fell on hard times. Okie asked to leave for a while, and after his departure a beautiful woman, named Okesa, appeared and said she would become a geisha to help the family with their debts. Okesa became a very popular singer and dancer and today the Okesa is a traditional dance of Sado island. Well, one day a sailor who was coming to see Okesa peeked into her dressing room when he saw a strange sight. Okesa transformed into the cat, Okie-san, in order to eat. It was, after all, the only way he/she was able to. Okesa caught the sailor and begged him not to tell anyone his/her secret and the sailor agreed. Of course, the sailor was a jerk and immediately told the people on his boat the story. However, as he told the story, the sky grew dark and a giant black cat’s paw swooped down from the sky and whacked the sailor clear off the boat, humiliating him in front of everyone. Don’t mess with Okie-san.

With kitties dancing in my head I had to take a taxi to a bus in order to make it back to Ryotsu port for my trip back to Niigata. It was a whirlwind trip and I feel like I only scratched (pun intended) the surface of Sado’s rich history. Sado has a multitude of famous Shinto shrines, and Buddhist temples, 35 noh stages, a Zeami shrine, and a ton of different folk arts. Each season in Sado is truly unique and makes it a place worth going to all year round. I hope to go back again soon- but next time I‘ll rent a car.

A Trip to Nara

This past Tuesday I headed out for my grand adventure around Japan before heading back to the US in a few days for a wedding- first stop, Nara. I was invited by Tarō to a production of a shinsaku (new) kyōgen play being performed by Shigeyama Sengorō and Yamamoto Noritaka at the gardens near Todai-ji.


“Crackers now, lowly human! Your god demands it!”

Nara is one of my favorite places because of all the free roaming deer, who are revered as kami of the area and, due to an abundance of purchasable “deer crackers,” they have become quite tame, even learning the trick of “bowing” to tourists in exchange for a snack. However, each deer is like a cat who knows, ultimately, he (or she) rules the roost and as a result they are a fickle, ornery, bunch. While there is a lot of joy in petting them, it is also a lot of fun to watch tourists freak out when the deer decide they have had enough of being polite. This trip did not disappoint. When a particularly stingy obāsan refused to give up her jealously guarded deer crackers, the deer in question simply snuck up behind her and snatched the map she was reading and ate that. Of course the woman screamed bloody murder and I, as one who knows better than to come between these critters and their snack, enjoyed the show.

Anyways, back to the show I actually came to see. The play was written by Mrs. Ōe Takako, who was a Tarō’s kohai (junior) at Tokyo Geijutsu Daigaku. She herself is rather interesting- a housewife who began studying noh at the college at the age of 42. The play she wrote is called Daibutsu Kurabe or Comparing the Great Buddhas. The reason why Tarō was invited, I learned, was because the Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen actors were the first to do the play in 2008. After it’s debut in Yamaguchi, Daibutsu Kurabe was performed twice by the Izumi school, then once by the Shigeyamas before this performance.

The story of Daibutsu Kurabe picks up a common theme in kyōgen- two men meet and argue over a particular topic before making friends with each other. In the case of this play, the source of conflict comes from the two men debating over which is bigger, the great Buddha of Kamakura or the great Buddha at Todai-ji. After an increasingly heated debate the play ends with the two making up and dancing and singing their way off stage.


The play was held at the Todai-ji Repository, one of many of the buildings on the Todai-ji grounds. The place itself provided a beautiful backdrop for the play, with some stunning views of the surrounding gardens. Before the play began there were two koto performances, which from what I understand, were all songs having to do with/about the Nara (one song was called The Buddha at Nara and the other was called The Four Seasons of Nara).

The play itself began rather pompously, with an ikebana (flower arrangement) “performance.” A silent man pondered each cut of greenery before carefully placing it, just so, in its previously (and ceremoniously) placed vase. This smacked of so many experimental music performances I have seen where the audience is asked to watch musicians ponder the instruments they may or may not play. I won’t deny that what was ultimately created was quite beautiful, but the whole ceremony of it just seemed pretentious. I guess that’s why I like the amateurs, I suppose…

There was something sort of apropos about having the Tokyo-based Yamamoto kyōgen family representing the Kamakura buddha and the Kyoto-based Shigeyama family representing the Nara buddha. Though the fact that the Shigeyama kyōgen, compared to Yamamoto, is like comparing rock n’ roll to classical music, made for an interesting inversion. Since the Nara buddha is much older (having been completed in 751), and Kyoto is notorious for being “old-fashioned,” it was kind of interesting for the rock n’ roller Shigeyama family to be arguing for the old guy and the classical Yamamoto family to be arguing for the new kid on the block (relatively speaking- 1252 was when the Kamakura buddha was completed). Although, both are Ōkura school kyōgen, so it is little wonder why the characters manage to patch things up in the end!

Along with the kyōgen actors, there were also 2 kotsuzumi (noh hand drum) players and two actors (Shigeyama Shige and Matsumoto Kaoru, both Shigeyama family actors) who provided occasional narration vocals.

After the performance the audience was separated into two groups. As we were in the second group, we were ushered into a room full of poems, I assume about Todai-ji (they were all in classical Japanese- Tarō spent the better part of the time looking words up on his cell phone, so I didn’t stand a chance with them), and a woman explained some of the meaning of them. Afterwards, we moved on to the second room, where we participated in a traditional tea ceremony, with a master who spent the entire 20 minutes explaining everything (very quietly) that was going on.

After the performance I had to head back to the train, as I needed to get up to Niigata prefecture for the annual Sado Sagi kyōgen performance in Sadogashima. A six-hour shinkansen ride meant I had to keep moving, though I wish I could have spent ore time with Tarō, who was going on to visit Nara’s great buddha and the nearby cultural museum.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, Nara’s buddha is the biggest one- in the world, in fact.

Noh no Katachi in Yamaguchi and Rehearsal, May 27

This past week was quite busy as the event, Noh no Katachi in Yamaguchi, in which Tarō serves as the main coordinator, was performed at Toshun Shrine and I was up to my usual rehearsal antics.


Noh no Katachi, while literally translated as “the shape of noh,” was actually a bit more complex as this year the event was focused on helping Yamaguchi residents understand the differences between noh and kyōgen. The event was held on Tuesday the 23rd, and as I understood from the pre-show chat, this is the 3rd year that the event has been held in Yamaguchi, and the first year where the professional kyōgen actor from the Ōkura school’s Yamamoto family, Yamamoto Norihide, has come.

I was invited by Tarō, who put me on translation duty for a group of JETs who were coming to the show and, for the most part, did not speak Japanese at all. I am far from a translator, but the gods of Japanese language touched me that night and, I think, I was helpful for the most part.

To call the event a performance is probably not correct, it was mainly a demonstration with lecture. Aside from Norihide, the Kanze school noh actor, Imamura Yoshitarō, was also there as the representative for noh. Both of these actors studied at Tokyo Geijutsu Daigaku, which is also where Tarō studied, so there’s the connection.

The pair first performed excerpts from the komai, or short dance, Ama, each in their own style and followed the dance with a conversation about the things that make it different. Then, they performed an original piece where the two acted out how they met at college, working together, and graduating, all using their art form’s style.

We then, as a group, practiced some of kyōgen’s signature stylistic emotions, mainly crying and laughing. As Tarō pointed out, while the audience was practicing the Yamamoto family’s style of these acts, Sagi kyōgen is different.

This, I think, was one of my gripes with the whole event. I was thrilled to see kyōgen and noh actors working together to try and help an interested audience learn more about the differences between these arts. However, Yamamoto kyōgen, for those in the know, is the most conservative schools of kyōgen and is often considered the noh of the kyōgen world. Why is this important? Well, as I suspected after talking with some people who don’t spend the amount of hours I do comparing one style to another, it was REALLY hard to tell the difference between the two styles of acting because the kyōgen actor’s technique was so close to the noh actor’s.

This leads me to my other gripe. While there is no denying these actors are incredibly talented, they were not very organized when it came to an effective, accessible, presentation of differences. It was almost as if this was an introductory lesson for people who are already somewhat well-read on the subjects. That seems counter-intuitive, right? After all, why would a layman attend something like this, when it is geared towards someone who isn’t a layman?

This is my own experience, but I often am frustrated by the lack of basic information that is missing from introductory conversations about Japan’s traditional performing arts. For example, when I am reading about kyōgen (in Japanese), I am often bombarded by a host of kanji names which do not have any furigana (the Japanese alphabet) attached. These are not everyday names, so I often have to do additional research just to figure out what the person’s name is! When I first came across Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen’s founder, Shunnichi Shosaku, I found his name written several different ways on Japanese websites and wasn’t absolutely sure until I had a conversation with Professor Inada.

On top of names, many specialized kyōgen terms like as kazura oke (the bucket used in kyōgen) are taken for granted by writers and typically also lack furigana. If you know what this is, then it’s swell, because you don’t need the word to be spelled out. But suppose you are new to kyōgen and have no idea what that black lacquered bucket is called- maybe you’ve never even seen one before?

I think it is these kinds of things which sometimes make Japan’s traditional arts inaccessible, not only to foreigners, but to Japanese people as well. I am not sure why such a disconnect exists, but I imagine it has something to do with the extensive amount of time one spends learning the art form. Since time investment is an inevitable factor in learning how to do even the most basic of performance techniques, it stands to reason that those conversing about noh or kyōgen might take for granted the simple things which have now become an ingrained part of their foundational training?

Anyways, the event was also very heavy on public service announcements for Yoshitarō’s upcoming October performance of Funa Benkei at Noda shrine, along with the upcoming Noh/kyōgen workshops at the Morimoto Noh Stage in (sort of) nearby Fukuoka. These will be 3 separate workshops over the months of July, August and September that give participants the chance to work with noh instruments, and practice noh and kyōgen techniques with Kanze noh school actors and Izumi school kyōgen actors. I want to do these, but it’s like 100 bucks to go back and forth to Fukuoka, so unless I can get a ride, I don’t know if I can participate.

After the show I spoke with some of the JETs who came to see the performance. Most were confused, as expected, and I tried my best to explain the complicated world that is contemporary noh and kyōgen in the shortest, simplest way possible. Overall, I met some really cool JETs and I learned about some exciting mikagura performances that are regularly held in nearby Shimane!

The following Saturday I headed off to my weekly rehearsal for Shibiri with the Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen actors. This was my last practice before I head back stateside for a few weeks to do a workshop on Japanese performance theory at University of Michigan.

I was first and got to perform with the younger member of our cabal, who is about 10 years old. She played the master and I played Tarō Kaja, which I thought was a funny juxtaposition in itself. I was a little embarrassed because I didn’t know all my lines, but I soon learned no one did, so I felt less bad.

I noticed that, for the most part, Fumiaki did not correct a lot of basic things we were doing wrong, such as incorrect posture or walking, etc. In retrospect I think this speaks volumes about the process of learning kyōgen, be it non-professional Sagi or otherwise. I get the impression that for Sagi kyōgen the first and most important thing to instill, even before the basic techniques of the style, is an enjoyment of the process. To that end, Fumiaki is jovial and patient with everyone, really making sure they are enjoying the act of performing.

Turning to the hozonkai rehearsal, I could see how Fumiaki’s teaching is different, depending on who is practicing. I have mentioned how hard Fumiaki rides Shinbo, but since she has been doing Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen for 10 years, I now understand why- particualarly when I watch how little he rides some of the younger actors, who have been doing it for less time, when they are committing the same mistakes.

Ultimately, it seems clear to me Fumiaki is playing two games. One, is the game that keeps people coming back- making sure they are enjoying themselves and bringing a personal warmth to the roles they are playing, as a result. The other, is the long game, assuming the actor is going to be around for a long time, so there is no hurry to cram information into their bodies and minds.

This perspective really got me thinking about how much different comedy in the west is from the comedy of kyōgen. I have been ruminating over yet another graph that attempt to explain this difference.

kyogen and western comedy graphSo what the heck does this mean? Well, the way I am imagining it, the goal is to make a triangle. Kyōgen, unlike a western comedic art form (non-traditional), has three parts which are all dependent on each other, to some degree. So the base of a successful kyōgen requires first and foremost, technique. By technique I mean plain and simple, mechanical, requirements- these are the art form’s kata. By artistry I mean the internal process by which the artist collaborates within his (or her) professional sphere and amongst his peers to refine his ability. By comedic ability, I mean exactly that- some have it, some don’t (?). You will notice that if you add either comedic ability AND/OR artistry, you can make a triangle. So there are three possibilities: a performance with technique and artistry, a performance with technique and comedic ability, and a performance with all three. It is important to note that a successful kyōgen performance can be achieved without artistry and without comedic ability, but not without technique- thus technique is mandatory. However, the idea that a successful kyōgen can be done without comedic ability seems weird, right? Yes and no. On the one hand, not all kyōgen are comedic and one might argue that without artistry, no one can truly understand the human comedy that is kyōgen. On the other hand, if you assume kyōgen requires technique, then it is not too far-fetched to suggest that comedic ability is something which can be built or “learned.” Therefore comedic ability is a “potential core” of a successful kyōgen performance. I am also not unaware of the fact that a performance that includes technique and artistry, but no comedic ability, could lead one to consider the triangle created, to be “hollow.”

Turning to the western comedic model, the base is comedic ability- in other words if you aren’t funny, you can’t do it. Unlike the kyōgen model which needs a base of technique, the western comedic arts typically consider being funny as something that is inherent and is not necessarily “learnable.” As a result, comedic ability serves as both the base and potential core. Furthermore, it does not need artistry or technique, though the triangle may be enhanced through these means. As I have said, it is often considered in the west that comedy is not learnable- however, as a comedian becomes seasoned, as he confers and collaborates with his or her peers, it is possible that an identifiable stylistic technique can be consciously or unconsciously created. It is for this reason that technique rests at the top of triangle.

Comparing the two overall, I am arguing that a lifetime of work in kyōgen potentially leads to the exact opposite result in the west- In kyōgen a lifetime of work enables you to “be funny,” whereas in western comedy a lifetime of work may lead a seasoned comedic performer to establish some sort of “technique.”

I think the Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen model is some sort of hybrid between these two, mainly because one’s individuality plays such a huge part in this non-professional performing art. That being said, I am still musing over exactly how that triangle shapes up.

Rehearsal, May 20th, and a trip to the Ube Shinkawa Contact Center

This past Friday and Saturday was chock full of Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen activities, first going to the Shinkawa Contact Center with Tarō for a lecture on Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen and then rehearsal for myself and the group the following day.

2017-05-19 10.03.50

I met Tarō at 8:30am for a trip to Ube on Friday the 19th, where he was scheduled to give a talk on Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen at a community center called the Ube Shinkawa Contact center. Tarō told me that none of the people had ever seen Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen before, not even the coordinator of the event. However, he met the coordinator at an unrelated gathering in Yamaguchi and she subsequently scheduled him to come and talk to at the community center.

The event had about 30 people in attendance and they were all senior citizens. There was a sign up sheet at the front of the room which made me think this was some kind of rotary club event in which they pay attention to who attends for some reason or another. At 10am the talk started, and Tarō stuck primarily to the story of Sagi kyōgen, rather than the more general conversation about kyōgen he sometimes does, making me think that this group was familiar with kyōgen as an art form.

2017-05-19 11.05.40

The sagi in Sagi kyōgen?

After the history lesson, Tarō brought out costumes and props he had brought along and demonstrated some of the performance techniques of Sagi kyōgen, comparing what he did to noh for reference. He focused primarily on Kaki Yamabushi, since this play is an easy one to point out Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen’s unique qualities.

He also pointed out that, within the performance style of Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen, the differences between vocal techniques when playing a master, a daimyo, and a yamabushi. He demonstrated how a yamabushi have a voice similar to noh and need to chant. A daimyo’s voice sounds a lot like when a character is speaking dialogue in a noh and a master is the closest to speaking in a “regular” tone of voice.

The only question he received from the audience was about the costumes, which was in regards to how old they were- they’re basically new. However, in looking at the costumes Tarō brought I realized just how much they reflect Yamaguchi. In particular, one of the Tarō kaja kataginu (shoulder pads) has the design of a firefly on the back. Yamaguchi is renown for its fireflies (there’s actually a firefly festival coming up that unfortunately I am going to miss because I will be at a workshop in the US) and this the reason for the pattern. I am interested to learn more about these costumes, regardless of their age, and how they reflect Yamaguchi.

On the ride home, Tarō talked about how he hoped in doing this talk, the group might be able to perform in the future in Ube. It’s all about the hustle and, as I have said, Tarō is kind of a one man army in doing this. Every event is a potential audience for future events.

The outing ended with a trip to the Tsuchimura’s restaurant, Kurumi.  Since Fumiaki had told me during my visit to his home that the Tsuchimura’s ramen is particularly good, I ordered that and was not disappointed. I am no connoisseur of ramen, though.

The following day, at 5pm, I headed over the the Denshō center to do my new weekly kyōgen classroom rehearsal. This time, along with the 4 others (though the college student was absent), the middle school student who practices now with the group also attended. I assume this is so she can have more practice and so the group can even out at 6 people (so we all can work in pairs on the two-person play, Shibiri).

Tarō was absent due to a work (day job) conflict, so rehearsal started with Fumiaki talking about kyōgen during the pre-war era and how it separated from noh. I think this is a really an interesting topic. As I understand it, in the post-war period kyōgen gained a life outside it’s partner noh, and started performing on its own. However, Sagi kyōgen, unlike the other schools, had to be on it’s own in the Meiji period when it stopped performing professionally. Moreover, there is a recorded lack of activity in kyōgen by both the Izumi and Ōkura schools from the Taishō period (1912-1926) until just before the war in the Shōwa era (1926-1989). Does this mean that Sagi kyōgen actually was more active than its pro counterparts because of its amateur status? Or is the history on what the kyōgen actors during this time were doing, as kyōgen actors, insufficiently recorded? Either way, I think it is an worthwhile avenue of inquiry.

I think this is interesting, also, because it is a period in which pro-kyōgen’s revival had to have some kind of community support to make it happen. The books I have read attribute its revival to contributors within the families, but, come on, there has to be some sort of desire within the community to make it happen. I guess what I am wondering is: Are the grass-roots activities that Tarō engages in on a daily basis similar to the process by which pro-kyōgen was revived?

Anyways, after the talk, we continued working the first 1/2 of Shibiri.  I worked with the middle school girl, who also filled in for the absent college student in another pairing. Afterwards we were given a script, which was photocopied from the playbook the main group uses. I wonder if the participants can read the old Japanese? Now it’s time for me to do some memorizing. However, because I don’t know what part I am going to play, I have to memorize the whole thing!

The main rehearsal was short, as many actors were absent. I learned that another family is present in the preservation society, as two of the actors are brothers. I didn’t know this until today because the other brother only recently began attending rehearsal.

The group worked on Miyagino and I was pleased to see Shinbo was getting the hang of playing her role with less commentary from Fumiaki. The man playing the daimyo, Moriwaki, was really hamming it up by kyōgen standards, but Fumiaki seemed to approve of it. I wouldn’t say Moriwaki is not following the vocal patterns that make Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen unique, he is just adding more feeling into his playing than others might. Since Fumiaki has given the note to not be so “over-the-top” before, I wonder if this lack of notes today simply means Fumiaki is choosing to lose this particular battle- or is it that the note was given before because Fumiaki thought this would help the actor better grasp the necessary vocal patterns, which since the actor has now found it in his own way, makes the “over-the-top note” unnecessary? It would be interesting if it were the latter, but I suspect it might be the former.

After the rehearsal of Miyagino Professor Inada and Fumiaki got in a bit of a debate about where the kazura-oke should be placed on the stage when the daimyo sits on it. Inada’s argument was that it was too far down-stage, which made the final grabbing of the daimyo by the teahouse owner impossible because the two actors were shimmying around the bucket. Fumiaki seemed to agree and this did have an effect on how the blocking was ultimately re-arranged (or corrected).

Finally the group did Honekawa, since Jirō came. Since one brother was absent, the other brother filled in and there was a complete cast. Though they are still practicing via table read.

Rehearsal, May 13 and Rice Planting with the Yonemotos

After a week off for Golden week, the Sagi kyōgen actors resumed their rehearsals schedule. Today was a special day because it was the first day of the group’s annual kyōgen classroom. This kyōgen classroom is different from the other one in that this one is for adult learners (primarily). So I am no longer an individual student, but now part of the classroom, along with four other new actors.

The group gathered at 5pm at the Furusato Denshō Center. It consists of 2 middle-aged women, one female college student (I believe from the class Tarō did at YPU), and one 1o-year-old girl with some incredibly awesome hair, who comes with either her mother or guardian. Both Tarō and Fumiaki are the teachers for this class, though Fumiaki is top dog. The class began with the head of the denshō center, Mr. Oda, welcoming everyone. Then Fumiaki gave us a little history about Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen and began explaining how to perform kyōgen using the play Iroha as a metaphor. Iroha is often the first play a professional kyōgen actor will do, usually at the age of 3! While the Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen world has retained this play as part of their repertory, they never have anyone young enough to do it, so I don’t see any instance in their records of it being performed (though Tarō and Shinbo-kun would have certainly been young enough to do it when they started!)

Iroha‘s plot is a lot like Sakka in that it tells the story of a master/father asking his servant/son to follow his words and actions directly, resulting in some hilarious antics. However, since it is intended for a 3 year old to play the kid, the plot of the play, in which the child is learning his Japanese A-B-Cs parallels the skills necessary to begin practicing kyōgen. First, Fumiaki explained, is kamai, or standing properly. This enables you to speak correctly. Next is suriashi, or walking, which again enables you to speak correctly, if you do it right. Finally is serifu, or speech. Since kyōgen, according to the Sagi Yamaguchi people anyways, is an art of speaking (pros might consider kyōgen the art of singing and dancing), this is the main thing, but as the other parts suggest, it can’t be done unless all pieces are moving together.

We began by learning how to interact with Fumiaki to start the lesson, sitting in front of him, sitting seiza (on your knees, very painful!) and bowing with hands in front of you, your index and thumbs brought together making the shape of a triangle, and saying onegaishimasu, which, in this case, means “please teach me.” If we have a practice fan, it is placed in front of you, with the neck of the fan facing to the right (so you can pick it up with your right hand).

After this, we practice kamai and suriashi. It is amazing how something that looks so simple is so gosh darn hard. I’ve explained the basic kamai for Sagi kyōgen, it being somewhere between the extreme squatting I had to do for Shigeyama kyōgen versus the almost standing up straight in the Izumi kyōgen. The suriashi is the same in all the schools I have experienced, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the more formal schools, like the Yamamoto school, might have suriashi that is more similar to noh.

After this we started the basic intro for Shibiri. While Iroha was the metaphor, Shibiri is the play we are working on. This play, as well, is an introduction play, though its intentions as such are not as telegraphed as Iroha’s. Since I have been working on this play with Tarō, I had a bit of a leg up on the others, though I haven’t memorized it yet, so not too much of a leg! The lines of the play are stock lines when a master enters:


It basically means “I am a man from around here. I need to call on my servant. Taro Kaja!” The slash marks indicate where the breaks in the speech occur. Each of us practiced this part, individually, which includes all three skills.

Afterwards, we sat down and did a call-and-repeat for the first third of the play. It seems everyone is required to learn all the lines, regardless of which part they may eventually wind up practicing (though, I suspect we may have to do both).

At 6pm the main actors arrived and the regular rehearsal began. Interestingly, Mrs. Tsuchimura, who I had interviewed the week prior, did the kyōgen Kaminari with a woman I have never seen before. The two only did the vocal work (no movement). Judging by the other woman saying “see you next month” I assume she is from out of town, however this is the first time in over a year that I have seen Mrs. Tsuchimura do anything.

The group then did Hikkukuri which I found out was being done as part of a Yamaguchi business thing in nearby Yuda Onsen for a cultural conference. This would explain why the 3 big dogs of the group were doing it. Then the group practiced Miyagino, but only from the part when Tarō and his master arrive at the teahouse.

After this, Tarō and Fumiaki left, which I later learned via facebook was because they had to go to some schmooze-fest that evening. Tsuchimura took over and the group practiced Busu, Onigawara and Honekawa (though Jirō was absent, so they only did the other’s parts).

Well, the following day, I got up bright and early to meet Tarō at the local 7-11, where he was picking me up to take me to his father’s house so we could do some rice planting. The Yonemotos, like many a Yamaguchi citizen, are farmers as well as whatever day job they have (isn’t being a farmer a “day job?!?”). The Yonemotos have about 10 rice fields that I counted where they were seeding and prepping fields for future seeding (I think they did so the following weekend). I was unsure of what to expect, but I was prepared to wind up with a horribly stiff back from planting.

Fumiaki farming

This was not the case. When I arrived, I learned that they, like most people in the neighborhood, plant with a tractor that automatically plants each sprouted seedling (which the Yonemotos grow in a different field and transport to the rice fields). So the majority of my work for the first half of the day was helping Jirō bring Fumiaki, who operated the tractor, seedlings.

Afterwards, we returned to Fumiaki’s house, while his wife spot checked the fields herself, hand planting here and there where the seedlings did not properly plant into the soil. We then proceeded to have a huge lunch. At this point I said to myself “wow, that’s it? I got out of this one easy!”.

e planting

Me, before the work…Nice hat.

I was wrong. At about 3:30, we returned to the fields and Fumiaki handed me a pitchfork, told me to follow him and began laughing heartily. It was one of those laughs where I knew he was laughing at what was in store for me. We then proceeded to landscape the perimeter of each of the prep-fields with Fumiaki using a lawnmower to cut the grass and me, following behind, pitchforking the cut grass into the field for mulch. This took about 2 hours and I got the back pain I was expecting, along with some great blisters. I also had some serious abdominal fatigue- this is what I imagine Tarō was referring to when he said rice-planting can teach you how to better engage your diaphragm…

Afterwards, we returned to the house and Fumiaki took me to a shinto shrine on his property, which I learned was erected in 1835 and housed the Ujigami, or generic spirit of good harvest, which serves as the neighborhood shrine (for eight farmer families in total).

Atsumi Kiyoshi

Otoko wa Tsuraiyo (1976). One of 48 movies!

From 6pm until around 9pm, I enjoyed hanging out with the Yonemoto family, watching a Japanese version of Pawn Stars, the annual sumo match, various news reports about Sagi kyōgen the Yonemotos had recorded on their DVR and Otoko wa Tsuraiyo (It’s Tough Being a Man) starring one of Fumiaki’s favorite comedians, Kiyoshi Atsumi, who plays Tora-san, a tramp who gets into all sorts of antics. Fumiaki smoked like a chimney, Tarō spent most of his time on his cell phone, and Mrs. Yonemoto kept plying me with all kinds of food. I also got to meet the family’s faithful beagle, John, and 3 sister-kittens named Mi, Mu, and Ma. Fumiaki reveled in my inability to tell them apart.