A few weeks ago I headed back to Yamaguchi to catch the Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen show at Yamaguchi Prefectural University (YPU). Now in its 10th (and final) year, the Sagi kyōgen actors brought two plays I have yet to see them perform.
My trip to Yamaguchi was a whirlwind one. I left on Thursday, January 24th for a Sunday the 26th show and left the following Monday. I believe I was actually in transit for the same amount of time as I was in Yamaguchi.
Before leaving, I was surprised to find out that the annual winter production sponsored by Yamaguchi Prefectural University was being stopped after this year. I am not sure why this is. I asked Tarō about it and he just said “why don’t you ask YPU,” so I am guessing this was an unexpected turn of events. This is kind of sad because now the scheduled amount of annual performances shrinks to one (though the group is still performing for schools and cultural events consistently).
Since I arrived on a Friday, I was able to attend rehearsals on Saturday before the show. The first play the group rehearsed was Suminuri, or Black Crocodile Tears. In this play a daimyo is biding farewell to his weeping mistress, when Tarō Kaja realizes she is using a bowl of water to make it appear as if she is crying. Tarō explains this to his master, who doesn’t believe him, so Tarō secretly switches the bowl of water for a bowl of ink. Naturally the daimyo is surprised when his mistress’s face is covered in black marks, so he tells Tarō to give her a mirror as a token of his gratitude. Upon looking into the mirror, the mistress realizes what is going on, but instead of being embarrassed, she becomes outraged and splatters ink on the two men as they run out apologizing.
The role of the daimyo was played by Mr. Itō, Tarō Kaja by Mr. Suzuki, and the mistress by Yonemoto Tarō’s brother, Yonmeoto Jirō. This is a fun play and I was reminded of Yonemoto Bunmei’s original kyōgen performed in Fall 2017, Tanuki Damashi, in which black make-up was used as a way to embarrass a deceitful person.
Suehirogari, or An Umbrella Instead of A Fan, was the next play they rehearsed. This is a classic wordplay kyōgen in which a master sends his servant out to buy a suehirogari. Tarō kaja, not knowing what this is, is taken in by a cunning umbrella seller, who explains that the master’s description of the item matches one of his umbrellas perfectly. He also sweetens the deal by teaching Tarō a song and dance to make his master happy. Of course, when the master learns of Tarō’s mistake, Tarō is scolded and Tarō responds by performing the song and dance he was taught. The master is taken by the performance and joins in himself.
Yonemoto Tarō played Tarō Kaja, his father, Bunmei, played the umbrella seller, and Mr. Tsuchimura played the master. This one was definitely a little harder to get into because of all the wordplay, but watching the three senior members of the group is always a delight. This play also reminded of Junko Sakaba Berberich’s 1982 dissertation on the idea of “rapture” in kyōgen as structural component– she argues that the act of being overcome by a joyous need to sing and dance is a key component of many kyōgen plays.
The next day was the performance. The group only performed these two plays. I am not sure why the program was so short (last year they did three plays)– it might have been because they couldn’t get enough actors to do another, or it might have been that the kid’s kyōgen group, who performed last year, was not available.
In place of a third play, the group did a “talk-back” session in which students from YPU presented research they had done on the community’s (particularly the students at YPU) knowledge of Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen. While I understand the reason for doing this, I didn’t think presenting the (if I am being honest, here) predictable results of their research– that no one really knows about Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen– was something that the audience who was actually present needed to hear.
This part of the program made me think about the complexities of getting new audiences into Japan’s traditional performing arts, in general. One might go so far as to say all theatre faces this problem and I wonder if the choice to position education as the preferred tactic to foster theatre growth is perhaps part of the issue. In the case of a Japanese traditional performing art like kyōgen, it is quite common for there to be an “educational” part of the program in which an actor comes out and explains what kyōgen is, its history, etc. While this is (probably) useful for new audience members, those who are regulars have to sit patiently through these lectures/demonstrations with the understanding that this is a necessary evil for the art form to expand its audience.
However, what happens, particularly in Japan’s traditional performing arts, I’ve found, is that there is an underlying rhetoric of “this is a valuable tradition which must be preserved because it is part of our shared heritage.” The problem with this, in essence, is that this approach is asking you to take on an obligation before you establish any kind of emotional connection or pleasure for the art; an implicit suggestion is being made that you should appreciate first and enjoy second.
Of course I am speaking generally and this is not the case all the time. To some degree I am taking a very Western, outsider view of things– anyone who spends time in Japan, or does research on Japanese history, has experienced how much traditional methods and thinking play in contemporary life and how often the reason someone gives for supporting/engaging in a traditional art or practice is that, first and foremost, they “want to preserve tradition.”
But I would argue that those who are doing things outside the norm are cause for consideration. The Shigeyama family has done wonders for growing kyōgen audiences with new plays and charismatic young actors and they are also doing some innovative stuff in the kabuki theater student matinees. I saw this wonderful kabuki production at the National Theater about 3 years ago where, before the day’s play, an actor explained a very basic contemporary scene to the audience and then acted it out in a contemporary manner. Then, he explained some of kabuki’s trademark aspects, put on his kabuki make-up and costume, and proceeded to act out the exact same scene as if it were kabuki.
I think what I am taking issue with is the more typical outreach of traditional performing arts’ outreach practices. The dire, lecture-type, nature of many of these art forms’ efforts to reach new audiences is, to be frank, boring– and I am someone who doesn’t have to be sold on the value of it. It is perhaps an inevitable reaction of those arts which are no longer considered “popular,” to ask us to share their desire to cling to the past- after all it is in the past when they were “popular.” But I think what I like about the Shigeyamas and the kabuki matinees is that they are placing the desire to connect to contemporary audiences ahead of an understandable mission to make you understand why it needs to continue. New audiences in these arenas are growing because they are being given the chance to like something before being deciding, on their own, to appreciate it.
If I may return to the Sagi kyōgen case, there is another dimension which I think needs be considered: privilege. While the Shigeyamas, paid pro kyōgen actors, and the kabuki theater, which has an entire infrastructure dedicated to audience building, can focus on how they want to be perceived, the Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen actors have to contend with the basic need to be seen. It is understandable, therefore, that the students presenting at this “talk-back” session focused on this very issue. One might argue that because the group is consumed by keeping their head above water, there is little time to spend on matters of accessibility.
Additionally, the desire to “preserve tradition” as the driving force behind interest is one I have keenly felt amongst Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen actors. It may be because of this that the traditional lecture-style of introducing people to Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen is utilized. After all, one probably will use the same tactics to draw in new members that drew them in, right?