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.

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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.

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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.





Rehearsal, April 29th

This week was the last rehearsal before a break for the Golden Week holiday here in Japan. Along with the main rehearsal, I also had my individual rehearsal with Tarō beforehand. After the rehearsal I was able to interview one of the group’s most senior members, Tsuchimura Hirotaka, and his wife, both of whom began practicing Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen in 1991.

I met Tarō at 5pm for my rehearsal of Shibiri. I still haven’t memorized the part, so it has been a lot of call and repeat. That being said, I think this is OK, as I am finding that my problem is the same as everyone else’s, I don’t utilize my diaphragm when speaking. Tarō was quick to point out this week that there is a big difference between being loud and being resonant. It’s tough. I asked Tarō what kind of ways I might practice to improve this skill and he responded that doing kyōgen is the only way. This is a big difference from the western methods of learning to engage your voice through targeted training.

Now I don’t know that there is a special way that kyōgen actors must engage their voice that would be different from another artist. For example, the actor with the strongest voice of the group, arguably, is a noh actor. Yes, noh and kyōgen are a pair, but as Tarō explains to people when he talks about the differences between the arts, noh is singing, where kyōgen is the art of speaking. I would be interested to learn if there are unique voice training exercises among Japanese traditional performing arts that might enlighten western methods of improving stage actor’s voices, but I think that might be a topic for another researcher for now.

Anyways, after the practice, Tarō asked me if I wanted to perform in September as part of the kyōgen classroom. I might, but the thought right now is terrifying!

Today’s rehearsal was crowded, with 15 out of 18 players showing up and spilling into the rehearsal hall’s foyer. Miyagino (Miyagi Daimyo) was the first play practiced. Today the group was on its feet, though everyone had a script in hand. For the most part they all knew their lines, but the exact way of speaking them still required guidance from Tarō and Fumiaki. Since pretty much everyone is on their feet at this point, but I have yet to hear an explicit note from Fumiaki or Tarō telling them “oh, next week let’s do the staging,” I suspect there is just an understood number of times they sit reading the play before they start doing the staging. I’ll have to ask about this.

That being said, the group all knew the staging without being directed much. I think this is where the years of sitting and watching come into play. Since Miyagino is done quite frequently, I have a feeling there is little need among the actors to go over staging because they have all watched it so many times as audience members and as attentive rehearsal observers, that it is just known to them. While I have noticed more complicated things (like individual movement moments or chanted dances) require some stage direction, the basic stage directions of each play seems to be known to all.

I will also say, that although the group doing this play are some of the newer actors (newer is relative since the “newest” actor has been doing Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen for 5 years), their chemistry is really amazing. I have been kind of bored by Miyagino in the past, in spite of its crazy premise. With Shinbo as Tarō Kaja, the play almost takes on a kind of screwball comedy tone, turning the master into the overconfident man and Tarō Kaja into a strong woman, effectively creating a kind of ridiculous battle of the sexes.

Next the group moved on to Hikkukuri. Judging from a conversation between Tarō and Fumiaki, who are both in this, the play is going to be done as part of an upcoming show in Hagi on June 8th. I will be in the USA at this point, so I am going to miss it. That’s a bummer.

The group doing Honekawa is still at table reads, I am not sure why, but these are the younger kyōgen actors (age-wise) performing. Tarō’s brother, Jirō, came to rehearsal today and replaced Tarō in the role of the acolyte, so I guess Jirō is probably going to be playing the role in the November show. His absence (this is the first time I have seen him at rehearsal since February) may be the reason for the group still being seated. Judging from Jirō’s reading, he was definitely unfamiliar with the play.

After the rehearsal I had a really interesting interview with Tsuchimura and his wife. Both of them joined the group in 1991, which means they have been doing Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen for over 25 years. Unfortunately, Mrs. Tsuchimura has gone blind in recent years and hasn’t been able to perform on stage, but she still comes to every rehearsal and has an incredible memory of the repertory. Perhaps even more impressive than this duos tenure as Sagi kyōgen performers, is their tenure as the owners/chefs of the local Yamaguchi restaurant, Kurumi, for close to 50 years! I have to go!

The two are serious noh actors, and both have trained with the Kita school’s Kawgawa Seiji to improve their own abilities. But as they explained, this was all in service to Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen, which they also have a die-hard relationship with. I mentioned earlier about voice training being a point of interest. Well, in the case of the Tsuchimuras, they used noh training to help them improve their stage presence and vocal techniques. They did not, however, try to impose Kita school methods on Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen’s style, which both agree is unique. A common criticism of Sagi kyōgen, going all the way back to the school’s founder, Niemon, has been that Sagi kyōgen is just “copying” other styles because the actors have been associated with/ trained with the other schools. I think the Tsuchimuras provide an fine retort to this complaint, and provide an excellent example of how one can be influenced by another group, while still retaining individual artistry.

I was also really interested in Mrs. Tsuchimura, as a woman performing kyōgen, particularly as her answers to questions I asked Shinbo the week before were often the opposite. For example, while Shinbo noted that playing a woman is extremely hard, Mrs. Tsuchimura suggested that her gender made it that much easier. Mrs. Tsuchimura talked about how the wawashi characteristic which is often translated to mean an “annoying, strong willed woman” in kyōgen, from her perspective, is an invitation to embrace her individuality as a woman and bring a nuance to the term wawashi that a man just couldn’t, because, of course, he is a man.

Outreach and Sagi kyōgen

For the past two weeks a class at Yamaguchi Prefectural University has collaborated with the Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen Preservation Society to discuss the concept of “Creating Culture.” A group of about 30 students, over the course of 3 weeks, examined Sagi kyōgen as an extension of Yamaguchi culture. This past Friday they did their final presentations on ways Sagi kyōgen is building awareness and ways that they, as college students, might be able to help.

I was invited by Tarō to attend all 3 weeks of the project, but unfortunately I was out of town the first week. When I arrived on the second week, Tarō and Tsuchimura had brought costumes along with them. The class began with pre-selected students being costumed and Tarō discussing the preservation society’s challenges of kyōgen costuming. When I first was introduced to Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen, I read a 1997 interview with the group’s present (though inactive due to old age) head and Fumiaki, and they also talked about the challenges of costuming then.


The kyōgen costume consists of a few kinds of hakama (pants), several kimono, kataginu (wing-shaped fabric worn over the kimono), shime (under kimonos) and noshime (undershirts that protect the main costume), obi (waist wraps), and, depending on characters, swords and/or fans. There are also specialized costumes for the yamabushi character, special hats for daimyo characters and the binan-boshi (head wrap) for female characters. Along with specific colors, the kimono and kataginu will often have special embroidery meaningful to the commissioner. One of Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen’s greatest examples of this is a beautiful cicada (dragonfly) kataginu. Needless to say, these costumes are not easy to come by and require a specialist to make them. In other words, they are expensive!

I’ve spoken about the care which the Preservation Society takes when stowing the costumes after a show; their cost is certainly one of the reasons for this. Since the Society is non-professional, they can’t earn money for shows, so they must find alternative means to fund the building of new costumes (among any other activity they do). I was told that a grant they received in the past fall from a local bank, which seemed like a large sum to me, was earmarked to build about one new costume!

After the costuming, the class practiced some of the basic movements and speeches of Sagi kyōgen and Tarō talked about what makes Sagi kyōgen unique and its place in the world of Noh and kyōgen. Tarō also related the kyōgen suriashi, or walk, to kagura, one of Japan’s oldest native performing arts.

Since I had a meeting with Professor Inada that day, and I was already late, I had to duck out before the class ended, so I am not sure exactly what went on. However, the class had a rather specific worksheet to complete that was handed out at the beginning of the class, so I imagine they worked on that since they would be doing presentations the following week.

When I arrived this past Friday, Tarō and Tsuchimura were not present and the class was set to give presentations. There were a total of about 10 presentations and, for the most part, there were groups that did them (although sometimes it was just one person, who I believe was speaking on behalf of the group).

The presentation topics ranged from costuming, to building new audiences, to funding and each group discussed a particular person who had taught them about how kyōgen does it. Most of the presenters focused on Tarō, since he was the one present the previous two weeks, but one group talked about my old kyōgen teacher, Ogasawara Tasdashi.

Each group’s main question was “How can we, as college students, support the growth of Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen?” I thought the way the class answered this question enabled me to discover some very telling realities about selling traditional Japanese performance to a modern audience.

First, the majority of ideas that the class suggested utilizing were social media-based. Using SNS (Social Networking Services), crowd-funding, and youtube were the primary modes of communication the class felt would best get the word out to new generations of potential viewers. It is a common idea- impersonal media saturation leads to personalized word-of-mouth.

I later learned from Tarō that he already does a lot of these things and he is unaware of just how much they have paid off. In my own experience, based on the age of the attendees at the two tekikoen (scheduled performances) this year, I find it hard to believe that most of these audience members use facebook or social media at all. While my surveys didn’t address where the attendees learned about Sagi kyōgen, the ones the Preservation Society distributed, did, so I will need to look into this.

I won’t deny the use of social media as a platform surely has a benefit for reaching younger audiences, but it also has to contend with the sea of information the average user swipes through in any given day.  I wonder, how exactly does social media pay off when you are dealing with a group of people who are, maybe by nature, inclined to ignore that which does not immediately impact them?

OK, so then I think about the ads that do make it through. When does social media pay off? The answer, as I have suggested above is changing the impersonal e-blast into a personal conversation between friends. Word of mouth is the reason Tarō gives for utilizing social media (Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen uses Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter). If your friend says check this out, you check it out. But what do you do when you are trying to introduce something? Maybe the flyers filling your trash box are doing something right? Saturation is certainly key.

But Tarō is just one man with a day job. He doesn’t have the time or the resources to bombard youth culture with Sagi kyōgen advertisements. He doesn’t have a marketing team who can judge how well a campaign is doing and “shift paradigms” in order to increase user traffic. He is an amateur (by force, not choice) salesman in world of professional salesman. And what he is selling is inherently “old-fashioned.”

So, this brings me to my second observation about the class (and their relationship to Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen). Listening to the groups present, I had this nagging feeling in the back of my mind the whole time that was telling me, these groups were coming up with ways to promote something they have no real interest in. While the notions of creating YouTube videos and SNS campaigns are all great ideas and indicative of the young people who came up with them, they failed to address the most crucial question: what makes one (a young person or otherwise) want to watch Sagi kyōgen?


Vocaloid Hatsune Miku (left) shares the stage with Kabuki superstar, Nakamura Shido II (right), in the 2016 super kabuki production of Hanakurabe Senbonzakura, a fusion of Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees and the Miku song “Senbonzakura.”

This is a bigger issue that I think all once mainstream media-turned niche art has to face. In the west theatre like Shakespeare has the benefit of being “reinvented,” but in Japan a traditional performing art is respected for its connection to the past, so to aggressively change it becomes problematic. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. The vocaloid sensation, Hatsune Miku, whose holographic image tours annually and caters to millions of fans, has, for the past two years, performed alongside star Kabuki actors in famous kabuki plays. In kyōgen and noh, new plays deal with modern issues and include modern music and gestures (an idea which the class said Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen should do). The idea of these activities being that once they reel new audience members in with things that aren’t the traditional thing, they can transition them into the traditional thing.

I would need to see statistics to see how well this works, but for Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen, they have enough trouble keeping the traditional thing alive- they can’t be changing things, willy nilly, in hopes some young people might jump on board. I also think this kind of activity basically avoids dealing with the question I asked above- these artificial projects that invoke the name of the traditional forms are actually proving the contemporary mind’s point, that these things don’t have any relation to contemporary society.

Of course, I wouldn’t be doing what I was doing if I thought that was true and I have nothing against innovation. But innovation as a means to lure people to something else is false advertising and false advertising usually ends up with a temporary, if not angry patron. I agree that convincing new generations of traditional performing art’s value is a constant challenge, but I think they endure precisely because they say something relevant about people that defies time. The majority of the people who completed surveys for me thus far say their main reason for coming to see Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen is because they enjoy the stories and find them funny, not because they feel some responsibility to blindly support a tradition. In other words, the class’s assignment to consider how they might support Sagi kyōgen preservation in Yamaguchi avoided the bigger question of why they should do it and, as a result, the ideas put forth were conceptually fantastic but lacked the necessary personal connection to transform saturation into word-of-mouth.

Of course, these students are not in a marketing class and there are no consequences for their failure to seal the proverbial deal. They were merely tasked with finding new ways to get the word out about Sagi kyōgen. In that, I think they succeeded and highlighted just how complicated reaching younger audiences is for something deemed “traditional.” They also, inadvertently, pointed out a key trap of selling a product- if you can’t prove why it’s worth caring about, no one will care. Wait, maybe that’s why my trash bin is filled with so many flyers?

April 22nd Rehearsal and the “Straight Man”

I missed the previous week’s rehearsal due to some visiting relatives and a trip to Tokyo. Today was a busy rehearsal day and also the first day of my individual interviews with members of the group.


Ink Painting of the husband getting dragged off in a sack by his wife.

The rehearsal started with a rehearsal of Hikkukuri (Tied up in a Sack) with Tarō playing the wife, Fumiaki playing the husband and Tsuchimura playing Tarō Kaja. I am not quite sure why they are practicing this, but I suspect it may be for an upcoming school show as there are several scheduled in the month of June.

Among other things, the main thing that caught my ear during this rehearsal is that Tarō, when playing the wife, does not change his voice to make it sound more “female.” I put the word female in quotations because the wife character in kyōgen is typically quite shrewish and, in the versions I’ve seen, the actor typically adopts a higher voice than his own and makes it sound very nagging.

This got me thinking again about women in the kyōgen world, this time as characters. If you think, historically, about post-Muromachi era (1392-1573), kyōgen had the goal of providing a nuanced comedic experience in which people’s faults were exposed, but were not targeted aggressively (i.e. the point is that the entire world is ridiculous, no one character is the focal point). To play the female character as a purely loud, obnoxious villain is far too direct and critical for kyōgen and is therefore perhaps an incorrect assessment of how these women are meant to be seen. Take Hikkukuri for example. While the women may be so unpleasant, narratively speaking, that the husband wants to divorce her, in the end he is too stupid to see she is more clever than he. In fact, one of the husband’s initial complaints about his wife is she has been able to outsmart his previous attempts to get a divorce. While Hikkukuri‘s wife character may be a crank, the actor playing her must also consider her intelligence advantage in order to create the comedy of the play.

So is playing the character with a shrill voice doing a disservice to the character? I think the answer is it depends on the actor. I have seen productions where the voice is done in such a way where the wife’s intelligence is completely overshadowed and I think, in this case, the comedy’s nuances are poorly understood by the actor. On the other hand, I have seen the voice utilized as a manifestation of the wife’s strength, and in this case, I didn’t have a problem with the high voice.

I think of this situation a lot like when a western actor has to play the “straight man” (as opposed to the buffoon). The straight man is the one who is seemingly serious in the face of his or her partner’s tomfoolery. Abbot was Costello’s “straight man,” Ricky was Lucy’s “straight man,” and for those of us who need a more contemporary example, Squidward is Spongebob’s “straight man.” The wife is often kyōgen’s “straight man.”

As an actor, being the “straight man” can seem to be unrewarding, but is a crucial part of the comedic machine. From my own experience, when playing the “straight man” and hearing the laughs my partner, the buffoon, was getting, there was always desire to be like the buffoon. I wanted people to laugh at what I was doing too. But as the “straight man,” if I try to get laughs in the same way as the buffoon, I am no longer the “straight man,” and the comedy’s rhythms, timing and overall quality decreases as a result.


The Honeymooners. Alice (Audrey Meadows, right) gives Ralph (Jackie Gleason. left) that patented “oh really” look.

I think the “straight man” may be the real master of comedy. I look at comedies I love and oddly, the person whose individual choices I always seem to remember the most isn’t the buffoon, it’s the “straight man.” I have always loved The Honeymooners. But if you ask me who I think was the most hilarious, it is Audrey Meadows. She could do with one look what Jackie Gleason needed a whole routine to accomplish. I would argue that my favorite movie, Ghostbusters, works because all four ghostbusters are individual straight men playing against a city of, both living and supernatural, buffoons. Much of Steve Martin’s comedy makes him seem like a wacky guy, but I think more often than not, he’s actually the “straight man.” The point is, the buffoon needs the straight man to make him (or her) look good. The “straight man” is the voice of reason in a world that, if it were full of only buffoons, would make absolutely no sense.

I think the Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen choice to avoid using a shrill voice is an interesting one because it basically says “I understand I am the straight man. What is funny about that?” While I am not sure if other kyōgen schools also make this same choice, I think it is significant that the Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen group does.

Next the group rehearsed Fukuro and this time it was up on its feet. The role of the younger brother (played by the middle school girl) is stationary, sitting on the kazura oke (black lacquer all-purpose bucket prop), occasionally hooting. The play is a bit of a mess right now and, based on the major note Tsuchimura and Fumiaki gave to the MS girl, “work on timing,” I can see the “straight man” again playing a crucial role in the comedy.

With almost nothing to do and no investment in the pair of buffoons’ (the older brother and a Yamabushi mountain priest tasked with healing the younger brother) shenanigans, the comedy of the play really relies on the critical timing and deadpan delivery of the younger brother’s occasional hoots for this play to work. Granted the middle school girl is performing with the two most senior members of the group and this has to be unbelievably intimidating, but I hope she can take Tarō’s note and “relax,” because it will be crucial to making the play work.

The final rehearsal of the day was for Hone Kawa (The Mixed-Up Acolyte). Since the last time I saw it, Tarō and Tsuchimura had switched roles and now Tarō was the head priest and Tsuchimura was the acolyte. It is still in the reading phase, and admittedly there are A LOT of words to deal with, this being a play that’s comedy relies heavily on verbal misunderstandings, but I hope to see some of the goofiness that I know is in it once they get it up on its feet.

After the rehearsal I did my first interview with Shinbo, one of the female members of the group and her son. A lifelong Yamaguchi resident, it seems Shinbo has always been aware of Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen, but didn’t begin doing it until about 10 years ago. Interestingly, her son always went with her to the rehearsals (he began at age 5!) and started doing Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen at age 9. I was interested to hear that the most difficult roles for her to do are the female characters, because she thinks they are male constructs of women, rather than depictions of actual women, and she finds herself having to consciously avoid things she would naturally do as a woman.

April 8th Rehearsal

I’ve been a little overwhelmed with visitors the past two weeks, so I haven’t had a chance to update on rehearsals. I missed the most recent one, as I was out of town, so this one is about the rehearsal on April 8th, where I continued my own practice on Shibiri and attended the main rehearsal afterwards.

Since I don’t have a script, I spent the week before the rehearsal transcribing a recording I made of the rehearsal itself. This process enabled me to hear both how Tarō pronounced it and how I repeated it. Overall, I would say I have the tendency to begin each sentence with far too much force and I am guilty of adding a rhythmic pattern similar to the one that Bunmei often corrects people on during rehearsal. I am not sure why this pattern exists with the others, but for me it stems from practicing the more wavelike sound of the Ōkura and Izumi school styles.

The pauses are also in different places. For example the phrase “Kore wa kono atari ni sumai itasu mono de gozaru,” which is commonly translated as “I am a person who lives around here.” In the Ōkura version the pause falls after “…atari ni” but in the Yamaguchi Sagi version it comes a word later, after “…sumai.” I have been told that Yamaguchi Sagi kyogen is closer to the way people actually speak, but this claim seems odd upon reflection, since the pause after the particle, “ni,” seems a lot more natural than a pause in between words (sumai itasu). I need to look into this.

Though I had a transcribed version of the script, I was not allowed to use it. At first this was troubling, as I didn’t remember much of the script and I thought it would be irritating for Tarō to have to say all the lines when I could have them right in front of me. However, the lack of that piece of paper was kind of freeing, as it allowed me to pay attention to everything Tarō was doing and spend less time looking down at words I’m not sure how this method would work in a western style rehearsal, though I must admit, as a director I have spent a lot of time complaining to actors that “you’re not listening to your partner.” Maybe this is a good thing?

The main rehearsal was quite long, compared to the usual ones. It began with Bunmei and Tsuchimura working on Fukuro. This process is very strange as it seems to be an ongoing conversation with the two senior members, rather than a rehearsal. What I mean by this, is usually there is more concern over the presentation and the pronunciation of words. But for these two, this is not an issue, so they plan on how they want to do the play. They discuss pauses, repetition, etc, things that only a person who has a complete mastery over form could do. It’s fun to watch them work, though I feel bad for the middle school girl (who is playing the afflicted brother who can only make the owl sounds “whoo! whoo!”)- she is a babe in some pretty unknown woods, I think.

That being said, Professor Inada had a conference to go to, so he wasn’t at rehearsal and I did notice that there were several conversations between members about how to pronounce certain kanji, which was not necessarily known by Bunmei or Tsuchimura. Surprisingly, much of the confirmed knowledge seem to come from Tsuchimura’s wife, who is not an actress, but attends every rehearsal. I am really interested to know more about her relationship with the group!

Next the group rehearsed Hikkukuri (Tied up in a Sack), but I am not sure why. I imagine it is for an upcoming school show. As far as I know, there is one in May, but I am not sure.

Busu was next on the list and Ikeda was replaced by one of the male actors (who was practicing it also). Ikeda, was not at rehearsal, so I am not sure exactly how this play is working in terms of the actual performance. However it is clear that during the rehearsal process there is some swapping of roles that occurs so everyone can practice throughout the year. I will be interested to see if actors who are currently working on one play, wind up rehearsing another in the coming months.

Finally, after some time (at least a month and half), the young actors got a chance to work on Hone Kawa. This was not because the actors necessary had not been coming to rehearsal, in fact all of them haven’t missed a single rehearsal since January (well, one of them was absent once). I am interested to know why this is the case- though my suspicions, based on what Tarō spent most of his time correcting, suggest that it is so the younger actors can keep listening to the uniform rhythmic patterns of speaking before doing a play themselves.

In this play, again, there was some confusion as to the correct way to pronounce things and it was often Tsuchimura’s wife who stepped in to provide the correct information.

This week I am beginning interviews with actors, so I am very excited to learn more about how Yamaguchi life and Sagi kyogen intersect!

Rehearsal, March 25 and Women in Japan’s Traditional Performing Arts

This past Saturday the group rehearsed only one play, Miyagi Daimyo. As I think I have mentioned before, the role of Tarō Kaja is being performed by one of Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen’s female members. It was this week, where all the focus seemed to be on her ability (or lack thereof) to appropriately capture the correct rhythms and tones her male scene partners, that got me thinking about women in kyōgen and the challenges that any woman must face when trying to be a member of this (typically speaking) boy’s club.

Women in Japan’s major traditional performing arts (noh, kyōgen, kabuki and the bunraku puppet theatre) are few and far between, at least professionally. This is due to various factors, both quasi-religious and social in nature, that took an enduring hold in the Tokugawa period (1603-1868). In Noh and kyōgen, women might have been banned from performing because of their “unclean status” and the desire of these Shinto-based arts to adhere to the tenants of the “faith.” However, since Shintoism is not really a religion and women, historically, have played a major role in Shinto activities, the real reason for the absence of women in noh and kyōgen is probably due to the male Tokugawa government’s ideas. While religion may be a pretext for such rules, both social and political factors also seem to play a role.



The first argument for why women were excluded could be considered an attempt to address a social concern- the idea being that a woman on stage was an act of immorality. Where did they get the idea that having a woman perform was immoral? Well, kabuki probably had a lot to do with it, since kabuki’s female founder (and Shinto priestess), Izumo no Okuni, and her band of all-female performers inspired a host of brothel-based emulators, effectively tying early kabuki to prostitution. This led to a banning of onna (or women’s) kabuki in 1929 by Tokugawa Iemitsu and ushered in the era of wakashū (or young boy’s) kabuki in which young, pretty boys, would play the female roles. However, the problem of prostitution persisted, so the boys were banned in 1652. Thus kabuki became an all adult male art. Now you may say “hey, women clearly weren’t the problem” and you’d be right. But, be that as it may, the government’ worried that men could not control themselves, so the women needed to remain off the stage.

But it wasn’t just the idea that these arts were immoral that exiled women from these arts, I think. Political factors also played a major role. You might recall the name Iemitsu, as he was the shōgun who was responsible for bestowing shikigaku (ceremonial art of the bakufu) status to select  noh and kyōgen schools. As I have mentioned before, along with this status was the requirement that the school prove it’s lineage through the male-centric iemoto system, which legitimizes the art through father and son bloodlines. In such a system, there was no room for women.

Fast forward to today, While noh has about 200 professional female performers, kyōgen has only a few, and kabuki and bunraku (as far as I know) remain professionally male. The women that do perform have an uphill battle. A 2004 article in the Japan Times suggests that there are inherent prejudices female noh performers face- like not being able to perform the female driven Maiden at Dojōji because they are not allowed to touch the bell, which is the play’s central prop (this was a Hōshō school noh actress and I don’t know if things have changed since then…).


From right to left: Izumi Motoya, Miyake Tōkurō and Izumi Junko.

In kyōgen, the most notable professional female performers are definitely the Izumi school’s Miyake Tokurō X and her older sister, Izumi Junko. You can learn about them here (sorry only Japanese). Like their male counterparts, they have studied kyōgen since they were 3 years old and have performed the gateway plays that a professional must do on the road to professional status. Miyake notes that there is no history of women performing Izumi school kyōgen in its 250 year existence, which means her and her sister’s activities are quite innovative. I really want to see them perform!

Needless to say, scholarship on women as kyōgen actresses is somewhat limited. June Compton is probably the most notable scholar who has done work with this, trying to reimagine kyōgen’s female characters as more than shrews and nags, and creating a female-focused system of play identification to mirror the more commonly known one that focuses on thematic elements. You can read about it here, if you are interested.

Back to the Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen rehearsal- much of the hurdles this actress faces, as I have mentioned, stem from an inability to capture the appropriate tones and rhythms. While rhythms are arguably a matter of practice, I wonder what she is to do when the note is: “your voice is too high.” In other words, the male-centric style of performance is inherently rigged against a female voice because it requires them to engage almost entirely in a lower register. While some women have no problem with this- in fact I think this may be why the new middle school student is being embraced so fervently- it is like entering a world of Opera where everyone sings in tenor, baritone or bass and anything above that simply excludes you.

Now, I am still figuring out exactly what is achieved by remaining in these “male” registers- Needless to say, there is an art to playing a character, both male and female, which the male-actors in these arts have cultivated over the last 600 years (admittedly, I don’t know how often women performed noh or kyōgen before the Tokugawa period, so I am considering the male version of kyōgen’s history which stems back to the late 1300s). Artistically speaking- What does a lower register tell us about a male character that a higher register might dilute? How does the lower register effectively play with other actors (in terms of a play’s overall rhythmic structure)?

More importantly, at least to me, is what happens when things have to be different. In the professional world they have not had to face the have to situation quite yet, though they are coming close in noh and bunraku- the former widening their activities to include women (though still facing audience attendance issues) and the latter trying to get women to commit to the 30 years of training, but having little luck. In other words, it might soon be necessary for these arts to start including women for practical reasons and, with that need, comes a host of questions that (I believe) will require artists to grapple with exactly how these arts will do this.

Miyake says on her website kyōgen isn’t necessarily about men and women, it is about laughter, and laughter transcends male-female (and cultural) barriers. Such a sentiment alludes to the fact that there is no reason why women shouldn’t be able to perform kyōgen; that the gendering of the art is merely a construct we can surpass. On one hand, I like this idea, because it is inclusive. On the other hand, though, I think it’s important that we recognize that the performer is female because to ignore it is to say the artist is a mere vessel for an art which is out of their control. Much in the same way an aggressive focus on the way kyōgen is supposed to be done strips agency from an individual male kyōgen actor’s abilities, to ignore that the performer is female, is to deny the unique and individual merits she offers the art.

Bō Shibari, Tied to Pole.

Bō Shibari (Tied to A Pole)

I guess what I am saying is how one engages an art is usually more interesting to me than how one represents it. It’s what makes the art alive. Of course, in a traditional performing art like kyōgen there has to be a balance between what was and what is, but I am grateful I get to learn more about how the women in Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen are traversing this minefield. I imagine understanding their experiences will, in turn, yield some valuable perspectives towards understanding women’s role in the larger world of kyōgen and in other Japanese traditional performing arts.

Rehearsal March 18, hopping into the Sagi kyōgen Saddle, and a trip to the Yamaguchi Prefectural Art Museum.

My Saturday began with a trip to Yamaguchi’s Prefectural art museum. I am a bit ashamed to say this is the first time I have gone, mainly because it has a pretty high caliber collection of local art and touring exhibits. I went to hear Tarō speak about a collection of Mōri family masks and costumes from noh and kyōgen which are typically kept at Noda Shrine. As I learned, the collection, which was basically all about 300+ years old was some of the remaining pieces that hadn’t been auctioned off during the Meiji Period (1868-1912) when the clan system was dissolved and the Mōri clan started selling off their collections. Tarō’s talk was basic in nature, and introduced the crowd to the differences between noh and kyōgen masks and explained the intricacies of noh/kyōgen costumes and props. Afterwards, I got to meet the curator of exhibit and learned that many of the Sagi actors in Yamaguchi were born in Yamaguchi, mainly in the seat of the Mōri clans power, Hagi- I need to look into this.


Hannya Mask, perhaps the most famous of noh masks. Depicts the various emotions of jealous woman. Angry or sad, depending on the angle, but smiling in spite of it all. 

I also got a question answered which I asked some time ago regarding why Sagi kyōgen was popular in Yamaguchi, despite the Mōri clan’s longstanding grudge against the Tokugawa government. According to the exhibit, the 2nd generation Mōri daimyo befriended Tokugawa Hidetada, the 2nd Tokugawa shogun and, as a result a large number of Kita and Hosho school noh families moved to Yamaguchi with the daimyo’s support. While this doesn’t speak directly to Sagi kyōgen, it illustrates that the Mōri clan wasn’t necessarily a long-suffering opponent of the Tokugawa clan. As Tarō said to me later in the day “It was the Japanese way at that time. Friends today, but tomorrow…?”

Anyways, turns out Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat will be making its way to Yamaguchi’s Prefectural Art museum- looking forward to seeing that in real life!

Later in the day I took my first Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen lesson. After some sound advice from a man much wiser than I, I decided to take advantage of Tarō’s time being freed up since his kyōgen classroom is on hiatus, and ask him to start teaching me Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen. Since the typical time in which this would occur, should a local wish to participate, is on Saturdays from 5pm-6pm before the main rehearsals, so it is for me.

I was pretty unsure of what to expect for a number of reasons. First and foremost, Tarō was aware I had taken kyōgen lessons with both the Shigeyama family in Kyoto and with the Izumi school’s Ogasawara Tadashi in Tokyo. I performed as the master in the play Shibiri as part of the summer Traditional Theater Training program offered by the Kyoto art center in 2011. This program lets people study for 3 weeks with either professional Kanze noh actors, Ōkura kyōgen actors (Shigeyama family), and nihonbuyo dance teachers and perform on the Kanze Kaikan noh stage in Kyoto. It’s really an amazing thing- Yes, I am plugging it and yes, you can still sign up for this summer! I spent almost a year learning Izumi style komai (short kyōgen song and dance pieces) from Ogasawara sensei in 2014-15 and he was the one who introduced me to Sagi kyōgen in Yamaguchi and Sadogashima.

Secondly, I was also unsure of how I would be taught, since: A) the kyōgen language is not something I can just read off the page- it is in old Japanese and I have enough trouble with contemporary Japanese! and: B) we had not discussed what we would be working on.

True to the Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen way I heard about, though not yet seen, we wasted no time sitting and reading and got right to it. The rehearsal started off with Tarō showing me the basic introduction nanori, or name announcing, which is the same in a number of plays, along with some basic movement (kata) when entering, walking and turning. He spoke the text aloud, asked me to repeat it, and corrected my pronunciation when necessary. As I am not an actor, per se, I was of course given the obligatory note “speak from your diaphragm.”

Comparatively speaking, all three kyōgen stances require one to bend the knees slightly, bring the chest forward and pull the head back. While the Shigeyama style required me to bend my legs a lot (mainly because I am tall), the Izumi school required almost no bending at all. The Yamaguchi Sagi style sits somewhere in the middle, with my legs being slightly bent. I’m not 100 percent sure at this point, but I also think the Shigeyama style also may require a kind of forward leaning that is more pronounced than the other two, but admittedly, I didn’t pay as much attention to this in my first Yamaguchi Sagi rehearsal, so I will have to keep an eye out about that in the future.


Some other differences included the way you point the fan as the master when you call for Tarō Kaja (the Yamaguchi Sagi people have a unique way of doing this) and, when doing the michiyuki (walking pattern) which designates traveling over a distance, the Yamaguchi Sagi style has one walk in a triangular pattern between the the USR shite pillar (same place as the nanori), the DSR sumi-bashira, the DSL waki-bashira and then back to the shite pillar, whereas the Shigeyama version is more of a circle. I am not completely sure, but I seem to remember the Izumi michiyuki pattern was also a triangle.

After the basics, Tarō asked me, so “what play do you want to do?” I was afraid he was going to ask me that- and believe me, I can only assume my reaction was the same as what a new doctor might have if he walked into a hospital on the first day and the staff said “so what operation do you want to do first?” Terrifying. Since Tarō knew I had done Shibiri, we decided to do that one, but this time I had to be Tarō Kaja. The play is only about 10 minutes long, which is good, since I would prefer to be able to take small bites first. Since we had no script, and I knew even if I did, I wouldn’t have the time to properly translate the script AND practice this week, I started my tape recorder. The lesson consisted of Tarō playing both parts and me repeating the part of Tarō Kaja, since that is who I was supposed to be playing.

As with any art, its the seemingly easiest things that are the most unbelievably complex. I found myself tripping over my own feet trying to do the basic walking I needed to do and repeatedly caught my body relaxing into a position which was incorrect. We spent a good 5 minutes on me trying to say the phrase “aita, aita aita aita” which basically means “ow, ow ow ow!” Listening to the recording of me doing it, I can hear what I am doing wrong, but I still don’t think I quite understand how to say it right. In revisiting the lesson I also heard myself repeatedly speaking in the patterns of the Shigeyama style of kyōgen and though, at the time, I thought I was repeating what Tarō was saying, I was, in fact, not saying it correctly at all. Boy, I hope Tarō doesn’t regret saying yes to me!

At 6pm the main group arrived and rehearsal began. It was a busy day for the middle school girl, who was required to not only practice her “hooting” as the owl-afflicted brother in the play Fukuro, but also the role of Tarō Kaja in Miyagi Daimyo because the woman playing that role was absent. As I know the reading of the scripts are difficult for everyone, I was surprised to see that although this girl had played the role of the master in this play when she performed it, she still knew all of Tarō Kaja’s lines anyways. I am going to try and take a lesson from her and attempt to remember all the lines of Shibiri, not only my own.

The last rehearsal of the day was Busu. Thanks to Tarō’s lecture at the museum earlier, I learned a little something interesting about one of the performers- the one with the incredible voice. I noticed his practice fan was not like the others, it was gold with green horizontal stripes. Since Tarō had identified this type of fan as one used by the Kanze noh school (of which Tarō studied with at the Tokyo Arts University) I knew immediately this actor must also have experience with Kanze noh- which would explain his crazy strong voice. I’m not saying that noh actors have a “stronger” voice than kyōgen actors or that Kanze noh is known for its strength of voice over other noh schools- just that the fan made it clear this actor has had prior training outside of his work as a Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen actor. I’ll be interested to hear more about his experiences when I start interviewing in a few weeks.

Rehearsal, Saturday March 10 and a Day at Ouchi Elementary’s Yamadera Concert

This weekend was super busy with rehearsals on Saturday and an all day performance at Ouchi Elementary school on Sunday.


Rehearsal was rather low key as Tarō was busy hosting an event downtown for an Amami Shima-uta musician from Kikaijima named Saori Kawabata. She plays the sanshin, which is a 3-stringed banjo-like precursor of the better known shamisen, which is the 3 stringed instrument you probably hear whenever something needs a “Japanese” sound. The sanshin was first brought to Okinawa sometime in the 16th century. The instrument was adopted by blind narrative chanters known as biwa hoshi (named for playing the biwa, which is also a stringed instrument) who started collaborating with puppeteers sometime in the last 10 years of the 1500s. This collaboration would lead to the creation of ningyō jōruri and bunraku puppet theatre. The shamisen was also adopted by the kabuki theatre.

Unlike the shamisen, which is typically made from cat or dog skin (sorry kitties and puppies!), the sanshin is made from snake skin (python to be exact, sorry snakes!), though today you can buy non animal skin ones. It also makes use of a chimi, which is a claw like apparatus worn on the index finger to pluck the strings, whereas the shamisen uses a flat paddle-like plecturn. Sound-wise, it is said because the shamisen has no B or F notes, it is a brighter sounding instrument than the shamisen, but I imagine people would probably debate that point. I’m not a musician so I don’t know.

Shima-uta is a brand of music specific to the of Amami Islands, which like Okinawa, makes up part of the Ryukyu island archipelagos. Among the Amami islands is Kikaijima, which is where Kawabata-san is from. It got real popular after 2000 as a form of pop-music/traditional music fusion thing.

Anyways, at rehearsal, Bunmei worked with some of the new actors, one of which I have seen around lately, but have yet to meet officially. The group worked on Busu, which was conducted in a more “traditional” way of rehearsing, in which Bunmei recited and the corresponding actor repeated the lines. Since the new guy seemed pretty good at it and didn’t have any trouble remembering long passages of text to repeat, I’m thinking he might just be coming back to the group after an extended absence- I’ll find out.

Sunday at around noon, I headed over to Ouchi Elementary school to attend the 8th annual Yamadera Concert. According to the program, this concert is kind of a homage (I guess) to an event called the “February Meeting” which used to be held up until the end of the Edo period (1600-1868) at Yamaguchi’s famous temple Kōryūji. This year there was a combination of pre-schoolers (I think) singing, kids Sagi kyōgen, Kawabata-san and shima-uta, Sagi kyōgen, bugaku and gagaku. Fortunately it was a nice day, so the turnout was good (at least at first).

First up was the Kangaroo Pocket group, which was the pre-schoolers singing really basic stuff. Certainly something more for the parents than the general public, I surmised, particularly as once it was over, pretty much every parent in the audience grabbed their kid and split. Next was 2 kids Sagi kyōgen shows- Busu (The Delicious Poison) and Yobi Koe (Tricked by a Rhythm). At first I thought I wondered how this event was only supposed to last about 3-4 hours when each kyōgen being performed averaged 30 minutes. However, it became clear almost immediately that the shows had been abridged.


After the kyōgen the bugaku and gagaku performers were up. Bugaku (dance art) and gagaku (music art) are some of Japan’s oldest forms of performance, imported from Korea (then called Paekche) around 600AD by a guy named Mimashi. These forms have represented the aristocratic practically ever since and certainly influenced noh and kyōgen’s style. These were also the marks of culture the Tokugawa shogunate was trying to match when they made noh and kyōgen shikigaku (ceremonial arts of the bakufu) in the early 1600s. So, yeah, it was slow and made me sleepy. But it still was a cool thing to see it in action- the instruments are really ethereal sounding. The bugaku was performed by local kids, while the gagaku was done by adults.


Then it was back to kids kyōgen and this time it was Fune Funa (A Pronunciation Problem) and Shimizu (A Demon for Better Working Conditions). While Shimizu and Busu are crowd favorites and really accessible, I was really surprised these kids were doing Fune Funa and Yobi Koe. Fune Funa is all about wordplay, which is really boring unless you can LOCK IT UP and Yobi Koe requires some incredible rhythmic ability. I wish I could say these kids had it, but they’d all only been rehearsing for about 2 months (though the Shimizu kids have been doing it for quite some time), so this was kind of an impossible task. That being said, since most of the actors were brothers and sisters, there was something kind of fun about watching silly power dynamics through siblings.


I finally found out why the Sagi kyōgen people were rehearsing Sakka as that was the show they did here. It was OK, but I think the performance was visibly jostled by the mass exodus of people in between shows prior. It is too bad because I think the dynamic of Tarō, Tsuchimura and Bunmei in this configuration is really good.

Finally, Kawabata-san performed. I felt bad for her going last, since there was only about 1/3 of the audience left by the time she got on stage. It also didn’t help that the whole thing was 1/2 hour behind schedule. Kawabata-san is an amazing performer and has a crazy good voice- I did find myself watching the performance as a weird hybrid of past and present, which I think is the point of shima-uta. She tried at one point to get people to sing along, sort of successfully, but again, everyone was just so drained. My only complaint about this part of the show was Kawabata-san’s voice was so strong, and this combined with gymnasium acoustics (the performance was held in the school gym, if you couldn’t tell from the pictures), made using a microphone overkill.

Rehearsal, Saturday March 4th, kyōgen magic, and a trip to the 28th Annual Nōgaku Forum in Ōsaka

This past Saturday I got treated to a little more of Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen’s “kyōgen magic” as the group did their weekly rehearsal. This phrase is the way Bunmei describes kyōgen’s ability to create a new story through characterization. In the western theatre world we probably take this kind of thing for granted, as personal interpretation is a key element of performance, but in a traditional performing art like kyōgen discovering how to do this is kind of the challenge for the actor and one of the joys for the viewer.

So, as I have said over and over, kyōgen, as a traditional art, has to follow the rules- in the form of kata. These predetermined movements and vocal patterns not only define traditional kyōgen as an art form, it also separates one family’s style from another. So then, why would you watch something if it is always supposed to be the same, right?

I think the answer to that is two-fold. Let’s think of Shakespeare. On the one hand, we appreciate an actor’s ability to effectively speak in iambic-pentameter, Shakespeare’s kata, of sorts. On the other we also appreciate the new spin the actor puts on a character. Now, of course, one would probably argue that when it is discovered that a great Shakespeare performer says “oh, I didn’t even pay attention to the iambic pentameter,” only a few purists are going to clutch their pearls, because the portrayal is kind of the most important thing. In Japan, on the other hand, there is probably going to be a lot more pearl clutching going on if a kyōgen actor suddenly decided “hey, I’m just gonna do it my way.”

So how do you make something your own then? As I am learning through Yamaguchi’s “kyōgen magic,” it is all about subtlety. As I mentioned last week, Bunmei’s master in Sakka is much different than Tarō’s. That being said they are both saying the lines basically the same way and doing the same movements. So it’s got to be in the facial expressions, right? Not exactly. I would say that all the kyōgen actors in Yamaguchi avoid crazy facial expressions- This reason for this, I’m not sure, but I suspect it is similar to the western director’s common request of an actor “don’t tell me, show me.” In other words, big, hammy overacting is “telling” whereas subtlety is “showing.” In other words, a major part of enjoying a play, east or west, might be the discovery of the actor’s character through subtle cues.

I don’t think facial expression is of no value, mind you. I have mentioned the “look on Tsuchimura’s face” when he played Tarō Kaja in Sakka as a major source of my enjoyment. However, in watching him perform the character of Sakka this week, I realized his face always looks like that- it’s his “kyōgen face.” So what I think I saw in that moment was Tsuchimura’s core character realized- Zeami’s flower blooming. Much in the same way, as Bumnei plays the master, his face never changes, but his face, at times, perfectly captures a unique personality that makes his portrayal of the master different from other actors.

I also think slight variations in speech play a big part too. While I don’t think that the general rhythm of the lines changes, a well timed pause between two character’s interactions can have a profound effect on how we view the character. For example, after Tarō Kaja mimics his master exactly, sounding like an idiot, the master says “Yai, Tarō, chotto koi,” which basically means “Tarō Kaja, can I have a word with you?” When Tarō played the role of the master, he spoke the line immediately after Tarō (the character) made the mistake. This made the master seem like he was fed up with Tarō. Bunmei, on the other hand, took a slight pause before asking to speak to Tarō, which suggested a much more measured man, trying to tamp down his feelings. It is just a little pause, but it says so much about the character- facial expressions or major acting choices don’t define them, little things do. It’s pretty neat.


One of two dolls given to Sengorō IX upon the Shigeyama family’s debut performance at the Imperial Place in 1822. On display at the Nōgaku Forum at Kansai University.

Then, on Monday, I headed to Ōsaka’s Kansai University for the 28th annual Nōgaku forum because its focus was on kyōgen. I was invited by Jonah Salz, who is basically the western kyōgen guy here in Japan (if not the world). He has been doing kyōgen fusion work with the Shigeyama kyōgen family since the 1980s and is the artistic director of Theatre NOHO, as well as a professor at Ryūkoku University in Kyōto. I owe a lot to him as he was my kyōgen sherpa for the year I lived in Kyōto.

The conference’s main purpose was to celebrate the efforts of a man named Ikari Takashi, whose family has kept a book of Shigeyama kyōgen in his family for over 100 years, however the celebrated kyōgen scholar (and deshi of Nomura Man), Taguchi Kazuo, and the recently renamed Shigeyama Sensaku also spoke. I will admit, I didn’t understand a lot of what was being said, though I did get the gist of the conference, which was to basically talk about really specific particulars which these preserved documents contained. I was also kind of bummed that a conference on kyōgen didn’t include a professional Izumi school actor, since the Shigeyama family was so well represented.

In the last roundtable discussion that included all the guests, I was struck by Ikari-san’s assertion that Shigeyama kyōgen is good because it is “real,” as in reflecting a contemporary audience’s definition of “real.” I thought that was a really weird thing to say for two reasons. One, I wonder if the “real” thing is a contemporary poisoning of Japanese aesthetics by western acting models? I mean, at over 600 years old, kyōgen is not real at all by contemporary standards, so why would real be something that is prized? Second, the comment also made me kind of sad. I like kyōgen because it offers a reality that is not my own- It requires me to use my imagination and be a part of a world that isn’t my “real” life. Maybe I am just being a snob, but frankly, when it comes to theatre, sometimes I think Realism can cram it with walnuts.

Overall, I was most appreciative of spending time with Professor Salz, who taught me two very interesting things about amateurs I need to look into. One, he noted that at a certain point in the Meiji period (I think) when the Shigeyama family’s father had a falling out with his son, the father refused to teach his son and the family split into two. The son wanted to continue, so he got trained by amateur Shigeyama actors. Eventually, the son became the main man and his kyōgen became the standard for Shigeyema kyōgen. Professor Salz noted that collaboration is not only interesting because it shows how necessary amateur actors were in this case, it also explains why the Shigeyama’s style is less stiff compared to other kyōgen families.

Second, during one of the breaks, Professor Salz went and spoke to Sensaku backstage. At this point Sensaku told him that before the establishment of the Nogakudo in the 1940s, the line between amateur and professional was way less strict. Once the “union” came to be, however, the actors were forced to create official lines between themselves and the “amateur” students.

This was some really interesting stuff. I need to get on top of both of these things!