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.
So 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.