Rehearsal, September 2 and a Trip to Cat Island

This week was an interesting rehearsal because none of the Yonemotos were in attendance, which gave me the opportunity to see how things are done when the cats are away. Speaking of cats, because I had to make an unexpected trip to Kyoto this past Monday, I took the opportunity to visit the nearby Manabeshima, one of Japan’s 11 Neko-jima, or cat islands.

When I arrived at rehearsal on Saturday, I learned from Tsuchimura that Tarō and Bunmei were going to be absent because they were doing a special performance at the nearby cultural center, called Saikōtei. This is the first rehearsal I have been to in which neither of the Yamamotos were present, so I was curious to see how it would be handled.

As I kind of expected, with the two gone, Tsuchimura, being the senior member, took charge. Since a lot of people showed up late, he began by rehearsing the Busu dance with the actor playing Tarō Kaja and then the traveller roles of Hone Kawa with the three men who played these roles. Unlike the Yonemotos, Tsuchimura seems to be a bit of a detail-oriented task-master, and he spent a lot of his time trying to get actors to understand very minute details of movement and vocal patterns. While the Yonemotos, Bunmei in particular, choose to focus on specific details for the actors to work on after watching the rehearsal of a play in its entirety, Tsuchimura more frequently stopped rehearsal to spot check various moments.

After more people arrived, the group worked on Busu, Miyagino, and Hone Kawa (though again, because Jirō wasn’t there, they could only do parts of Hone Kawa).

I also noticed that without the Yonemotos, the moments in which notes were being given seemed to be more of a group conversation, with many of the actors contributing their opinions on what is correct and what is not. That being said, Tsuchimura was quick to shut a few people down when he didn’t think they were giving helpful advice!

On Monday, as I said, I had to go to Kyoto for some prospective job stuff. I took the opportunity to stay overnight and, the following day, head out to Manabeshima, which is one of Japan’s cat islands, while on the way back to Yamaguchi.

Japan has a serious love of cats. You have probably at least heard of the cat cafe, in which people pay a small fee to enter a cafe where they drink tea and pet various cats. While this didn’t start in Japan, it quickly became synonymous with Japan’s kawaii (cute) culture. Today Japan has over 150 cat cafes and its residents are either cats who are up for adoption or permanent residents of said cafe. In the case of permanent residents, you will often find rare breeds of cats you may not see anywhere else.

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Along with the cat cafe, cats also play a major role in popular Japanese culture. One of Japan’s most famous cartoon characters, Doraemon, is a robotic cat from the future who, using his magical tools such as his dokodemo door (the anywhere door), gets his human partner, a boy named Nobita, into all sorts of trouble. Pizza Hut has the Pizza Cats, who are live cats that supposedly run the chain (badly, because they’re cats, after all) and there are no shortage of famous cats serving honorary positions in train stations and public service locations across the country.

What’s the big deal, you might ask, with cats? Well, in a country where having a pet is often a luxury, due to strict landlords and, in the city, tiny living arrangements, having a pet cat (or any animal for that matter) is a difficult and often very costly. If you go to a pet store you might be shocked to see how expensive it is to buy an animal. I saw a chinchilla being sold here in Yamaguchi for 2000 USD! The result of this is cats (if not all cute animals) have a certain mystique about them and people want to soak up all the kawaii they can.

Now cat islands, while they have been around for a long time, are a relatively new fascination- and the Japanese have been keen to capitalize on it. Essentially, these places are small islands in which there are a limited number of residents and a boatload of (typically) feral cat colonies which the residents collectively support. Tourists from around the globe flock to these locations to see parts of Japan not typically visited and to encounter numerous felines. The most famous of these islands is probably Aoshima, in the Ehime prefecture (south west of Yamaguchi), where the cats outnumber the residents 6-1.

Manabeshima is located in the Okayama prefecture, which is northeast of Yamaguchi, closer to Hiroshima. In order to get to the island I had to take a local train from Fukuyama to Kasaoka, then a ferry from nearby Kasaoka port (a five minute walk from the train station), which runs about 8 times daily. Depending on which ferry you take, you get to Manabeshima in either 45 minutes or 1 1/2 hours.

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A school at Manabeshima- Didn’t see any kids though…and yes, that is a graveyard in the upper right hand corner.

Upon arriving I was struck by two things. The first thing was there seemed to be no cats. Secondly the island, although it had a densely packed number of houses, seemed to have no residents. It was like a ghost town. However, it wasn’t long before one cat after another began popping up and, after a few tourists emerged from what I assume was a seafood restaurant, suddenly a bevy of cats materialized. It was then I realized that if I wanted to find the cats of Manabeshima, I really should have brought food. The cats were definitely on the feral side, but some were very friendly and all of them were a quirky bunch, with groups of cats lording over specific areas.

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I also came across an interesting park, called yuuki no minato, which used to translate into ‘port of the spirits.’ While the kanji for yūki used to be 幽鬼, I learned that they changed it in the Edo period to yuki 雪, or snow, because of the locals fear of the mischievous spirits who would hide amongst the rocks and cause trouble for incoming sailors. That being said, everything I saw around the island still called itself ゆうきの港, so maybe the locals have gotten over the fear of the ghouls- or maybe the cats deal with them?

I have never been to Aoshima, so I don’t know how I would compare it to the human-to- cat ratio of Manabeshima- if seeing a plethora of cats is your goal. However, if you want to see a truly unique old fishing village and you don’t mind a mangy cat sneezing on you, Manabeshima is certainly a good choice.

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Rehearsal, August 26th

I arrived at rehearsal this past Saturday to find the group swarmed by NHK newsmen, who are working on a big Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen piece for this coming fall. I myself have been involved in this a bit (I was interviewed in January), as a foreign scholar paying attention to what they are doing and writing his dissertation about it is newsworthy (I guess). However, I was unprepared for exactly how much I would be involved today.

The rehearsal started off a bit staged, as Tarō arrived and the group “pretended” to be putting away some of their more treasured costume pieces. I had actually never seen the pieces they took out before. The cameraman spent much of his time focusing on the conversations that occurred between Tarō, Bunmei, Tsuchimura, and Itō as they refolded the costumes and wrapped them back up, but he also would whip around and video we in the “audience,” observing this. I chuckled to myself about the ease of this process. For the purpose of my research, I had to obtain so many permissions and create and utilize approved waivers before even being in the room with the actors- whereas these guys just point and shoot- they didn’t even ask if it was ok.

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Chidori. Tarō Kaja (Yonemoto Bunmei, left) gets caught trying to sneak off with a bucket of sake without paying by the sake merchant (Yonemoto Tarō, right). Centre College, Kentucky, Feb 2015.

After the staged but, the actors set about doing the regular rehearsal. The group first worked on Chidori, which they will be performing at the upcoming production at Yamaguchi’s, Ruriko-ji. A weird thing I noticed, thanks to all my time with these guys, was how Tsuchimura says the into line ” kore wa kono atari ni sumai…” I was often chided for putting emphasis in this way “koRE WA kono atari ni sumai.” As was explained to me, this style of speaking is an Ōkura style of speaking, and in the Sagi Denemon style, there is no emphasis on particular syllables. However, Tsuchimura was saying it the way I do. It seems like a small thing, but as I know Tsuchimura is a kind of a kyōgen connoisseur, it is interesting to see how his experience with other styles has influenced his speech patterns, much in the same way I have been influenced.

I believe I mentioned this before, but when Itō first began studying with Kobayashi Eiji, he was discouraged by Kobyashi from watching other styles of kyōgen for this exact reason. However, this really highlights the idea that Sagi kyōgen should not only be viewed as an art of recognizable stylistic patterns, but also a collective effort of a group of artists who employ varying techniques and are influenced by various circumstances. I think this is a good lesson for engagement with any traditional performing art, as it asks we focus on not just the art, but the artists as living embodiments of the art (I am sure I sound like a broken record about this topic by now!).

Anyways, after Chidori the group did Hone Kawa, which was the first time I was seeing it on its feet. I took a lot of notes on this, as I have never the play before, and was really curious to see how it was staged. My furious note taking was recognized by our friendly camera man however, and I was faced with a lens in my face for much of the practice of the play.

Interestingly, there are only 4 acting configurations that exist in the play. The first is a typical one, with the head priest standing at the shite pillar for a nanori and then moving to the waki pillar (DS left) and calling his acolyte standing at the shite pillar (US right). From here the introduction to the play occurs. The second is both actors DS, with the priest remaining at the waki pillar (now seated on a kazura oke) and the acolyte standing at the sighting pillar (DS right). This positioning was used any time the priest gave directions to his acolyte. The third is when the acolyte was not with the priest and, during this time the acolyte sat center stage, while the priest remained seated at the waki pillar.

It was the final stage set-up that interested me most, however, as this is where at least half of the play occurs and consists of the acolyte meeting various passerbys and employing (incorrectly) the advice the head priest has given him. Interestingly enough, all these moments take place in the US right corner, with the passerby standing at the first pine on the hashigakari and the acolyte standing just US of the shite pillar (suggesting he is inside the temple, while the visitor is outside). The western director in me cringed at this staging as it seems like such a waste of space- there is an entire stage that is being ignored and half the audience can’t see one of the actors. However, the playwright in me understood why such a staging was necessary- it is important to the narrative itself. Most importantly, though, it caters to the rules of kyōgen’s world. If the scene took place in the temple, it would make little sense, as the places already shown determine that one part of the stage is the acolyte’s room and the other, the inner area where the priest resides. To bring a third actor into this space who is not a member of the temple would be confusing.

The third and final play that was practice was Onigawara. I don’t love this play, but I must admit that the two players (Itō and Ikeda) have really been working on it, because their chemistry is noticeably improving.  While Bunmei still had a lot of notes for Ikeda on pronunciation, the play is becoming much more enjoyable to watch and the two actors are clearly beginning to relax and have fun.

After rehearsal I tried to slip out as I was terrified that NHK would want to interview me and I didn’t want to sound like an idiot on television- I may be in the arts, but I have some serious stage fright issues in English, so, having to be on camera speaking Japanese- yipes! As you might have guessed, I got caught, and I had to do an interview. Most of the questions were about my research and why I liked Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen, but I was also asked about my opinions on Yamaguchi and its culture. I made a lot of mistakes, but nothing improves your speaking abilities like the pressure of being on TV. Though, in retrospect, I need to brush up on my use of the passive voice.

Also, the whole concept of being included in this filming is an interesting conundrum as a researcher. On the one hand, I am supposed to remain an objective presence that does not, in any way, influence the process I am observing. On the other, when I am being asked to talk about my work to NHK and being paraded around to various performance venues (I am typically asked to be a translator for them, but it inevitably leads to me sales pitching why I am here), it is arguable that I am affecting a process I am supposed to be outside of. I imagine this is an issue which any researcher faces, particularly when researching something that has little to no previous research that came before it. I want to exclude myself from the narrative- but I think taking such a position is a bit disingenuous. In writing the ol’ diss, I am going to have to think long and hard about an effective way to consider the ways my presence may have had an impact on what I have witnessed over the past year. I don’t think it has created a radical shift in Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen activities, but it needs to be considered.

Rehearsal, August 19th and Obon

It was back to rehearsal after a week off the previous week for Obon. There was little fanfare to the practice, but it gave me the chance to think more on the power of specificity and how it is a defining feature that crosses cultural borders and is at the heart of what I think a good performer does.

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Before that, what’s Obon, you ask? Well, Obon, or the Bon festival is annual Buddhist holiday period in which people celebrate their ancestors. The dates of the festival are August 13-15th (in this case Sunday through Tuesday). I actually was introduced to Japan for the first time during Obon back in August 2008. As a JET, I arrived in Kyoto exactly during this time and got to see one of Obon‘s more recognizable attractions, the giant fires lit on several of Kyoto’s mountains during the Daimonji Gozan Okuribi fire festival. This is typically done on August 16th and there are five specific shapes lit by fires:

  1. 大 (dai) meaning “large” or “great” on Daimonji mountain.
  2. 妙 (myō) or 法 (hō) meaning “dharma” on Matsugasaki
  3. The shape of a boat on Nimshigamo, or funa (boat) Mountain.
  4. 大 (dai) meaning “large” or “great” on Daihoku-san, or hidaridaimonji (left Daimonji)
  5. ⛩  The shape of a torii gate on toriimoto, or Mandara-san.

Another popular event that takes place during Obon is the placing a numerous paper lanterns on a river in a practice known as tōrō nagashi (灯籠流し). However this activity is not necessarily limited to Obon (though it is traditionally the culminating event of the festival) and is done at various times throughout the year.

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The Hungry Ghost Scrolls which depict the realm of the hungry ghosts and suggest how to defeat them. At the Kyoto National Museum.

So what’s with all these fires you ask? Well, it is said these fires are lit to help the spirits of those departed find their way back to the spirit world. I haven’t talked a lot about Japan’s obsession with spirits, but it has a serious one. Obon draws its influence from China’s Ghost festival, which occurs during the seventh lunar calendar month, which is typically considered the “ghost month.” During this time the gates of hell open for all the spirits to descend upon the living world. In Japan, Obon is more of a family affair and time for celebration than for fear of celestial demons, however.

I wasn’t made aware of any particular events in Yamaguchi for Obon, but I did notice a few paper lanterns placed outside homes for that express purpose of guiding the way for the dead.

Anyways, back at rehearsal, and perhaps quite apropos, the day began with the two ladies practicing Kaminari (The Thunder God). Afterwards, the group split up into two, with Tarō and Tsuchimura working on Hone Kawa in the adjoining room and Bunmei working on Busu in the main room.

As the group worked on Busu and got to that final dance, I began thinking about, yet again, kata and its purpose. Again, one might be inclined to look at kata as some form of wrote action which enable the traditional performer to carbon copy the art of those who came before him or her. However, when I looked at the dance of Busu, I started thinking about how much dance, which certainly has its share of recognizable patterns wherever you go, is similar across cultures. For example, I thought to myself- “unlike Japan’s traditional performing arts, no one ever suggests that ballet is a non-changing art form, even though they have been repeating dance patterns since the 1400s. Why is that?”

In fact, we watch ballerinas do arabesque, dégagé, and jeté all the time and never go, “oh well, they’re just copying someone.” Instead, fans of ballet are obsessed with the way the dancer chooses to manifest the movement and create his or her own details that make the moment uniquely theirs. Fans know the rules, they often know the dances, but what they love is the performer’s interpretation of those things.

In other words, a great performer is not just someone who knows and embodies the rules, but does so to the point where they are able to breathe new life into that rule (or movement).

Now, there is the matter of the play, which is seemingly different from the something like ballet because it does not have dance or music. Kyōgen, after all, is a play, right? Well, yes and no, I’d argue. It certainly has a script, but it also is very dependent on music and dance. In fact, most of Japan’s traditional performing arts (in fact, much of Asia and SE Asia’s as well) are like this. An old professor of mine likes to refer to kabuki as the art of music, dance and drama and wonders “wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had an art like that in the west? What would it be called? Dramuda?”

Let’s think about his question. Don’t we already have dramuda? Isn’t musical theatre dramuda? Isn’t Opera dramuda? Furthermore, what should we make of a “revival” that strives to emulate the drama, music and dance of a performance already passed? What should we make of a “Fosse” style musical? Isn’t that just “something someone already did?”

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Hello, Dolly!

But we don’t think that. We go to see Bette in Hello Dolly! or Patti in Sunset Boulevard, we go to see Plácido Domingo in Pagliacci, and we marvel as they recreate something while simultaneously provide us with something new. If they stray too far critics may lament, “oh, they are tampering with a classic,” but if they don’t stray far enough they get criticized as “uninspired.”

I guess why all of this interests me is in watching the Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen actors rehearse, I am struck by their simultaneous goal to retain and innovate AND how this is a goal which is all too familiar in Western theatre. Granted, compared to pretty much any non-western performance, something the Nutcracker has the benefit of familiarity, which aids in our gaze being focused on the details of the (hopefully) master performers. We don’t know kyōgen, so we’ve nothing to compare it to. We watch one version of Busu, it looks like the other, we don’t know what to make of it, so we focus on the fact that it seems the same.

But its the way we talk about traditional performing arts like kyōgen that makes me wonder. A conversation about ballet/musical theatre/opera and their history cannot be done without taking about those who have defined it. We rarely engage in blanket conversations and say “well, opera is this” or “ballet is this” because we know that it just plain isn’t. Perhaps if we can shift our conversations about traditional performing arts (be they Japanese or otherwise) from their forms to their artists, we might develop a universal way of appreciating them, much in the same way we can appreciate operas in Italian when we don’t speak Italian.

I’ve said it before and I will say it again: the devil is in the details.

 

Catching Up: AAP, ATHE, and Rehearsal July 29

I have to do some catching up since I was out of town recently to attend the annual Association for Asian Performance (AAP) conference and the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) conference in fabulous Las Vegas. I presented at two different panels on Sagi kyōgen and, more specifically, Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen during these conferences.

I must first note that I hate Las Vegas. It’s like if Disneyland was built by a sleazy Mickey Mouse. Prices are outrageous, the sidewalks are littered with baseball card-sized ads for strip clubs, and the lights and noise of a million slot machines is enough to drive you mad. You can stay off the strip if you want a cheaper experience, but the main attractions are so far removed from the rest of the city that you would probably wind up paying the difference in cab rides just to get to the strip. Why a family would choose to vacation at this place (and trust me, there were plenty of families) is beyond me. If gaudy excess could manifest into a physical form and then throw up, you’d have Las Vegas.

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In spite of this, I did enjoy the conferences themselves, especially the AAP one. It was my first time attending and I was struck by how supportive the organization is and how dedicated its members are to building up the younger scholars (like myself). Along with some great presentations, I also got a chance to see a staged reading of my old professor, Carol Sorgenfrei’s, new play, Ghost Light: The Haunting. This play is a mash up between Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the kabuki versions of the famous Japanese ghost story of Oiwa. It is a mix of horror and comedy (a possessed vacuum cleaner is a particular highlight), and borrows many conventions from various Japanese traditional performing arts to chronicle the rise and fall of a fame-hungry husband and his ill-fated wife.

At ATHE I also learned some really interesting ways to engage the topic of race in the classroom, which with the goings on in Charlottesville this past weekend, seems even more pertinent. I was particularly struck by an exercise created by Tuft’s University’s Noe Montez (this was talked about, Professor Montez was not in attendance), where students build Wikipedia pages for little known, but important, multi-cultural artists. Since Wikipedia is a source which is always able to be amended by anyone, I thought this was a fascinating way to give students some ownership over a larger work and encourage them to really take the time to engage and grapple with with under-represented voices.

Anyways, if I can now step back in time to the 29th of July and to Yamaguchi- The rehearsal began with Itō and Ikeda practicing Onigawara, which was actually performed this past Friday (August 11th) for an event at Yuda Onsen. I didn’t get to see the performance, unfortunately, as I was combatting some pretty serious jet-lag, having returned to Japan only the day before.

This play is an interesting one and it makes me think a lot about Junko Sakaba Berberich’s 1982 dissertation Rapture in Kyōgen. Berberich’s basic conceit is that many of kyōgen’s plays rely on a moments in which the actions of the characters build to such a peak that a moment of rapture is collectively experienced. During this moment all rhyme and reason give way to the whirlpool of ridiculousness that has been building (I am, of course, simplifying a 300+ page dissertation). Onigawara is definitely one these plays as the two characters end the play by engaging in a series of wordplay games with each other until the two forget about all the serious problems they have been having and laugh uproariously.

I think moments like this, and like the ones Berberich talks about, are a really important part of playing kyōgen because they highlight the buoyancy needed to make the play sing. You might say this is true of any comedy. I have mentioned the need of the kyōgen artist to remain “light,” something which Bunmei has made clear is a key component of Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen. While this may be a mindset, or a kind of personal contract an actor must make with the material, there is the reality of form which I think is almost always the thing that weighs a performance down. However, it is not the form itself that is adding the weight, but rather the inability of the actor to properly engage with the form that is creating this weight. An actor’s mastery of rhythm, timing, and inflection all work together to create the “light” atmosphere in which a kyōgen play thrives.

Without the lightness, I think the audience stops emotionally engaging with the material and starts intellectually fixating on the improbability of the situation or the inability of the actor. They are no longer willing to play along- they become skeptics- which to me are a hair’s breadth away from a heckler. It’s kind of a cliche to say “comedy is harder than drama” but, well, it often is (though I will concede that the above issue of losing the audience may just as well be faced by a dramatic actor, though for different reasons).

After Onigawara the group split up into two and Tarō continued to work with Itō and Ikeda in the adjoining room while the rest of the group worked on Miyagino. I have been thinking a lot about this play recently, mainly because of the main actor’s desire to just do what he wants rather than follow the directions of Bunmei and, to a greater extent, the form. In other words, how does a diva effect the performers around him (in this case) and how can we consider their actions within a traditional form at large?

On the one hand a diva can be a negative. In the case of this Miyagino I think a large part of the supporting actor’s hesitancy in their performances stem from the terrifying reality that they just don’t know what this actor is going to do. As a result, they feel it necessary to pull double-duty in grounding the play in its “proper” form and, as a result, it is that much harder for them to make engaged choices- they are engaging with the play, but not with their fellow (diva) actor. The ultimate success or failure of the play then comes not necessarily from teamwork, but rather from the sheer talent/magnetism/charisma of the diva.

On the other hand, a diva may be a driving innovator as well, particularly in the case of traditional performing arts. Kabuki’s arogoto (rough) and wagoto (soft) styles are owed to the sheer force of individuals whose own ideas about what the art “should do” helped kabuki artistically evolve. More locally, the Kobayashi turn, which many of the Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen actors have integrated into their kata, is not traditional Denemon style Sagi kyōgen, it is a twentieth century innovation.  However, that clear break from the “rules” in order to do what felt right now has a lasting place in the form. So a diva can also have an important, lasting, effect on a form as well.

Now, will this Miyagino actor’s staunch desire to do thing the way he wants have an effect on Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen overall? Well, we will have to wait and see.

Finally, the group rehearsed Busu. Interestingly, after the play was finished, there was quite a large debate about the dance which Tarō and Jirō do at the end of the play. While some insisted it be done one way, another suggested that it must consider a different way. The issue was finally resolved when Bunmei suggested that the group disregard one of the suggestions mainly because it was based not on Sagi kyōgen, but rather on a Kanze school way of performing the dance.

I thought this was a very interesting dimension of the modern kyōgen preserver. Not only is it a master’s job to pass on his or her knowledge to future generations, but it is also his/her job to make sure other forms don’t get mistakenly integrated into the existing form.

This whole day’s experience highlighted for me the tricky nature of tradition and how, much like comedy, there is a certain amount of finesse one must apply to the process in order for it to be effective.

Rehearsal, July 22, starting the new Kid’s kyōgen classroom and another conversation with Tarō

This weekend things went back to normal, sort of. While I didn’t have to go to my own rehearsal, the Kid’s kyōgen classroom had started the weekend before, so I started my Saturday with a trip to Noda Shrine. At 6pm it was to the main rehearsal at the Denshō Center and afterwards I got the chance to sit down and interview Tarō again, this time focusing on his role as Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen’s main producer.

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The Kid’s kyōgen classroom started at 2pm. I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but whenever I go to a rehearsal at Noda Shrine Tarō has asked that I wear tabi socks. Since I had spent quite a bit of time before coming to Yamaguchi practicing kyōgen, this was no problem as I own several pairs. But I thought to myself this weekend, “man, if I didn’t have these, where in the heck in Yamaguchi would I get a pair that would fit my oversized American tootsies? I had enough trouble finding them in a huge city like Kyoto with a zillion department stores!” I don’t know…the internet maybe?

Anyways, when I got there the room was mostly familiar faces. The kids practicing were mostly return customers from the previous kid’s classroom, though there were a few new ones as well. The first play they practiced I didn’t recognize, but Tarō told me later on it is called Shatei, or the Brother Fight. Since two girls are playing the role, I wonder if it’s a “sister fight”- especially since the two girls are sisters!

The next play they worked on was Bonsan, which is full of funny onomatopoeia sounds like the cutting of wood and various critters. The play is similar to the play Kaki Yamabushi in that one character tricks a ne’er do well into pretending he is a barnyard of animals before outing the offender. In this case though, it ends not with a bird, but a sea bream (tai), of which the offender can not figure out the sound to make and simply cries out “tai tai tai!.”

Next was a familiar one, Shibiri! Fortunately, Tarō didn’t make me get up and do it with the partnerless youth. Tarō told me afterwards the student has no partner, and Tarō has been hinting that he wants me to perform in September, so I don’t know if I should be putting those two things together…

After a brief break, the last student of the day came (his partner was absent) and he practiced Koyakuneri. Tarō tried to explain to the student the plot, and why it is funny, but I’m not sure he got it.

After this lesson Tarō told me that his main group of kid’s classroom students, which are Ōdono middle school students, will be coming next week. As I have mentioned before, these students always perform in September at an event at the Denshō center, but they also perform at their school’s bunkasai, or cultural festival around the same time.

The main rehearsal was short and sweet, with two of the ladies (one whose name I don’t know and who only comes once a month, and the other was Mrs. Tsuchimura) practicing Kaminari, and then the others, practicing Busu and Kaki Yamabushi because they are performing at the Sanyō Onoda City Hall on Saturday, July 30th.

I did notice a few things about performance when watching the main rehearsal though that I think are interesting. One, I came to realize how much mind-set will effect your performance when it comes to practicing a performing art. I think if you are always coming to learn, then inevitably the performance you do is better. However, if you come to do, more often than not, something is lacking in the performance. The reason I think this is, is something any actor can probably relate to- If you are coming to learn, inevitably your first goal is to listen- you listen to your partner, you listen to the teacher/director, etc- But if you come to do, then everything is already decided and who your partner is and what someone is telling you to think about doesn’t matter.

The second thing I thought about is related, as it pertains to believability. I think in the West we tend to equate “real” performances with believability. This makes sense, but is it really “real”? If you think about, most of the plays and movies we watch are anything but real. Directors always talk about “raising the stakes” because the situations the characters find themselves in are almost too unbelievable for one to believe. In general, we are often watching something that is a moment in a character’s life which is forever altering- that’s why its “drama”!

So an actor’s goal isn’t really about being “real” necessarily, it’s about being believable. Now, realism gives the actor a living room, or a parlor, to effectively put them in a “real” environment, but at the end of the day, if you hate the play, nine times out of ten, it is probably because the acting wasn’t believable- Now here’s were it gets interesting for me: This could mean the acting wasn’t “real” enough- but strangely, it could also mean it was “too real.” So how does an actor know what to do?

To me it goes back to my previous thoughts about listening and a deep desire to learn. Turning back to kyōgen, I can see how this plays out on a weekly basis. Those actors who have decided before they come in the room what they are doing aren’t believable because they aren’t really engaging with the world they are in. It doesn’t matter whether or not someone is on the moon or in a living room, if you don’t take stock of the place you are in and the people you are with at all times, the play stops being believable and the audience can recognize (be it actively or passively) you don’t believe it yourself. It’s also strange to think when one says “I can’t believe it!” what they are really saying is “this person has engaged in a ludicrous activity/done an unexpected thing with such dedication that I have no choice but to believe it!”

I think maybe comedy heightens the issue of believability for me because things are typically in a more recognizable realm of ridiculousness. But watching rehearsals also demonstrate how much technique goes into creating that believability. While kyōgen is codified and in an unfamiliar language (even to Japanese people), the actors still have to take stock of every little detail if they are going to make it “believable.” I have mentioned before how Bunmei does this, with his meticulous attention to detail. But this week Tarō added a new dimension to consider when he started doing, basically, stage combat training with Itō sensei. While the movement they were practicing seemed simple enough- a guy grabs another guy and is then, thrown off- there is an insane amount of finesse that goes into the act to make it a) safe and b) believable. While the act itself, if done realistically would be completely unbelievable, through commitment to the stylistic elements of the Sagi kyōgen form, the believability manifests. In other words if you just did it like you would in real life, in the world of kyōgen, it pulls you out of the play and it becomes unbelievable. Weird, huh?

After the practice I interview Tarō again, this time focusing on his role as producer- to which he said “I am 90% a producer and 10% and actor.” While I don’t believe this to be true, the staggering amount of networking, promoting and fundraising Tarō does all on his own makes it seem possible. He is really a one-man army in this respect and I truly don’t know how he has the time to do everything he does, teach kids AND maintain a full time day job. While I admire the pros for their ability to commit fully to their art, there is something to be said for a guy like Tarō, who in spite of not really being able to commit fully to something, does so anyways. He’s a real interesting fellow.

 

The Yamaguchi Gion Matsuri

Maybe you’ve heard of the annual festival, Gion Matsuri, which takes place in Kyoto from, roughly, July 14th-23rd? Well, here in Yamaguchi, they have their own Gion Matsuri, which I got a chance to attend this past Thursday, July 20th. Imported from Kyoto by local lord, Ouchi Hiroyo, sometime in the mid-late 1300s, when he was trying to remodel Yamaguchi after Kyoto, this festival has continued for over 600 years.

heian japan

So what are the similarities and differences between the two? Let’s start with the original festival. We begin in the Heian Period (794-1185), a time which is typically characterized by the romantic tales of well-dressed courtiers and the exploits of one shining prince known as Genji. In reality however, Heian Japan was a a cesspool of death, disease and famines. Bodies were literally piling up on the streets of that noble city, Kyoto, and gosh darn it, someone had to do something about it. So, in 869, the Emperor decided they needed to pacify the displeased god of disease, Gozu Tennō, by praying for help to Susan-ō at the Gion Shrine (now known as the Yasaka Shrine) and offering festivities for the kami (spirits). In order to this, the city gathered 66 hoko style spears (one for each of Japan’s districts) to lure the kami out. Then, they built mikoshi, or portable shrines, in which Susan-ō could be placed in and paraded him around the city to purify the area.

Whenever a similar problem arose, this practice would happen- up until 970, when it became an annual event. Like many festivals in Japan, after this, over time, it lost some of its original meaning; Gozu Tennō came to be also enshrined at Yasaka shrine and transformed into a patron saint of tutelage, and wealthy merchants during the Edo era (1600-1868) financed elaborately decorated yamaboko to show off how rich they were. When religion was being cracked down on by the Ashikaga shogunate in the 1500s, the population argued they could get rid of a lot of the religious rituals associated with the festival, but they still wanted the parade, and this was allowed.

hoko

A Kyoto Gion Matsuri hoko. Notice those wheels- no power steering on these babies!

Today, the festival continues. It begins on the first of July at Yasaka shrine, where members of the area get together to pray for a good festival and the order of the floats is decided via lottery the next day. Along with mikoshi that give the kami rides around town, there are two types of festival floats: yama, the lighter ones which are carried, and hoko (remember the spears?), the heavier, sometimes 12-ton, behemoths which are pulled on wheels (collectively they are referred to as yamaboko). For the next two weeks there are various Shinto rituals that have been revived in order to prepare for the parade, which is held on the 17th of July. During this parade, hundreds of men (I think it is only men) carry the yama and mikoshi, some of which weigh over a ton, through the city. Depending on the weight, the carriers might spin it around or even collectively throw it up in the air and catch it. What a way to treat kami… The highlight of the parade, however, is definitely found at the intersections of streets, where the hoko must be turned. Crowds watch in awe as these lumbering wooden giants with no steering capability are pivoted via wooden blocks shoved under the wheels and dowsed in water to make them slippery. It is a terror to wonder if these bad-boys, sometimes as tall as 25 meters (82 feet) are going to topple onto the crowd, and a joy to see them successfully make the turn and rumble on.

Aside from the parade, there are also a series of night events before and after the parade, known as yoiyama. During this time the streets are closed off and night food vendors hawk their wares, kids play various summer-time festival games like goldfish scooping and yo-yo (another fishing game played with balloons that has nothing to do with yo-yos), and the streets are filled with young men and women in yukata (summer kimono) and jinbei (summer men’s wear).

ouchi hiroyo

Statue of Ouchi Hiroyo, outside Rurikoji in Yamaguchi.

So what is the Yamaguchi festival’s deal then? Well, as I said, when Ouchi Hiroyo was trying to make Yamaguchi more like Kyoto in the 1300s, he decided to bring the deities enshrined at Kyoto’s Yasaka shrine to Yamaguchi. How can a deity live in two different places you ask? I don’t know if I have mentioned this before, but many of Japan’s deities are disbursed around Japan in shrines in their honor. For example, Japan’s patron saint of learning, Sugawara no Michizane, or Tenjin-sama, is one of the most notable, being enshrined at hundreds of Tenmangu shrines all over Japan. The deal is, you go to the main shrine, in this case Hiroyo went to the Kyoto Yasaka shrine, and you get a “piece” of an artifact related to that deity. Could be a bone fragment (if it the deity was actually once a person), could be a piece of something the deity supposedly touched, etc. You then bring that piece back to your own shrine, in this case Yamaguchi’s Yasaka Shrine, and enshrine it there. Viola, you have your very own version of a deity in your home town.

Since Hiroyo’s desire was to turn Yamaguchi into the “Kyoto of the West” it is unlikely that he established a Gion Festival for the purpose of warding off demons, primarily. However, what has come to be over the past 600 years is a kind of mini-version of the Kyoto Gion Festival that combines hometown pride with Shinto ritual.

Honden

I arrived at Yasaka shrine at 6:15pm, as I was told by a friend who was carrying a mikoshi the event starts officially at 6:30. I was hoping to help carry one myself, but unfortunately it didn’t work out. When I arrived, they were doing a ritual ceremony in the honden (main shrine) of the Yasaka shrine grounds and some children were dressed as miko (Shinto shrine maidens) and doing what I assume was a kind of purification dance. Three mikoshi were sitting to the right of the shrine, waiting to be carried off and there were one or two hoko (I am assuming that’s what they were, though I am not sure) in front of the shrine. The Yamaguchi festival does not have yama floats, as far as I can tell. After the miko show, everyone gathered in front of the mikoshi and the Shinto priests did some sort of purification ritual for each one. Then a group of men performed a dance, called the Sagi no mai (literally, Heron Dance).

SaginoMai

While this dance claims to have a 600 year history, and is a unique feature of the Yamaguchi Gion Festival, it was only 3 minutes long and fairly simplistic. I guess it is more about the tradition than the actual thing. Though I will say I really liked the costumes. You may be wondering- “wait a minute, Sagi dance, Sagi kyōgen…is there a connection here?” Nope!

Men getting ready

After the dance, a sea of men clad in white cloth wrapped around their abdomens, white boxers, white jikatabi (cloth tabi toe socks with rubber soles to turn them into shoes!), and headbands with the Yasaka Shrine’s crest on it, gathered in front of the honden. Each group of men was representing a specific neighborhood of Yamaguchi, and before the actual carrying, each group’s leader made a quick, rousing speech to his men.

The mikoshi were then picked up, and headed out to be paraded through Yamaguchi’s shopping district located downtown. There were more men than needed, but they would switch off since the mikoshi are so dang heavy! Like the Kyoto festival, these shrines were spun around, ran up and down the street, and thrown up in the air.

Throwing the mikoshi

Mid throw!

I caught up with the shrines at the downtown area, riding my bicycle from Yasaka shrine. There I met with not only the shrines, but a vibrant night market filled with all the things one might find at Kyoto’s yoiyama. The hoko were populated by women and girls who sang songs and played instruments and, unlike their Kyoto counterparts, these floats had a lot more mobility and could turn without any real ceremony (other than police officers yelling at onlookers to move out of the way!)

Night market

Tonight, July 24th, the mikoshi shrines will return to their home at Yasaka shrine. As I understand it, one of the shrines will be carried by the women of Yamaguchi, and the journey home parade also has a lot of dance groups performing. I don’t think I am going to make it to this, which is a bummer, but I am so glad I got to experience Yamaguchi’s own Gion Matsuri!

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

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

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

completion cert

I did it!

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

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

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

ito

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

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

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

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

Two Days with the Universities of Yamaguchi

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

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

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

Hikkukuri at Yamadai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

tea ceremony at miyano station

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

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

Rehearsal, July 8th

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

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

Jacques-Louis_David_-_Marat_assassinated_-_Google_Art_Project_2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rehearsal, July 1 and a conversation with Tarō

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taro

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

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

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

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

All in all, a very interesting day!