What is Sagi kyōgen?

Sagi (鷺) is one of the three school/styles of the comedic performing art known as kyōgen.  Today, while the Ōkura (大蔵) and Izumi (和泉) school actors are recognized as professionals, Sagi kyōgen has, since the Taisho period (1912-1926) been preserved and acted by dedicated specialists in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Niigata Prefecture and Saga Prefecture.

What is kyōgen, you ask?  Generally speaking, kyōgen is a kind of comic entre-act to the more austere noh.  Like noh, it is strictly codified and draws on a repertory of established plays.  Kyōgen utilizes recognizable stock characters specific to Japan’s medieval period (roughly 1185-1600) and tells humorous stories that highlight the buffoonery of everyday life.

From the Muromachi (1336-1673) through the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), noh and kyōgen were typically performed together, with noh considered to be the dominant and more respected art form.  Actors from both forms, in order to be recognized as ceremonial artists of the Tokugawa government and obtain the sweet samurai title that came with it, were required to adhere to a system of familial inheritance, known as the iemoto system.  Under this system, the school’s history was traced and the most respected member was chosen from the families who practiced that style to be the headmaster of the school, or iemoto.  Within each family of that school however, a reigning authority, or soke, was also designated and was responsible for decisions related to the family’s unique qualities.  These positions were typically passed on from father to first son (sorry, no women), enabling each school (and family) to keep their specific styles pure by keeping their “secrets” within the family.

During the Tokugawa period, Sagi kyōgen was the preferred form of kyōgen by the Tokugawa government and consequently thrived. Sagi Niemon Sogen was the Sagi school’s first iemoto and his nephew, Sagi Den’emon, operated a branch family as a soke.  Throughout the Tokugawa period, all members of the Sagi kyōgen style stemmed from these two families. However, with the transition from feudal government to parliamentary in the Meiji period (1868-1912), kyōgen actors found themselves without patronage and for the Sagi school, this was the start of their undoing.  As a result, while the Ōkura and Izumi school managed to bounce back professionally, the Sagi school became entirely amateur by the Taisho Period (1912-1926).

This transitional period is a bit complex, so I’ll keep it brief.  Basically a combination of the Sagi iemoto, Gonnojo, being an “oddball with wanderlust” (thank you for this description Kobayashi Seki), a failure to establish new lines of actors, and many Sagi kyōgen pros defecting to kabuki and/or teaching kabuki actors kyōgen secrets (a major no-no!), Sagi kyōgen began to wane and eventually become nonexistent as a paid profession.

Since the post-World War II period, thanks to the efforts of pro artists like the Izumi school’s Nomura Mansaku and the Ōkura school’s Shigeyama Sennojo, kyōgen has come to stand on its own as a respected art form with a distinguished history of highly talented artists.  But for Sagi kyōgen, as specialists not part of the iemoto system, its history has remained obscured.

Well, what is the difference between a professional and these Sagi specialists, you ask?  Once a pro is recognized by the Noh Association as a pro he can earn a living as a performer and (sometimes) teach amateur students.  The Sagi specialists, on the other hand, can’t earn money for performing and typically keep day jobs to support themselves, making performing kyōgen a kind of hobby.  Perhaps more importantly, pro-status remains primarily an inherited birth-right through the iemoto system (there are cases in which a non-family member is “adopted” into a professional family within a school of kyōgen), which means a pro actor’s work is included in the recorded history, as has been the custom since the iemoto system was adopted.  Amateur students (I’m speaking of those who study with the professional schools) are restricted to performing certain plays, particularly those in which family secrets reside in, and they have not been included in any official records, regardless of their ability or time spent practicing kyōgen.

But Sagi kyōgen is different.  Out of necessity, Sagi kyōgen has established an system which simultaneously adheres to, and deviates from, the iemoto system model.  The importance that arises from such an alternative, in my opinion, reimagines how we might understand kyōgen as an art, as contemporary entertainment, and as a marker of cultural history.

First, in places like Yamaguchi, Niigata and (to a lesser extent) Saga, both men AND women uphold the traditions of Sagi style as performers.  Since all parts are usually played by men in the professional world, I am interested in learning how women have contributed to the evolution of this art form.  What happens when a woman actually plays a woman?  What does she bring to the character that engages kyōgen’s artistry?  How does she challenge it?

Second, as participation in Sagi kyōgen is a kind of extra-curricular activity and actors are not paid, two interesting questions arise.  The first is: what is the draw for a contemporary Japanese citizen to devote their time to upholding and spreading appreciation for this art form?  Second, the lack of funds highlights the crucial component of collaboration with community.  How has an expanded network of influences beyond the artists helped Sagi kyogen endure?

Third, and perhaps most interesting, is without a system of familial inheritance, Sagi kyōgen has transformed into a lineage of artistry.  The idea that the ART can be separate from the ARTIST is hard to imagine within traditional performing arts like kyōgen and noh, because they have always been upheld, professionally, by family.  In other words, Shigeyama kyōgen can’t be Shigeyama kyōgen unless it is performed by a Shigeyama.  So then what is kyōgen when the artist is viewed as a vessel for something larger than him (or in this case, her) self?  I do not ask this question because I want to, in any way, take away from the pros and the amazing things they do.  I actually think this perspective may shed light on the unique contributions of artistry within kyōgen, pro or otherwise.  As a lover of comedic traditions, and a strong believer that drama is in no way superior to comedy, this third point is one near and dear to me.

The ongoing and recorded history of Sagi kyōgen activity in Yamaguchi and Niigata speaks volumes.  It asks us to consider how examining kyōgen from a broader perspective, inclusive of its supporting players, might enrich our understanding kyōgen’s history.  It also enables us to consider the relevance a traditional performing art has in contemporary Japan by examining how the daily life of its non-professional participants influence and/or guide their kyōgen preservation efforts.

So far, I have found the Sagi kyōgen actors in Yamaguchi, Niigata and Saga take great pride in being specialists rather than pros.  I won’t pretend to understand exactly why at this point, but I suspect the love for an art form uniquely their own, a great pride in their local community, and the personal satisfaction obtained from playing an integral part in upholding a 400-year-old tradition may prove to be worthwhile hunches.

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