Kyogen: Annual kyogen show fittingly hilarious, respectfully touching

Courtesy of ACT. JT
Kyogen performers chant for the late Zenchiku Tomitaro at Hosho Nogakudo theater in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo, on Feb. 23.

Noh and kyogen are sometimes likened to twins among traditional Japanese performing arts. Roughly speaking, noh plays are tragedies, and kyogen plays are comedies. Currently, kyogen has two major schools: the Okura school and the Izumi school (There used to be another school, the Sagi, but it fizzled out).

I highly appreciated the seventh edition of “Tachiai Kyogen-kai” that I saw on Feb. 23 at the Hosho Nogakudo theater in Suidobashi, Tokyo. The kyogen show featured performers from different schools of the traditional performing art. You might remember my report on the previous edition held last year.

As in noh, the same kyogen play can be performed differently depending on the school, and the lines can also be delivered with subtle variations. Even within the same school, changes are made from family to family. So it is very unusual for both Okura and Izumi schools to share the same stage.

The Tachiai Kyogen-kai show started in 2015 with an aim to let audiences see how kyogen performances differ depending on the school and family. The event is held around once every year.

This year’s edition featured about 30 new to mid-level kyogen performers from eight different groups, including the Okura Yaemon family of the Okura school and the Nomura Matasaburo family from the Izumi school. The show was subtitled “kyogen x social distance” — a reflection of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The program included three classic kyogen plays: “Hi no Sake” (Sake in the gutter), Neongyoku (Horizontal singing) and “Obagasake” (The aunt’s sake). The three share one subject: getting hammered. Since partying should be avoided amid the pandemic, I found the concept intriguing.

Most kyogen plays center around the comic character Taro kaja. In “Hi no Sake,” Taro kaja is a servant who loves sake. His master locks him up in a storage area before going out so that Taro kaja cannot drink sake in the house. Taro kaja asks his colleague Jiro kaja in another room to pour sake into a rain gutter and Taro kaja manages to slurp it up. In a way, it was a remote and socially distanced drinking session.

“Neongyoku” tells quite a different story of Taro kaja. Already drunk, Taro kaja sings a song while lying down with his head resting on the knees of his sitting master. In “Obagasake,” a stingy aunt refuses to let her nephew drink sake. The nephew puts on an oni-demon mask, scares the aunt and successfully gulps down some sake. He blows his cover only after he takes off the mask and then runs away, reeling. The program brochure for the show said, “Fancy drinking with a mask on?”

But the show was not all fun and games. A touching moment came when all the performers gathered at the same time to perform of the kyogen song “Yuzen.” The song is traditionally performed to mourn the passing of a kyogen performer, as the lyrics include a line that reads, “Korezo makotono gokuraku sekai” (This must be the true paradise).

Kyogen actor Zenchiku Tomitaro, who took part in the event last year in good spirits, later contracted COVID-19 and died at the age of 40. As a tribute to the actor, the kyogen performers stood on stage from side to side and chanted the song together.

However, as I explained above, intonations when singing a kyogen song vary slightly between the schools and families. “It was a bit all over the place as expected,” said Nomura Matasaburo, who acted as the event’s organizer, after the show. Even so, seeing that their hearts were united in remembering Tomitaro deeply moved me. When they all came on stage, they sat socially distanced from each other with their mouths and noses covered by white cloths. The sight reminded me once again what a strange year we have had. I also sincerely wished to see the kyogen event again next year under normal circumstances.

— Morishige covers traditional performing arts.