Tuesday, March 8 marked our 38th annual Kyogen performances. Kyogen, with its nagabakama (extra-long pants), archaic language and smooth movements, has a 650-year history of comedy, relating stories that are accessible to all of us regardless of our cultural background or the era in which we live. The themes of Kyogen plays are eternal: they poke fun at human gullibility, jealousy, laziness, resentment and at our bad habits. This year, five student performers and translators share their experiences in preparing for and presenting the technically difficult and nuanced performance.
Ikumi Miyazaki (Grade 11, translator)
I joined Kyogen my sophomore year. One of my teachers recommended it to me but, before that, I’d never heard of this club activity before. Once I joined, although I wasn’t one of the actors, I had so much fun learning about Kyogen. Although I’m Japanese, I hadn’t had any experience learning about Kyogen before, or even watching a performance. Through doing the script translations, I learned about many different types of Kyogen plays. Some of them are very humorous, some rather serious. The ones we performed this year were humorous which was great because there were lots of laughs from our audience during the performance.
During our practices, student actors practiced every Tuesday with actual masters of Kyogen, the Yamamotos—such a valuable experience not typically offered outside of school. Watching the professional Kyogen actors perform, too, I was amazed by how much energy they use. Both of the actors were sweating so much; I never knew that Kyogen requires so much energy to perform. In Kyogen, each footstep, each movement is full of meaning.
Haruka Kokaze (Grade 10, actor)
This year was my first year joining Kyogen. After moving to the United States, I started realizing how beautiful Japanese culture is, particularly Kyogen, tea ceremony and traditional Japanese dance. One of the reasons I joined Kyogen is that fewer Japanese teenagers are embracing their own traditional culture, so I thought it might be important to learn Kyogen and help spread it to a wider audience.
I really enjoyed the humor of Kyogen. When I first decided to join ASIJ Kyogen, I was worried that even though Kyogen is comedy, because it is very old, it might not be as interesting as I hoped. I was also worried that I wouldn’t be able to understand the story. But that was not true. Each character is quite funny, and the stories are understandable. The play I performed was so funny that the other actors and I would start laughing in the middle of the play.
Isaac Islas-Cox (Grade 12, actor)
Ever since I graduated from my Japanese elementary school I have been concerned about “losing my Japanese,” and by that I mean my connection to Japanese culture and society as well as language ability. That said, it took a little bit of friendly encouragement to bring me to join Kyogen during my junior year.
After my final Kyogen performance as a senior this March, I realize now that what I have learned and reclaimed through this activity means much more to me than most other activities that I have participated in. Every week, Kyogen practice was an opportunity for me to be my Japanese self again—something that my student life at ASIJ doesn’t always provide. The cultural idiosyncrasies of learning from two professional Kyogen masters was something completely new to me, yet parts of it came naturally to me, which was comforting and reassuring. Cultivating my relationship with these two masters was something I looked forward to from week to week, all the way up to the final performance.
It is extremely special to perform a traditional form of Japanese theater for an audience who will get to enjoy its universal language of comedy, regardless of whether they speak Japanese or not. As I exited the stage from my final Kyogen performance—after the wave of relief and happiness—I realized the many friendships that I deepened and created from this experience. These friendships, the memories, along with my reconnection to my Japanese life, are some of the treasures that I will keep from my stint as a Kyogen actor.
Anna Milstein (Grade 9, translator)
Through Kyogen, I was able to have an incredible experience that I’m sure students will not be able to achieve by any other type of extracurricular activity. As a translator, my job was to take the old type of Japanese literature and translate it into English to present during the Kyogen performance in the form of subtitles. Initially, I thought that it would be an extremely difficult task, but with the help of my peers and teachers, I was able to do it! Though it took some time, it was an eye-opening experience as I encountered and learned many Japanese words that I couldn’t have known otherwise. At the actual performance, it was so fun and satisfying to see the traditional literature that I had learned, turned into a humorous play created from all the hard work of the members in the club.
Zen Suzuki (Grade 9, actor)
Initially, Kyogen was something I did not think I would be interested in. I had always stayed away from the theater, because of my poor acting back in elementary school. However, through the lessons with very talented professionals, I was able to discover my interest in the art and immerse myself in the cultural performance. I was given the opportunity to learn the correct style and receive tips on my performance.
At first I was obviously a novice, I had much to learn about the entire art. Memorizing the lines was, I had previously thought, the hardest element of performing arts. However with Kyogen I learnt that it was really the display and performance, the way you were able to communicate your lines in a humorous way as to engage the audience. The walking, the special way to pronounce the words, the direction in which you turned—all were important factors to create an impressive, authentic performance and ultimately I was satisfied with my acting. However, after watching the Kyogen Master, Yamamoto-sensei’s performance, I was brought back to reality and realized I still have a long way to go.
Kyogen not only offers an opportunity to work with professionals in the field, but is also a proud club of members who are able to say that they have fully immersed themselves in a traditional cultural art.