The 39th Annual Kyogen Performance

Machi Nakamura (Middle School Japanese) and students reflect on the March 15 Kyogen performance. The annual kyogen performance at ASIJ celebrated its 39th show this year.

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ASIJ Kyogen enjoyed a blockbuster year, with a record crowd and much laughter from an audience that included many first-time and English-speaking attendees. Kyogen—classical Japanese comedy theater—is funny, fascinating and highly accessible, which may come as a surprise, considering its 650-year-old history and use of ancient language. But kyogen pokes fun at universal human foibles, making the storylines accessible to all, regardless of cultural background or the era we live in.

This year’s student actors—high school juniors Haruka Kokaze and Athena Brooks, sophomores Samantha Walker, Zen Suzuki and Naoya Okamoto, and freshman Sakiko Miyazaki, as well as eighth-graders Yujin Kitahara and Kenta Burpee—took the opportunity to learn from professional artists, brothers Yasutaro Yamamoto (山本泰太郎) and Noritaka Yamamoto (山本則孝) of the Okura school of kyogen (大蔵流) for 10 weeks, in preparation for our March performance. ASIJ is fortunate to have these two masters of kyogen work with our students each year. They are well-known and highly-respected artists who regularly perform at the National Noh Theater in Tokyo and on noh stages across the country, as well as internationally.

To increase appreciation of kyogen on campus, high school juniors Rika Nakane, Hinata Igawa, Yukina Yajima, Sarah Park and other cast and crew members presented four “Introduction to Kyogen” assemblies prior to performance day to all students in grades 4 through 10, providing details on kyogen history, costumes, characters and offering trivia. The masters then demonstrated their movements, use of voice and minimalist props by video.

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Each assembly culminated with our actors and actresses performing, in full costume, a portion of their plays Bonsan, Kagyu and Kuchimane. These performances were made possible thanks to Kyoko Takano, co-director of the Japan Center, without whose expertise our student actors could not get into their intricate costumes. We are also grateful to the team of parent volunteers headed by Mrs. Yumiko Reed, our FOFA volunteer liaison. ASIJ Kyogen veteran advisor Noriko Matsumoto, with her wealth of knowledge, was also indispensable to our success this year.

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To further enhance the enjoyment of kyogen for English-only speakers, we worked very hard to improve the English subtitles of the plays—no small task, considering that the language of kyogen plays is challenging even for those fully fluent in modern Japanese. In particular, the timing of the projection of each English slide requires skill and knowledge, keeping pace with the actors while not to giving away punchlines in English before they are said in Japanese. Seniors Ikumi Miyazaki and Reina Yanagiba and junior Nanao Urata executed this timing with precision. They along with sophomore Anna Milstein, junior Gen Shinkawa, and other cast and crew mentioned previously, worked on translating a portion of each play as well.

Timing is an aspect of kyogen that continues on, not only in subtitling, but also into the actors’ and actresses’ performances, as Haruka Kokaze details, “This year I played the role of a mountain priest, a Yamabushi. … Singing and dancing around for a half of the play was tough. On top of that, actors in my group and I had to make sure the timing was perfect because if the timing is even slightly off, the play would not be funny. Our group could not manage our timing until the last minute and we struggled a lot. However, on the performance day, we got it right, and we were able to make the audience laugh and enjoy.”

To join ASIJ Kyogen, no experience or prior knowledge is required, but actors need to demonstrate a strong voice and stage presence during October auditions.

Samantha Walker reflects on the reason she joined kyogen, “When kyogen opened up to the Middle School, I joined because I was curious what the experience would be like … In addition to allowing me to improve my Japanese, I like kyogen because it allows people — actors, translators, and audience members alike—to glimpse a different part of Japanese culture, one that is humorous, although perhaps not well known.”

Whether students simply want to learn more about kyogen, want to help by leading assemblies or translating plays or would like to learn directly from professional kyogen actors Yasutaro Yamamoto and Noritaka Yamamoto and perform onstage, the first step is contacting faculty members Machi Nakamura or Kyoko Inahara at any time, or signing up during the high school clubs sign-up event each September.