Kyogen: 40 Years Later

On March 14, students and faculty celebrated four decades of ASIJ kyogen performances. The annual tradition begin in 1978, with it’s first shows during the school’s 75th anniversary Matsuri and has continued to this day, led by the same family of kyogen teachers. Kyogen faculty advisor, Machi Nakamura, and students reflect on the anniversary performance.

Kyogen—classical Japanese comedy theater—is a funny, fascinating and highly accessible form of traditional Japanese performance, 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—gullibility, jealousy, laziness, resentment and at our bad habits–creating relatable storylines for audience members from all walks of life. Backed by a traditional sacred pine tree painting, these stories come to life in slow, stylized movements, pointed dialogue and brightly colored kimono.

In ASIJ kyogen’s early years, the pine backdrop was made of plywood, built and painted by a former high school student, and many of the costumes were hand-sewn by Kaori Berger. Her husband and former music teacher, Don, began the program. In more recent years, we have had the opportunity purchase magnificent costumes, masks and props, thanks to the generous support of Parent-Teacher Association (PTA). And our current pine backdrop was donated by former Japanese teacher and kyogen advisor, Yukari McCagg and her husband, Peter.

Throughout these forty years, our students have had the unique 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), whose father lead the first ASIJ students through the school’s inaugural performance in 1978. ASIJ is fortunate to have these two masters of kyogen work with our students each year—an opportunity few schools offer. 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.

This year, our student performers included senior Athena Brooks; juniors Zen Suzuki, Samantha Walker and Naoya Okamoto; sophomores Misaki Inoue and Sakiko Miyazaki; freshman Kenta Burpee; and sixth-graders Lily Matsueda and Aya Burpee. They presented three plays, Fukurou (Owl), Roku Jizo (Six Jizo Statues) and Funawatashi Muko (Boat-Crossing Groom) with the support of our eight student translators and subtitlers: seniors Ami Kano, Rika Nakane, Nanao Urata, Hinata Igawa, Yukina Yajima and Tomoki Yamanaka; junior Leah Gesling and sophomore Ayaka Kondo. To increase appreciation of kyogen on campus, these cast and crew members presented “Introduction to Kyogen” assemblies prior to performance to students all across campus, providing details on kyogen history, costumes, characters and offering trivia.

Each assembly culminated with our actors and actresses performing, in full costume, a portion of their plays. 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 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.

Three of our own kyogen performers offered to share their experiences and reflections on this year’s acts.

Lily Matsueda (grade 6) on her first year:
“This was my first time performing kyogen, and I will never forget it. Before doing kyogen, I had seen it on TV and assumed it was boring Japanese traditional entertainment, but it turned out to be the complete opposite.

My first day entering the theater, I was so excited to give kyogen a try. It was really fun to practice with friends, and to meet and work with high school students, too—they were super nice. Using really old language and words we normally don’t use was fun as well. I thought our play Roku Jizo might be a boring story about Buddhist statues, but it turned out to be really funny, with lots of running and posing, trying to trick the man from the countryside. Performing kyogen was difficult because it was very different from daily life; you have to talk slowly and loudly, and walk carefully. I was really nervous before the performance because I had never been on stage before. Once we finished it, I was really happy; it felt like a real accomplishment. I want to try kyogen next year, too.”

Ami Kano (grade 12) on translating:
“When I joined kyogen as a translator, I did it on a whim; perhaps I was in an outgoing mood because of “senioritis.” I had not expected to gain such invaluable experience from kyogen.

Translating the language used in kyogen to English was no easy task. The script had such ancient phrases that even I, a native Japanese speaker, could not fully understand. I often found myself having to ask Matsumoto-sensei and Nakamura-sensei about them (they were very helpful and resourceful). Furthermore, the translated scripts had to be altered to match the audience’s English level (this was mainly for the elementary schoolers) and the length of the actors’ spoken lines. Through these activities, not only did I learn about ancient Japanese but also accommodating a performance to fit the audience’s needs.

Learning about kyogen itself was also eye-opening. Unlike western theater that I am accustomed to, kyogen seems to deliberately deviate from real life. Of course, the themes are quite relevant to our daily lives, but the props and the style of movement/speech are unique to kyogen performances. Kyogen has very specific actions for expressing certain movements/emotions; even the method of walking is clearly defined, as I learned from Yamamoto-sensei. I was deeply intrigued by the difference between the theatrical performances of the two cultures, and through the kyogen club I learned to appreciate both of their approaches.”

Zen Suzuki (grade 11) on performing:
“This is my third year participating in kyogen, and I believe it was my most successful so far. I was trusted with a more important role than the previous two years, and memorizing all the lines and the movements were a challenge. Although with the help of the professional teachers I was able to hone my skills, even after three years of dedication to this activity I am still far from matching their abilities. Regardless, this kyogen has been one avenue through which I have become familiar with Japanese culture, and I recommend it to anyone else who is interested in learning about the Japanese language or just want to find a way to make people laugh!”

An in-depth feature on kyogen and it’s 40 years at ASIJ is included in the upcoming issue of our community magazine, The Ambassador, which ships out today. Keep an eye on your mailbox!