Kyogen, a theater themed on humor

When it comes to traditional Japanese performing arts, many people think of kabuki and rakugo, but few people immediately think of nohgaku (noh and kyogen).

Of course, there are many other forms of Japanese traditional entertainment that have been handed down to the present day. However, among such entertainment performed daily for the general public today, we are no longer very familiar with nohgaku, and that has a good reason. While kabuki and rakugo were born out of the general public and developed as popular culture, noh and kyogen grew in relation to religious ceremonies. In the Muromachi period, they came to be loved by people in power, including Yoshimitsu Ashikaga, and in the Edo period noh and kyogen were designated as the official music (shikigaku), performing arts for ceremonies held by the samurai government.

That is to say, nohgaku was an art with a high threshold for common people in the early modern times.

Both noh and kyogen are performed on a noh stage which consists of the honbutai, a main stage of about 5.5 meters square, and a passage called hashigakari which is set diagonally beside the honbutai.

Let me explain the difference between noh and kyogen. In noh, actors with noh masks, wearing beautiful and elegant costumes, express themes with utai (songs and lines) and mai (dance). (Some plays are performed without masks.) The characters are mainly gods, ghosts and supernatural beings, samurai warriors and noblemen, and themes related to human tragedies or life and death are portrayed in depth.

On the other hand, the theme of kyogen is humor. Not many characters appear in kyogen plays, as is the case in noh. They are mainly common people such as a servant (Taro-kaja) and his master, farmer, son-in-law, and daughter-in-law. In some plays, a feudal lord, monk, mountain priest, god, or ogre appears, but every one of them is portrayed as humanized and friendly characters.

Most kyogen plays deal with a trivial incident that people in society encounter in their daily lives. Various incidents caused by minor mistakes, quarrels, and childish vanity are portrayed to draw people’s laughter and sympathy.

Currently, kyogen has a repertoire of about 250 plays, among which all types of humor are said to be included.

We may say that the origin of today’s popular comedy entertainment exists in kyogen.

Kyogen aiming at “yugen no jorui no wokashi (Humor that is profound and sophisticated)”

Today, noh or kyogen is often performed independently. However, since old times, both noh and kyogen have been performed together in a single event. That is shown in noh performance programs of the Muromachi period.

Noh and kyogen originate from sangaku, which was a performing art that came from China and later flourished as comical performances called sarugaku.

Historical materials from the Heian period refer to comical performances and performers as sarugaku, who may also be considered as comedians performing a kind of skit.

Sarugaku seems to have been humorous performances that satirized religious persons or made fun of local government officials, as seen from ancient times, making people laugh with gestures and words. It is said to have been so funny that people felt as if their intestines were torn or their jaws dislocated.

Eventually, some sarugaku performers reached the height of comic performances such that the audience laughed when the performers only appeared on stage and before they said any words. Also, they are considered to have been high-income earners.

While kyogen inherits such humor, noh had evolved into a performing art that expresses vast scale and serious dramas.

It is thought that the original forms of noh and kyogen were developed in the Kamakura period, but their basic aspects have been appreciated since the era of Kan’ami and Zeami in the Muromachi period. Zeami wrote many treatises for his descendants, including “Fushikaden (The Flowering Spirit)” and “Shudosyo (Learning the Profession),” containing full of information on noh and kyogen of the time.

However, many unclear points remain, such as the background to how noh and kyogen came to be performed using a same stage in a single event.

Zeami, who perfected noh, believed that the ideal of kyogen was “yugen no jorui no wokashi” (sophisticated, subtle and profound humor, as well as actors who perform it) as mentioned in his treatise “Shudosyo.” In other words, he seems to have considered comedy that makes a lot of people burst into laughter to be vulgar. That is explained in “Shudosyo” by the term “smile embracing pleasure.”

This spirit, which was also mentioned in kyogen performers’ talks written down in the Edo period, has been passed onto kyogen of our time. We can say that this spirit is one of the main characteristics of humor in kyogen.

In the “Shonyo-Shonin Nikki,” a diary of Ishiyama Honganji Temple written in the Tembun period (1532-1555), a plot of a kyogen play was described. The description shows that kyogen has been transformed from mere improvisational comedy into a form of theater since the Sengoku period.

Following noh which was established earlier by Kan’ami and Zeami, kyogen has also been arranged in such a form that we can understand in this modern day.

Gentle humor created by stylization

As I mentioned earlier, nohgaku became the ceremonial music of the samurai government in the Edo period, while ningyo joruri (puppet theater) and kabuki became popular among the common people. Although nohgaku was considered to be difficult to enjoy with a high threshold for common people, it is said that utai-bon (texts of lyrics and notation of music) of noh has been a long seller since the Edo period, and kyogen-ki (script of kyogen plays) was popular among the common public as reading material.

A characteristic of the performing art is that both noh and kyogen are made of collections of small patterns of gestures and speech. The training of each actor starts from learning these patterns. Patterns exist in postures, ways of walking, expressions of various emotions. Kyogen actors should acquire patterns of daily activities such as eating, drinking, and sleeping and refine them.

By using these highly stylized expressions, audiences can enjoy and laugh at them with peace in mind. They can feel human raw emotions or weakness as humanity or humor, not being confronted by such emotions. Audiences can escape from raw emotions because they are depicted stylistically.

In fact, kyogen has been attracting attention from the aspect of modern children’s education. Because kyogen is performed in a stylized manner, even children can play from start to finish and also enjoy and laugh watching them.

For example, the lines are basically in the seven-and-five syllable meter with a unique rhythm of kyogen. Hayashi (music) and utai are performed in line with actors’ gestures and lines, in rhythms that make Japanese people excited.

Children, having no prejudice, seem to be able to enjoy it more, laughing and shaking their bodies to the rhythm. In short, open-minded sensitivity is fostered.

Although kyogen’s works include social satire and human insight, no one would feel uncomfortable watching them because they are stylistically performed and flexible in dealing with human relationships. To put it simply, there is no “looking down from above” attitude.

Let me introduce the story of Sadogitsune (the Sado fox), one of such kyogen plays.

A farmer from Sado, who was on the way to pay nengu (land tax), became a companion with another farmer from Echigo. On the way, the farmer from Echigo said, “I suppose there are no foxes in Sado.” The farmer from Sado said without thinking, “there are many.” In the course of the quarrel, the two farmers decided to ask an intermediary official, who was serving at the feudal lord’s residence in the capital, to judge whether there were foxes or not, betting short sword.

The farmer from Sado, who felt cornered, made the official say “there are foxes in Sado” using bribery. Furthermore, he pretended to know how a fox looked like through cheating and won the bet. However, after leaving official residence, he was asked by the farmer from Echigo to explain sound foxes made but could not answer. In the end, he had to give up short sword which he had won.

The excellent human insight portrays the weaknesses of people who repeat mistakes. Even those in ruling classes, who may annoy vulnerable people, have weaknesses and childishness as well. Such descriptions lead to social satire, so everyone can enjoy watching.

For example, a kyogen play sometimes ends with a scene where Taro-kaja (a typical character in kyogen) makes a mistake and is scolded and chased by his master shouting repeatedly, “Yarumaizo Yarumaizo (I won’t let you go).” The audience watching the scene thinks that Taro-kaja will surely do the same thing again, and the master will scold him again as well.

However, audiences, instead of feeling like criticizing them, openly accept Taro-kaja, who never learns a lesson. Audiences can even examine themselves honestly.

That is because such descriptions are neither with a “looking down from above” attitude nor a mere lesson: Kyogen has good human insight and social satire at its root, but the performances are shown in a stylistic manner, creating gentle and generous-hearted humor.

As for noh, you may somewhat feel the burden of going see a performance on the way home from work, but I am sure that you can watch a kyogen play casually, without feeling the burden.

You do not need to worry about catching lines with old terms because no complicated words are used in kyogen, so you will naturally become familiar with them while watching and listening to them. Anyway, each play lasts less than 30 minutes.

Recently, many works have been made available online, so you can check out some of them before going to a theater. As comedy for grown-ups, I recommend you to try kyogen once.

Now, what is your thoughts on kyogen? How about enjoying in a noh theater the highly sophisticated humor of the classical entertainment, as just like a comedy skit we can share even today?

* The information contained herein is current as of November 2021.
* The contents of articles on are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

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