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  • From the editors
  • Kathy Foley, Julie A. Iezzi, and Jonah Salz

I have followed the example of my predecessor, editor Samuel Leiter, in inviting two guest editors to focus on a specific topic. Julie Iezzi and Jonah Salz have shared both their research and inspired a "kyōgen boom" among our contributors. Their energy, patience, and passion have made this issue a reality. I thank them for their work.

Kathy Foley
University of California—Santa Cruz

Kyōgen Leaps out of Nō's Shadow

Kyōgen, meaning "wild, specious words," are often denigrated as "comic interludes" to the more serious nō, with which they've been coupled for more than six hundred years. Derived from sangaku "variety show" performances imported in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries from China, kyōgen's sharp satire, realistic portrayals of living targets, and obscene skits gradually became smoothed and codified into a gentle formal comedy during the Edo period (1603–1867), when and kyōgen were designated the "ceremonial performance" (shikigaku) of the shogunate. Yet the 250 plays in the current kyōgen repertoire display a wit, sparkle, and verve that have the power to entertain today, spanning slapstick farce, gentle satire, comedy of manners, and sci-fi fantasy. Fads, foibles, and folly of the Japanese medieval era are captured in its expressive form.

Since the Muromachi period (1333–1573), kyōgen has been connected with theatre. Interludes (ai kyōgen) between acts of plays inform spectators of the backstory in colloquial language and allow the lead actor (shite) to change his costume; while full kyōgen plays, interspersed with the nō, provide a colloquial chuckle between solemn or tragic dramas. Employing the same minimal mise-en-scène as the nō, [End Page v] kyōgen actors normally do not rely on elaborate properties or accompanying musicians; masks, spectacle, and chorus rarely appear in the ten- to thirty-minute dramas. Kyōgen is instead a tour-de-force of acting bravado. Puns, onomatopoeia, and spirited banter enliven the dialogue, propelled on a charming, wavelike rhythm that ensures a dynamic relationship among actors and helps draw in spectators. Short songs (kouta) include drinking ditties, love ballads, and lyric appreciations of the fleetingness of human existence. Physically precise and expressive pantomime and carefully controlled blocking codes make exquisite use of space and rhythm among performers. Dances range from childish leaps and stamps to frivolous and frenzied festival prancing to auspicious and elegant circular dances reminiscent of nō.

Kyōgen has traditionally been practiced in family teams loosely affiliated with schools (ryūgi). The Izumi School—including the Izumi, Miyake, Nomura Manzō, and Nomura Matasaburō (not blood-related) families—is strongest in Tokyo. The Ōkura School—comprising Ōkura, Yamamoto, Shigeyama Sengorō, and Shigeyama Chuzaburō (not blood-related) families—is strongest in the Kansai area (western region including Kyoto-Nara-Osaka-Kobe). The compact nature of kyōgen, requiring only three actors to perform most plays, allows for wide variations among and even within families, leading to healthy rivalries, development of personal "flavor" (geifū), and continuous novel interpretations of the standard repertoire.

Actors develop along a career path from "monkey to fox," a training trajectory from childhood stage debut in Utsubō Zaru (The Monkey Skin Quiver), to graduation in Tsurigitsune (The Fox and the Trapper). During that time, they become jacks-of-all-trades, mastering quick characterizations of rebellious servants, arrogant lords, conniving con men, pompous priests, henpecked husbands, shrewish wives, callow bridegrooms, cowardly demons, and impotent mountain wizards. They also learn to adjust performances for audiences ranging from elementary school children to connoisseurs familiar with four generations of family players. They perform in a variety of venues from temple festivals, to civic hall stages, to indoor theatres of four hundred eager fans, to outdoor torch-light (takigi) nō spectacles of five thousand first-time spectators.

Kyōgen Today

Kyōgen has today achieved a status and fame beyond any in its history, with more than seventy full-time professionals nationally, teaching and performing regularly in most major cities. Actors from the Shigeyama Sengorō family move freely from publishing to television to opera, from regional barnstorming to overseas tours, from...


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