The Japan News   by The Yomiuri Shimbun

September 29, 2016


By Hiroko Ihara / Japan News Staff Writer

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What would you do if you were unhappy about something but couldn’t find a solution?

Suppose you were a bonsai enthusiast, but your friend, who owns many bonsai trees, wouldn’t give you even one. How would you cope with the frustration? Would you just give up? 

You may find entertaining solutions in kyogen — classical Japanese comedy theater.

The dilemma of the frustrated bonsai enthusiast is fantastically depicted in “Bonsan,” a popular piece from the kyogen repertoire. Characters in kyogen theater worry, cry and laugh at almost the same things as individuals in contemporary society.

“Kyogen performances are short comedy skits, if we are to define them in modern terms, and they have been performed for hundreds of years,” said kyogen actor Okura Noriyoshi. “Kyogen comically depicts characters who are consumed with jealousy, greed, and other human weaknesses and warmly embraces these flawed individuals. It’s full of affection for humankind.”

Okura and his colleague Zenchiku Daijiro will host an event titled “The Heart of Kyogen: Lecture, Demonstration, Performance,” in New York on Oct. 21-22 to promote the universal appeal of the traditional performance art form. English interpretation will also be provided. 

“I like to see people laugh wholeheartedly while watching kyogen,” Okura said. “I’ll do my best to entertain the audience in New York.”

Okura and Zenchiku performed at a similar event at the Cerulean Tower Noh Theatre in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, last month. 

Okura and Zenchiku are in their mid-30s, relatively young for kyogen performers, and both are enthusiastic about attracting more young people to kyogen. Okura has published a kyogen guide full of witty illustrations to appeal to a younger audience.

Opening the Tokyo event, the two quietly entered the stage walking in the suriashi style — with their feet sliding along the floor — and respectively performed short dances while singing. This traditional kyogen opening followed by their cheerful greeting in English, immediately relaxed the audience. 

The two often interacted with the audience, and their informal presentation style, which consisted of an informative lecture, creative handouts and English interpretation provided by John Oglevee, clearly impressed the audience, which included first-time spectators and international visitors. 

During the kyogen demonstration, the audience were invited to laugh in the performers’ distinctive kyogen style.

Encouraging the shy audience, Zenchiku said, “You can do it well if you think of something amusing.” After a few attempts, the audience felt much closer to kyogen and well-prepared to enjoy the performance of “Bonsan” in the finale. 

The Tokyo and New York events were organized by Noh Society, a nonprofit group that promotes Japanese art and culture in New York. Setsuko Bouteille, the organization’s president, said the society planned the kyogen events after holding an event on noh theater in New York last year that was well received. 

About the upcoming New York show, Zenchiku said: “My primary task is to entertain the audience, but I also want to enjoy myself while performing, and learn from the event.”

Okura said: “Kyogen can encourage people from different backgrounds to tolerate and accept each other. I truly believe kyogen can contribute to building a more peaceful world