Medieval kyogen treads modern boards

by Rei Sasaguchi

Mansai Nomura, the 37-year-old kyogen supremo who has also enjoyed success in contemporary theater and film and TV dramas, is embarking on yet another a new enterprise in Tokyo this month. At Setagaya Public Theater (SEPT) where he is artistic director, Mansai is presenting his first “Kyogen Gekijo (Kyogen Theater)” program in collaboration with his prominent kyogen actor-father, Mansaku Nomura. His uncle Mannosuke Nomura and Mansaku’s six disciples are also participating.

Mansai opens the event with a spirited rendition of the auspicious dance “Sanbaso,” celebrating a good harvest. He shows his remarkable skill in this powerful mai dance, performed on a noh stage specially installed in the theater, which has no less than three hashigakari (bridges) extending from the rear.

The three kyogen plays of medieval origin Mansai has chosen for this inaugural season are short (they run for 30 to 40 minutes each) and simple in plot. Audiences will be delighted to find, however, that they are dramatic and surprisingly modern in nature.

The first number in Program A is titled “Kawakami (Upstream).” It takes its name from the site of a shrine where the principal character regains his eyesight after praying to an image of the bodhisattva Jizo. There are strings attached to the man’s cure, however — the bodhisattva stipulates that he must divorce his wife, who the deity considers to be undesirable. When he returns home, however, the man (not unsurprisingly) meets with fierce protestations from his wife and finally decides not to part with her. That instant, he loses his eyesight for good.

Mansaku is superb as the blind man, and through his sensitive acting and delivery, he shows the man’s acceptance of his fate. We even sense the strong psychological bond between him and his wife as they calmly retire from the stage together despite their ill fortune.

“Kamabara (Committing Suicide with a Sickle)” in Program B tells the story of a lazy woodcutter who is viciously nagged by his wife for not wanting to work. Chagrined at being insulted by a woman, the man declares his intention to commit hara-kiri in front of her. Unimpressed, his wife deserts him, so he decides to carry through his resolution of suicide. The luckless woodcutter repeatedly attempts to stab himself with a kama (sickle), but in vain.

The failure of this lazy individual even to commit suicide is certainly a funny sight — and yet the absurdity of his plight is somehow also touching. Mansai alternates this role with his uncle, Mannosuke, who has a very elegant style of acting.

“Futaribakama (Two Men Sharing a Pair of Trousers),” also in Program B, is a rollicking comedy that portrays a young man paying a courtesy visit to his new father-in-law shortly after his marriage. Unable to face making the visit alone, the young man asks his father to accompany him.

The trouble begins when the father, too, is invited in by the host. The proper attire on such an occasion would be long ceremonial trousers, but the two men have only one such pair between them. They end up tearing the trousers into two, each man folding his half so that it hangs down the front of his clothing to give the correct appearance. Thus clad, they dance with their immaculately attired host!

Mansai as the bridegroom and Mansaku as his father form a charming pair; their performance is hilarious, yet with warm human touches.

Mansai plans to present Kyogen Gekijo performances annually at SEPT as part of his efforts to foster collaboration and cross-fertilization between classical performing arts, such as kyogen, and the contemporary theater.

On the strength of this fine debut program, SEPT’s audiences should look forward to seeing Mansai and Mansaku present many more such highlights from the medieval kyogen repertory on the transformed stage of this vibrant contemporary venue.