DENTO NO GENZAI

Kyogen meets contemporary theater

by Rei Sasaguchi

For the past 20 years, Kazuhiro Morisaki has promoted the comical performing art form of kyogen, but that doesn’t make him a purist.

In his time working within the kyogen world, 56-year-old Morisaki has noticed that some younger performers — much like some noh and kabuki actors — feel restricted by the limited scope of their inherited style, and are trying to find a broader identity beyond their own spheres.

As an experiment in styles that provides young actors with opportunities to try other forms of acting, Morisaki recently launched “Dento no Genzai (Traditions Re-assessed),” a series of productions that fuse the essence of traditional performing arts with contemporary theater.

Kyogen, which literally means “crazy words,” evolved in the Kansai region during the 14th and 15th centuries in reaction to the highly stylized noh theater. Realistic in subject matter, kyogen plays consist of narration and brisk exchanges accompanied by exaggerated gestures. Typically, the plots center on a tarokaja, a servant who likes to make fun of his master. The plays are often satirical and address with humor the inequalities experienced by lower class Japanese.

Morisaki has chosen to use as his source material works by Izumi Kyoka (1873-1939), an author renowned for romantic novels and plays that smoothly move between reality and fantasy.

“I stage Izumi Kyoka’s works featuring kyogen performers because of the simple ways of acting and staging used in kyogen, which, I think, appeal to today’s audiences,” Morisaki said in an interview with The Japan Times.

In 2004, together with 45-year-old director Yukikazu Kano, who heads the neo-kabuki troupe Hanagumi Shibai, Morisaki started with a full kyogen production of Kyoka’s 1900 novel “Koya Hijiri (A Buddhist Saint on Mount Koya).”

In 2005, working from Kyoka’s 1914 play “Kaijin Besso (The Palace of the Sea God),” Morisaki cast the 27-year-old kyogen actor Ippei Shigeyama as a young prince opposite noh actor Shizuka Mikata as a beautiful woman.

Since his debut at age 4, Shigeyama, whose grandfather and great-grandfather are both designated Living National Treasures, has been active in various theatrical activities both on stage, on television and in the movies — as have his older brother Munehiko and his cousin Masakuni.

Now, Morisaki is once again casting Shigeyama in a lead role, this time opposite 40-year-old Shoichiro Tanigawa, a contemporary actor formerly affiliated with the comedy troupe Tokyo Kandenchi, in a work based on Kyoka’s 1924 novel “Mayukakushi no Rei (The Spirit of a Woman Hiding Her Eyebrows).” The play is showing at the Kinokuniya Southern Theater in Shinjuku from Aug. 10 to 13.

Morisaki has adapted Kyoka’s novel into a fascinating one-hour play that mixes kyogen acting techniques and elements of contemporary theater. The play opens as Sankichi Sakai (Shigeyama), a young man traveling through the Kiso mountains, arrives in Nagano Prefecture. Sakai finds an old but comfortable-looking inn and decides to stay for several days. As he settles into his room, though, he is bothered by the continuous sound of running water. When he investigates, to his surprise he finds a young woman in the bathroom.

Isaku (Tanigawa), the inn’s cook, comes into Sakai’s room and recounts the strange story of Otsuya, a high-class Tokyo geisha who was accidentally shot to death at the inn. As Isaku finishes narrating, the ghost of Otsuya emerges in silhouette, asking if she looks all right with her eyebrows shaved off (during the Edo Period, Japanese women shaved their eyebrows after they were married). The enchanting feeling of the scene is enhanced by the occasional, melancholic sound of the fue, a flute typically used on the noh stage.

Morisaki thinks that of the three works he has done in the “Dento no Genzai” series, the combination of a kyogen actor with a contemporary one has been the most successful.

“The direction of kyogen is similar to that of the contemporary theater. Kyogen may be considered a predecessor of the contemporary theater,” he said. “By employing kyogen’s traditional acting technique, I can create dramas that are original.”

But it is not always easy combining traditional and contemporary styles. After a rehearsal for “Mayukakushi,” Shigeyama said, “I find Kyoka’s lines fantastically difficult to speak. Isaku has long, eloquent lines, and it may be easier, or more effective perhaps, to handle them in kyogen style.”

But traditional skills can be useful. Besides playing Sakai, Shigeyama also delivers lines for the ghost of Otsuya when she appears. He speaks in the manner of an onnagata (a male kabuki actor who plays a female role).

Tall and good-looking, Shigeyama is off to Paris next month for a year of study on a scholarship offered by the the Ministry of Culture. While there, he plans to study the classical French theater of La Comedie Francaise at the ARTA drama school. It will be interesting when he returns to see what kind of performances he will stage with the new dimensions in acting that he should acquire abroad. Undoubtedly, he will continue to contribute to Morisaki’s forthcoming theatrical experiments, as, with his versatility, his future is certainly promising.