Revitalized kyogen to a crossroads

by Nobuko Tanaka

With the new century, it seems that the world of traditional Japanese theater has taken a long, hard look at itself and is seeking new means of expression.

Hideki Noda, a standard-bearer in the world of Japanese contemporary theater, for example, demonstrated at the Kabuki-za in August that modern and classical Japanese performing arts can be successfully integrated.

Meanwhile, in the world of kyogen (Japanese comic theater that dates back to the Muromachi Period, 1392-1573), Mansai Nomura is working in a similar vein. He is searching for a new theatrical direction that retains kyogen’s sophisticated movement and expression, and blends it with the spoken lines and dramatic sense of modern plays.

Born in Tokyo in 1966, Nomura is the eldest son of Mansaku Nomura (who pioneered the staging of kyogen overseas), and he has studied the dramatic art under both his father and his grandfather Manzo, a designated living national treasure. Nomura’s own stage debut came at the age of 4.

Last week, this thoroughbred of kyogen directed a unique production of “Rashomon” at the Bunkamura Theater Cocoon in Shibuya. This is an evolutionary version of Nomura’s last modern kyogen program, “Yabu no naka,” for which he won the best newcomer prize at Japan’s National Arts Festival in 1999. With this year’s updated version, however, he’s thrown two more Ryunosuke Akutagawa novels — “Chuto (Thief)” and “Rashomon” — into the mix, giving the story greater complexity and a liberal dose of mystery.

Nomura’s aim seems not to be concealment, however, but rather the revelation through this layer of mystery of the essences of human nature, whether egoism or greed, jealousy or sympathy. His special interest is the eternal concern of male and female relationships.

Many people are no doubt familiar with film director Akira Kurosawa’s masterwork “Rashomon,” likewise based on the novels of Akutagawa. Kurosawa triumphantly used cinematic rhetoric and the exaggerated style of his movie actors to represent the basic instincts of humanity.

For its kyogen interpretation, Mansai retained some traditional elements of the drama style; for example, he more or less employed its methods of delivery and movement, and the actors wore traditional costumes with, in many cases, masks.

On the other hand, his experiments were also plain to see, one being the abstract scenery: A tangled structure of sticks represented the Rashomon gate, that all-important symbol of the crossing point between past and present, and of duplicitous human nature. Nomura’s actors also expressed themselves with many more words than in traditional kyogen.

It must be said that this 50-50 genre — contemporary drama combined with kyogen technique — is still at a developmental stage. In trying to add something new to kyogen’s “perfected” form, however, Nomura has surely set himself one of the hardest challenges in modern Japanese theater.

Viewed as contemporary drama, for example, his “Rashomon” seems too slow-paced. The director is evidently striving to strike a balance between modern speed and traditional delicacy, but equally clearly, he is struggling to do so.

The balance between what is retained or dropped from the traditional form — and what is added from others — is the crucial (and most difficult) point. On the evidence of this production, Nomura is still groping toward that balance.

These shortcomings notwithstanding, Nomura merits a place alongside Noda in that brave new generation of artists taking on the great challenge of restructuring Japan’s traditional arts.

Nomura has been working to bring kyogen into the 21st century in many other ways, too. In particular — and thanks in part to his “idol” status — he has succeeded in familiarizing young people with kyogen. He has also taken his artistic experiments abroad; he directed a kyogen-style production of “The Comedy of Errors” at London’s Globe Theatre this summer.

I believe that this talented practitioner will eventually accomplish the restructuring of kyogen. But, perhaps as with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s promised political reforms, it will entail a great deal of pain and won’t be achieved any time soon.