‘F or kyogen actors, Japan losing the war in 1945 was a wonderful event as it liberated kyogen from its long subjugation to noh,” actor Shigeyama Sennojo says. “For the first time in 400 years, kyogen was recognized as an independent form of theater.”

According to Sennojo, kyogen — realistic pieces of drama consisting of comic or satirical dialogues — had always existed within the world of the more spiritual noh tradition. It was part of the shikigaku (ceremonial dance and music) practiced by samurai society during the Tokugawa Period and for privileged circles during the Meiji Period. The social changes in postwar Japan, though, enabled kyogen actors to be active on their own, and there was a striking revival in the 1950s. Participating in other forms of Japanese performing arts, they were finally able to perform before non-noh audiences.

Both kyogen and noh evolved from Sarugaku, performing arts popular in the Heian Period (794-1185) that had been imported from Tang Dynasty China and included acrobatics, magic and pantomime. But to Sennojo, kyogen is simply the most basic form of dramatic Japanese performance arts.

“Kyogen should be regarded as part of the contemporary Japanese theater, a form of popular entertainment,” he says. “I’ve tried to change the feudalistic notion of treating it as part of the shikigaku and place it at its start in the Muromachi Period (1392-1573).”

The energetic 84-year-old is practicing what he preaches with his latest production, “Yume Cho Monowa (What is a Dream?),” a new 50-minute-long kyogen play being staged at the National Noh Theater in Sendagaya, Tokyo on Dec. 12 and 13. In fact, he’s even turning the tables, allowing “Sanekata,” a noh play by Zeami, a founder of the more austere art form, to be included with the night’s performance of “Yume.”

Born four years after his brother Shigeyama Sensaku IV, who has recently been conferred an Order of Culture by Emperor Akihito, Sennojo received his early training in kyogen from his grandfather Sensaku II and his father Sensaku III. He considers what he learned from his forefathers to be vital, but on stage he allows himself and others to perform freely.

“Kyogen plays were born ad lib at festive gatherings during the Muromachi Period. Since the form evolved on outdoor stages, the words had to be delivered loudly and repeated for audiences to grasp their meanings,” he says. “In a kyogen performance, when Tarokaja (a servant), our favorite lead character, speaks to his master, the master decides his answer after hearing the reaction of the audience to what Tarokaja has just said.”

In the 1950s, Sennojo participated in theatrical experiments by the renowned kabuki director Tetsuji Takechi. While working with people in kabuki, bunraku, shingeki (New Theater), avant-garde dramas and operas, Sennojo says he was able to re-evaluate the traditional acting technique of kyogen and work out new methods of staging plays.

“My method has been formed out of my varied theatrical experiences in the past 50 years,” Sennojo says.

In the past decade, Sennojo has directed several kyogen plays at the National Noh Theater: “Harabeyama” (the story of a husband and wife who go insane from guilt after abandoning an aged aunt in the mountains) in 1997, and three “Super Kyogen” in 2000, 2002 and 2003, whose scripts were written by Takeshi Umehara, the author of large productions called “Super Kabuki” that were directed by Ichikawa Ennosuke.

What’s kyogen to noh?

In the kamigata region (present-day Kyoto and Osaka) during the 14th and 15th centuries, two distinctive forms evolved out of the dramatic Sarugaku tradition imported from Tang Dynasty China: noh, which features symbolic songs and dances and reflected the elegant taste of the aristocracy; and kyogen, realistic skits with comic dialogues that depict the life of ordinary people or are critical of social contradictions of the time. In the mid-15th century, kyogen began to be staged between noh plays in order to attract people from all walks of life, even though kyogen actors were considered subordinate to noh performers. The two were presented by Sarugaku theaters to raise money for shrines and temples and various other public enterprises. Later, under the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867), kyogen plays were presented with noh productions as part of the ceremonial dance and music performed on special occasions.

The script for “Yume Cho Monowa,” written by noted fue (flute) performer Masanori Hoashi, is based on one of the 197 stories in the 13th-century collection “Uji Shui Monogatari.” It is the story of Kibi no Makibi, who studied in Tang Dynasty China and served the Imperial Court in Nara. Although set in the Nara Period, the new version has been conceived as a contemporary drama.

When Prince Taro, the heir to the governor of the Bitchu Province in Okayama Prefecture, comes to a shrine accompanied by his page Makibi, he asks a fortuneteller about a recent dream: a turbulent voyage encountered while heading toward the Chinese coast in a boat. The man predicts a brilliant future for Taro, but says that he will have to study hard while in China. The young man does not like the prediction so Makibi, to save his prince, offers to “buy” the dream from him.

Several decades later, Makibi, who now works at the Imperial Court, encounters Taro, who is selling sweet dumplings in front of the same shrine. Taro offers Makibi some dumplings, but the bureaucrat refuses the lowly gift until he realizes that the older man is his former master, the prince. Taro reports that he has led a peaceful life selling snacks, while Makibi confesses that he is fed up with his life as the Minister of State. As he senses that Makibi is envious of him for looking happy and content, Taro proposes that Makibi change the course of his life and become a beggar. But the former page runs away without answering him.

It’s a classic ending to kyogen, an art form that turns many common assumptions of power on the their head.

“There are nearly 200 kyogen routines, running from 20 to 30 minutes, in the repertory of the Shigeyama family. Almost half of them deal with Tarokaja, who often make fun of their masters and criticize contradictory situations of the time,” says Sennojo. “The remaining kyogen routines feature such socially undesirable characters as thieves, or troubles between husbands and wives, in which the women are generally portrayed as stronger.

“I hope to continue reshaping kyogen as our theatrical heritage and make it a desirable gift to our future generations.”

“Yume Cho Monowa (What is a Dream?)” is at the National Noh Theater in Sendagaya on Dec. 12 and 13; tickets ¥3,000-¥6,500. For more information call (0570) 07-9900 or visit ticket.ntj.jac.go.jp.

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