The legacy of kyogen’s Okura tigers

Noh's comic intermission plays involve dedication and skill on a par with that of noh itself


Noh, the Japanese theater form, is renowned for its highly stylized use of masks, elaborate costumes, literary and religious context, and difficult narratives. It’s also known for its incredibly long performances — traditionally taking up an entire day.

Kyogen, short comic or satirical plays, served the purpose of breaking up those lengthy shows. And, like Shakespeare’s comic relief skits in tragedies, they also added some levity.

Both kyogen and noh developed from sarugaku, a popular performing art of the Yamato region during the 11th century. Though still stylized in rendition, kyogen were realistic in content and often poked fun at the lower classes of Japan, including low-ranking warriors. By the 15th century, when master noh writer Zeami had perfected his plays, kyogen were regularly performed as intermission breaks to noh performances. Kyogen actors had also begun to participate in noh plays as ai (interpreters).

On Feb. 27, “Okura-kai Kyogen,” a selection of five 30-min. kyogen plays — without the noh — will be presented at the National Noh Theater by the Okura-kai (Okura Society), headed by Okura Yataro Torahisa XXV, 63, the current head of the Okura School of kyogen performers.

The Okura School of Kyogen, which is believed to have been founded by a Buddhist monk named Gene Hoin, dates back to the 13th century; and one of the school’s early masters, Yaemon, is known to have belonged to the Komparu-za, one of the four Noh groups existing at that time. In the 16th century, Okura Yaemon XI (1531-96) was honored by Daimyo Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), who gave him the name Toramasa. Since then, successors in the Okura family have kept the “tora” (tiger) of Toramasa to create names such as Torakiyo XII (1566-1651) and Toraakira XIII (1597-1662). In 1694, the Okura family moved from Nara to Edo, where they received the continued support of the Tokugawa shogunate throughout the Edo period.

Today, one of the “toras,” Yataro Torahisa XXV, performs alongside his two sons — Motomitsu, 37, and Motonari, 31.

Motomitsu was taught kyogen by his father and his grandfather, Okura Yaemon Toratomo XXIV, and appeared in a staging of “Iroha,” the Japanese version of the “The ABCs,” at the tender age of 4. In 1998, he received the name Sentaro, and in the past 30 years he has not only mastered two-thirds of the 180 plays in the Okura family repertory, but has also performed in National Noh Theater programs. “Whatever assignment I get, I try to do my best,” says Sentaro in an interview. “I love to perform kyogen because it expresses the sense of okashi (the amusing) and I get to laugh, weep and deliver lines in a ‘samurai’ fashion.”

Dedicated to spreading information about the art form, Yataro Torahisa XXV has performed kyogen abroad many times and, in the past three years, he has staged three sets of “Okura-kai Kyogen” at the National Noh Theater in Sendagaya, this year’s show being the fourth. Sentaro, meanwhile, has been teaching kyogen for the past 20 years and has ambitions to perform abroad too. “I’d like to take it to Boston or New York City, if possible, to see the American audiences’ reactions,” he says. In a bid to connect with a younger audience, Sentaro, along with his brother Motonari and his cousin Noriyoshi, has also formed a young kyogen performers group in 2003 called SHIN.

Although kyogen was traditionally performed by men only, the present Okura family does not leave out the girls. Sentaro’s 10-year-old daughter, Ayano, can be seen leading a troupe of mushrooms in “Kusabira,” the final play of this year’s “Okura-kai Kyogen.” Next up will be Sentaro’s son, Akimistu — at age 2 he’s still too young to start learning, but he’ll surely be the next Okura to keep the family tradition alive.

“Okura-kai Kyogen,” a set of five kyogen plays, will be performed on Feb. 27 at the National Noh Theater in Sendagaya, Shibuya-ku; performance begins at 2 p.m.; tickets at ¥5,000, ¥6,000, ¥8,000 or ¥10,000. For tickets: email, call (03) 3920-6717, fax (03) 3594-2816 or visit When purchasing, please leave your name, number of tickets required and contact details. The tickets can then be picked up at the theater.

Funny farmers, heavy love letters and some truly wild mushrooms

“Okura-kai Kyogen” at the National Noh Theater in Sendagaya, introduces Japan’s working class through five classic comic plays. Characteristically jovial with banter, jokes and odd situations, each of these 30-min. kyogen has an amusing tale to tell.

“Gan-Karigane” (“Wild Geese”)

A farmer from the Izumi Province (southern Osaka) and a farmer from Settsu Province (northeastern Osaka) arrive at the capital of Kyoto to present seasonal wild geese to the imperial court. A banter develops as the two farmers are questioned by the officer in charge about the different words they use for “geese” — “gan” and “karigane.” In explaining the words, the two farmers refer to several well-known classical poems.

“Fumininai” (“Letter-carriers”)

A parody of a famous noh play, “Koi no Omoni” (“The Weight of Love”), this kyogen follows Tarokaja and Jirokaja, two servants who take it in turns to carry a letter to be delivered to their master’s lover.

As they travel, the letter gets heavier and heavier, until it becomes too much to bear, and the two men start fighting over it. During the scuffle, the letter is torn apart. When the master discovers how his servants have treated his precious love note, he chases them off in fury.

“Kamabara” (“To Cut Yourself With a Sickle”)

“Kamabara” depicts a couple’s fiery relationship after many years of marriage. It opens with a woman yelling and stomping about behind a curtain hanging at the end of a bridge. Taro, a man who doesn’t like to work, is chased onstage by his angry wife. As they quarrel, a mediator steps in and Taro grudgingly agrees to go work in mountains.

On his way, however, he decides that killing himself would be better than being tormented by his wife. But he has such difficulty trying to cut his belly with a sickle that he changes his mind. His wife, meantime, hurries over to him, crying, and begs him to stop. So Taro asks his wife to die for him. She explodes into anger as he runs away.

“Tsukimi Zato” (“A Blind Masseur Views the Full Moon”)

On the night of an autumn full moon, a blind masseur from downtown Kyoto listens to the sounds of crickets on the Kamo riverbed. A man from upper Kyoto, attracted by the man’s simple actions, stops to chat. After reciting classical waka poems to each other, the upper-Kyoto man offers the blind man some sake. They drink, sing and dance together until, eventually, they decide it is time to part company.

As soon as he leaves, however, the upper-Kyoto man changes his mind, turns back and for unknown reasons, he intentionally knocks down the blind man. He runs off, leaving the blind man who mumbles, “What a heartless man, nothing like the person who left earlier.”

“Kusabira” (“Mushrooms”)

In this weird fairy tale, a man finds his garden overgrown with enormous mushrooms. Not knowing what else to do, he asks a yamabushi (mountain ascetic) to pray to stop the growth. But when the yamabushi tries to subdue the power of the attacking mushrooms, they simply keep on emerging, much to the annoyance of both men.

Exhausted by his futile actions, the yamabushi finally disappears, leaving the mushrooms to grow at their leisure.