Sunday, April 3, 2011

Kyogen- Japanese Theater IV

Kyogen mask, Edo Period
Kyogen are short plays and dances performed in between scenes during a Noh play. You can think of them like a "half-time" performance. Like Noh, some of the actors wear masks and the narration is done by a chorus of chanters. There are two types of Kyogen play: hon-kyogen, which is a story separate from the Noh it's performed alongside, and ai-kyogen, which is actually part of the Noh story being performed.

Many Kyogen plays are comedies, often mocking one of the main characters from the Noh play. They usually feature "trickster" characters, like foxes or tanuki (red raccoons). Foxes are generally shape-shifters, sometimes just playing silly tricks and other times outright malicious. Tanuki are best known for tricking people by paying for the tons of alcohol they drink with money that turns into leaves in the morning. They're also known for their ridiculous libidos, so clearly there's some satire going on here. (I'm guessing the butt of the joke here were young samurai or noblemen.)

A Kyogen fox, probably about to be trapped.
And satire is actually what's at the heart of most Kyogen plays. It might seem strange that in an audience composed of both noble and poor classes, many Kyogen plays are actually mocking samurai and noble characters, making them laughably stupid and generally losing to the lower classes. In fact, in addition to trickster animals, another common character is the trickster servant. Usually named Tarou, the servant gets up to all kinds of hi-jinks while the master is away.


Nothing stops truly resourceful servants from getting into the master's sake. From my class' Kyogen performance.
This actually served an important role in maintaining a good relationship between the higher and lower classes. When you consider that the samurai, violent warriors with all kinds of fighting prowess, were the people in control over peasants... would it be very surprising that the peasants would find them scary and a little barbaric? When seen as terrifying, tyrant-like leaders, there is actually a higher chance for rebellion. But when depicted as heroes in Noh and occasionally the objects of satire in Kyogen, they are seen as more human and trustworthy.

The same technique was used in Europe in many Medieval romances. One of the earliest written Arthurian legends, Chretien de Troye's "Lancelot", actually reads as a comedy. Lancelot's love for Queen Guinevere is not the epic, emo romance we envision today- it was laughably silly, with him so caught up in pining for her he falls off his horse and almost drowns in a river at one point. But in the end he does prove to be a hero and saves the Queen (who has been kidnapped yet again. Seriously, the only royalty to be kidnapped more often than Guinevere is Princess Peach.) Like the samurai, knights in Medieval Europe were scary figures who needed to be humanized in this way to establish trust with the lower classes.

Take a moment to visualize the situation:

Scary samurai incite rebellions with their scariness!!
Chill samurai live in harmony with lower classes because of their awesome chill-ness.

Other posts on Japanese Theater:
Photo credits: Kyogen fox from the-noh.com. Scary samurai from Samurai Gallery & Musashi comic by amazing comic artist Kate Beaton. If you haven't read her comics, go do it now!

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