Japanese Arts (V): Kyogen

Japanese Arts (V): Kyogen

Kyogen means "silly talk" in Japanese. It is one of the classical forms of theater in Japan. Unlike the formal and serious Noh (a Japanese dance drama), Kyogen is a comic art aimed at amusing the audience. It was developed at the same time as Noh and is performed alongside Noh, serving as a comic interlude between Noh plays..

What is Kyogen?


There are two kinds of Kyogen: hon-kyogen and ai-kyogen. Hon-kyogen is a separate play performed between two Noh plays. Normally, a full-set performance consists of five Noh plays and four hon-kyogen plays. Ai-kyogen is integral to a Noh play and is performed during its interludes. They are used to relieve tension, develop the story, and deepen the audience's understanding of everything.

The action and dialogue of Kyogen are usually exaggerated, making the play easy to understand. Most of the stories are humorous, containing farces and satires. Some plays are parodies of Buddhist or Shinto religious rituals and others come from folk tales. Normally, Kyogen will not last over 10 minutes and is performed by no more than three characters. The most common kinds of characters include:

Tarokaja (Servants): They are the most iconic characters. Generally, they are of low status but clever and resourceful. There are also some specific tarokaja who will screw things up because they have drunk too much.

Daimyo (local lords): They are generally arrogant, conceited, and ignorant. Normally, they have a strong sense of dignity.

Yamabushi (priests/monks): Monks and priests in Kyogen usually turn their backs on their faith and make mistakes due to their greed.

Suppa (liars): They are villains. They don't do evil deliberately; rather, their wrongdoings are simply a representation of human nature.

History of Kyogen


Kyogen is one of the art forms that make up sangaku. It was brought from China in the 8th century during the Nara period (710-794). During the Heian period (794-1185), sangaku developed into sarugaku. Sarugaku emphasized comic stories about the life of a person living in the countryside. In the Kamakura period (1185-1333), it was further subdivided into Noh drama.

Although the exact origins of Kyogen are unclear, the first Kyogen actors, known as okashi, appeared in historical records in the mid-14th century. In the Muromachi period (1336-1573), Kyogen was a rather vulgar improvisational art with a fair amount of sexual innuendo. However, as the years went by, it was gradually refined into a form with much less innuendo. Additionally, in the late Muromachi period and the Edo period (1606-1868), three Kyogen schools were established.

In the Edo period (1603-1867), Kyogen greatly owes its development to the support of the Tokugawa shogunate. With the Meiji Restoration in 1867, Kyogen declined sharply, leading to the unfortunate demise of one of the three schools. However, the other two schools survived and were revived later.

Types of Kyogen


Usually, Kyogen strives to create a relaxing and gentle atmosphere for its audience, but there are also Kyogen dramas that portray sadness, deliver sharp satire, and explore philosophical questions. Based on the main characters and content, Kyogen can be divided into the following categories:

God of Wealth Kyogen: Plays about the God of Wealth bestowing good fortune.

Farmer Kyogen: Plays about farmers paying their taxes.

Feudal Lord Kyogen: Plays about daimyo (feudal lords).

Minor Lord Kyogen: Plays about tarokaja (the servant).

Son-in-Law Kyogen: Plays in which a son-in-law does multiple things related to his wedding.

Woman Kyogen: Plays with a determined woman as the main character.

Demon Kyogen: Plays with humorous depictions of demons.

Priest Kyogen: Plays that poke fun at priests.

Mountain Priest Kyogen: Plays about mountain priests with not-so-perfect magical powers.

Blind Kyogen: Plays featuring blind characters, usually masseurs.

Dance Kyogen: Plays that are parodies of Noh plays.

Miscellaneous Kyogen: These can include plays with animals as protagonists.

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