Mad Words*

*A literal English translation of “Kyōgen,” a form of traditional Japanese theater.

According to an MIT website, Kyōgen “is a form of traditional Japanese theater that developed as a sort of intermission and comic relief between the solemn noh acts. The kyogen is very short, so costumes, masks, and props are simple and minimal.”  For some reason, my school was invited to attend a presentation on Kyōgen at the Hyuga Cultural Center.  So a few weeks ago, afternoon classes were cancelled and instead, all 660-ish of us walked the 15ish minutes from Tomishima to the Center.

I got the prestigious position of standing at the trainstation in the breezeway outside and waving my lightsaber/ traffic directing flashlight towards the culture center to direct the students as they walked by.  Everyone seemed to get a kick out of hearing me say, “This way please,” and I personally just felt happy to be given a job like any other teacher.  A few of the older people who hang out around the station everyday at the park and cafe came over to ask me what was going on, but for some reason I suddenly forgot all of my Japanese.  Also, the word “kyōgen” refused to stay in my head.  I would ask one of the other teachers what we were going to watch, they would tell me, and as soon as I turned to tell one of the people talking to me I would forget kyōgen and have to start the process all over again.

dsc05859 dsc05854

The presentation itself was kind of interesting.  At least, the bits I understood were.  The presentation was a mix of performances and educational lectures.  A few students even got to go up on stage and try out some of the kyōgen actions.  Kyōgen uses overly exaggerated actions for things like laughing, crying, etc.  Kyōgen actors also use an old Japanese dialect that I had some trouble following.  It’s a bit like hearing the Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English or Shakespeare in Early Modern English.  There are parts you can catch, but for the most part your ear just isn’t used to it.

After the presentation on Kyōgen emoting, we got a lesson on the musical instruments that are used to tell the story and are characteristic of many Japanese performance arts.  There are four instruments in a traditional Kyōgen orchestra:

The flute

The flute

The kotsuzumi, a small handheld drum.

The kotsuzumi, a small handheld drum.

The Ootsuzumi, a slightly bigger handheld drum.  Source: https://i2.wp.com/www.tcwagakki.com/share/images/Lphoto/65.jpg

The Ootsuzumi, a slightly bigger handheld drum. Source: http://www.tcwagakki.com/share/images/Lphoto/65.jpg

And a small taiko, as seen on the far left of this picture with a full Noh orchestra that would have been much easier to post rather than posting all the previous pictures, but of course I didn't find it until I was already done with those.

And a small taiko, as seen on the far left of this picture with a full Noh orchestra that would have been much easier to post rather than posting all the previous pictures, but of course I didn’t find it until I was already done with those.

I already was familiar with some of these instruments, but I didn’t realize that the sound they make was supposed to mimic certain words (which of course I forgot).

Finally the presentation ended with a short kyōgen performance.  The story was about a priest trying to chase a demon out of someone but he accidentally infects his assistant with the demon instead.  It was supposed to be a comedy, I think, but by the end when the (spoiler warning) priest was infected as well, I was actually feeling pretty bad for the priest.

It seemed like those students and teachers that were able to stay awake throughout the presentation enjoyed it.  For me it was a unique Japanese cultural lesson that not many people get to experience.  Though I did not understand it 100%, I got enough for it to be worthwhile.

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