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Sunday, Aug. 1, 1999

Giving kyogen the center stage

Staff writer

By counterpointing the gassy comedy of kyogen with noh's abstract symbols, Japanese theater keeps body and soul together. The effect is rather like a poet ending his song -- then slipping on a banana skin. Correspondingly, when performed separately it isn't half as funny.

Still, while the kyogen program given at the National Noh Theater in Sendagaya last Friday didn't much amuse, it did highlight shades of subtlety which are often lost in relief, after the fidgety enjoyment of noh.

The evening began with the Izumi school's version of "Kazumo," literally mosquito sumo. In this form, it is a fairly standard variation on a common theme, with the rascal servant Taro Kaja bungling his mischief and getting it in the neck in the end.

Taro is sent out by his master, played by Ryosuke Nomura, in search of new retainers, and returns with the disguised spirit of a mosquito. Hearing that his new recruit is skilled at sumo, the master wrestles the mosquito and of course ends up with a nose that is not so much bloody as bloodless and itchy.

The master sees through the disguise and is at first successful in fending it off with vigorous fanning. But the insect gets in another stinging blow and makes a triumphal exit, the sleeves of its kimono slowly flapping in mockery. Almost as an afterthought, the master then throws Taro to the ground, and exits mimicking the mosquito.

In truth, this is a real sketch of a play. It lacks the customary moral, so pleasing in its simplicity, and is a pretty flimsy excuse for the wrestling scene, wonderful interlude though that is.

The next play, "Kumo Nusubito," the spider thief, is a much more cohesive piece. Taro sounds the alarm after mistaking for a thief a poor poet who has crept up outside to listen to his lord's evening of renga, or linked verse.

The poet bolts, but becomes entangled in a giant spider's web, and is led inside to prove his mettle. Needless to say, he does brilliantly, winning the master's favor and a kimono to hide his poverty.

This affirmation of basic order, of the lord's nobility and the poet's virtue, is the real stuff of comedy, but it was pretty dry fare all the same. Certainly it was no preparation for the wonderful "Seirai," with which a troupe of Okura players, including the masterful Juro Zenchiku as the shite, ended the night.

Thanks to Buddhism, everyone is going to heaven and times are hard in hell. This leads Enma, the King of Hell, and a crew of demons out to the Crossing of the Six Roads in the hope of waylaying a sinner or two. They grab Seirai the falconer, but are bemused by his protests of innocence. It is his falcons that sin and not himself, he argues.

Enma is intrigued and asks for a demonstration. So Seirai, with a line of obliging fiends as beaters, unleashes his hawk and brings down a pheasant. (In fine pantomime style, it is tossed from the wings and lands onstage with a thud.)

As his crew munches away, Enma grants Seirai a wish. Whereupon, he plays the oldest trick in the book and asks for his freedom. Enma grants him three more years on condition that he sends him a steady supply of game and all process slowly off-stage.

"Seirai" is more often performed in such programs than as an interlude between noh plays because it is so substantial in its own right. Indeed, although noh and kyogen have been distinctive forms since their origin around the same medieval time, it is tempting to think of it as being similar in style to an early, unrefined noh play.

Its structure, whereby an encounter is manufactured as an opportunity for the shite, Seirai, to explain his history and purpose, strongly recalls noh. So too its rhythmic chorus and the demons' crimson wigs and masks. And yet, while its moral may be ambiguous (Seirai must after all return to hell) it is nevertheless driven by plot in a way that would be quite alien to noh.

As all worthy antitheses should, Seirai reveals the fabric of its counterpart, noh. But it is a fabric warmed by time, frailty and merriment. This is the reality kyogen admits, and to see it as a freestanding genre makes a very cheerful change.

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