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Friday, Feb. 11, 2011
The legacy of kyogen's Okura tigers
Noh's comic intermission plays involve dedication and skill on a par with that of noh itself
Special to The Japan Times
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, call (03) 3920-6717, fax (03) 3594-2816 or visit sentarou.jp. When purchasing, please leave your name, number of tickets required and contact details. The tickets can then be picked up at the theater.