The Japan Foundation
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Artist Interview
Cross-over Kyogen master Sennojo Shigeyama’s quest for a new form of global comedy theater
Cross-over Kyogen master Sennojo Shigeyama’s quest for a new form of global comedy theater
Yoka Kyogen Tofu Kozo
Written by Natsuhiko Kyogoku
Directed by Akira Shigeyama
Tofu Kozo
©Shigeyama Kyogen Kai
You are thinking of new projects one after another. In February you did a completely new “Su-kyogen” performance with your older brother Sensaku, in which you both performed sitting for the entire play.
That was quite an adventurous new attempt, but that response has been rather good. I am having trouble with my knees lately and it is getting difficult for me to do the standing movements of Kyogen. My brother is 90 and most of the time he needs someone supporting him or a standing for the standing movements. But his mind is still clear and you don’t forget the lines you learned when you were young. We want to continue doing Kyogen, so what do we do? I thought we could do a play together if we didn’t have to move, and that led to this plan. It went well and next February we are going to a second Sensaku, Sennojo production.

Most people think about retiring when they have trouble with standing performance, but you turned that disability around and thought about what you could do next.
That’s right. I am always thinking about what I can do next. I like doing that. I guess it is just my nature.

Do you also take on new [contemporary-written] Kyogen plays because it is something you like?
I have done a lot of new Kyogen plays. I have even written one myself, but the results are usually boring if it is written by someone who knows Kyogen too well. If you know Kyogen too well, you become confined by the framework and conventions of Kyogen. The chances of a good result are few if you are just trying to fit new themes of motifs into the existing framework of Kyogen. In the past there were thousands, tens of thousands of new Kyogen plays written and discarded as no good, and the ones that survives after several hundred years are the repertoire of traditional Kyogen that we have today. That is why you won’t get good new plays unless you transcend the existing framework of Kyogen. And that is why most new Kyogen plays may be performed once or twice and never performed again.
 There are two exceptions that have been successful, however. One is Susugigawa by the playwright Tadasu Iizawa. This is a play Iizawa wrote based on a French story for the theater company Bungakuza. It was not written for Kyogen originally. But I asked for permission to allow us Kyogen actors to rewrite it for Kyogen. Traditional Kyogen was mostly a product of ad lib by the actors, and I believe Susugigawa was successful because we did it by that same process.
 The other successful new play I would cite is Hikoichi-banashi by the playwright Junji Kinoshita. This was also written originally with no intention of it being used for Kyogen. But, there is a scene in which Hikoichi jumps into a river, which would be very difficult to stage in a realistic modern theater production. But in Kyogen it is easy. If the Kyogen actor simply does a swimming motion, that in itself turns the stage into a river [in the audience’s mind]. So, bringing Kyogen conventions to the staging of this play made successful.

The Kyogen trilogy written by philosopher Takeshi Umehara was also interesting and drew a lot of attention. The first work of that trilogy, Mutsugoro, brings in the new theme of environmental destruction by telling a story of the small marine animals being displaced by land reclamation projects that are actually going on.
It is something that could only have been written by Umehara. We could never have thought of a story like that. It could certainly never have been written by a scholar of Kyogen. Umehara is one who has studied the philosophy of humor, and I hear that he did his graduation thesis on [Henri-Louis] Bergson. So he is very much interested in comedy, and I hear that he is a big fan of Japanese traditional Rakugo comedy. That is why he was selected when the National Noh Theater planned a program of new Kyogen. But the work Umehara wrote was so long that the resulting script was so thick it would have taken about five hours to perform by my estimation. I took that and reduced it to about one-third its original length.

The second work in the trilogy, Clone Ningen Namashima (Human Clone Namashima), is about baseball and the play is full of clones of popular Japanese baseball heroes.
It was very interesting. When we did Namashima we used a flute to make the sound of a baseball flying through the air. When I was working on directing it, I told the musicians where I wanted sound effects and left it up to them what sounds they would use. They all made suggestions such as where to use taiko drum and where to use Otsuzumi. They got going like that and finally we had the flying flute sound (laughs). And, since the musicians performed in [informal festival] happi coats and headbands, in the past I, as director, would have been forced to quit Kyogen in disgrace.

These new works take difficult contemporary issues like the environment, cloning humans and war and present them in a clear and appealing wrapping of comedy. Watching these successful new Kyogen plays, your claim that Kyogen is a contemporary art really ring true.
These new works are indeed interesting. But, many of them are on topical themes of the day and will therefore be difficult to perform again and again over time, I believe. Recently, one new work that has been performed repeatedly and become part of my repertoire is Yokai Kyogen by the novelist Natsuhiko Kyogoku. There is Tofu Kozo and Kokuri-banashi, about a battle of deception with a fox. I don’t know of any other author who could have brought the world of ghosts and specters to Kyogen. These are works that only could have been written by someone like Kyogoku who knows ghost literature so well. We have performed Tofu Kozo more than 20 times.

With the 3G Project and new Kyogen works, we will be watching your future activities with great interest.
I will continue to work with an “everything goes” attitude. But one thing I want to stress is the fact that Kyogen is contemporary theater. This is true for Kabuki, Noh, Kyogen and Bunraku are not old forms of popular entertainment of the common people of olden times. They are contemporary theater using traditional conventions and methods. They are contemporary theater. Whether it is the bureaucrats or the scholars, they describe Kyogen first of all by talking about Zeami and the writer of the original Noh plays and then say that Kyogen was the plays done in between Noh performances. In Kyogen there are several schools, including the Okura school and the Izumi school, which have been handed down over the generations. But to the audience this means nothing. Even though the famous works of opera and ballet were written long ago, they aren’t presented as the “Old traditional arts of Europe,” are they? But now Noh and Kyogen have been designated by UNESCO as World Heritages. I said that if you do that Noh and Kyogen will die. I protested fervently, saying, “Don’t make us traditions with one foot in the coffin.” Now we have to work even harder to show that Kyogen is a contemporary theater.
 Anyway, thinking of new things to do as we go along is fun. Maybe that’s why I don’t seem to get old. If your work makes you young and you can enjoy a good drink at the end of the day, who could ask for more?
 
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