Kyôgen

The refinement of the intense, other-worldly Noh drama in medieval Japan was paralleled by the development of light and humorous dramatic skits known as Kyôgen. Where Noh is solemn and symbolic, Kyôgen is irreverent and slapstick; where Noh treats the profound passions of human existence, Kyôgen concerns the amusing situations of daily life. The language of Noh is poetic and exalted, while that of Kyôgen is prosaic and earthy; the costumes of Noh are rich and gorgeous, while those of Kyôgen are the plain dull garments of everyday life worn in fifteenth century Japan. The character for the word Noh means talent or ability, while those for the word Kyôgen mean wild talk, or crazy speaking. Each of these dramatic forms has special qualities that are emphasized by its contrast with the other.

Kyôgen is acted on the Noh stage between performances of Noh plays. Sometimes even within a Noh play, there is a Kyôgen interlude between two "acts," for comic relief. But while the actors in Kyôgen, who are trained differently than those in Noh, may be as skilled, their intention is not to move us to tears, but to make us laugh. Often the story is about a humble person making a fool out of someone in authority. The situations are often familiar to us, either from our own lives or from television sitcoms: servants trying to outwit their masters, or a younger son trying to take advantage of an autocratic father in his dotage.

Suggested Kyôgen Play for Reading

In the play Busu, a master tries to fool his two servants, and they in turn try to outwit him. Neither side quite succeeds, although the servants seem to come out ahead. The play ends, as many do, in a chase — giving it the antic quality that is a basic attribute of Kyôgen.

** Busu can be found on pages 305-311 of Donald Keene's Anthology of Japanese Literature (New York: Grove Press, 1955). The play is referred to in the student exercises below.

Student Exercises

  • Choose three students to act out the play you have read (Busu). They can try to memorize their parts, or else write them on index cards and refer to them as they act. For props you will need fans for Tarokaja and Jirokaja, a cask for the busu (a pail or bucket will do), a scroll made of paper, and a bowl. Perhaps you can invite another class to serve as an audience.
  • Think of situations that would make good Kyôgen, and try to write your own. A play could concern students trying to avoid handing in homework they haven't done, or a teenager who has to keep rescuing a mischievous or clumsy friend from a series of funny predicaments. Remember to keep the cast small, the props simple, and the text funny — just like in Kyôgen.
  • Make a list of similarities and differences between the Noh and Kyôgen forms. See if you can think of a situation in which the two forms could be used to express different elements of the same story or plot.
© 2009 Asia for Educators, Columbia University | http://afe.easia.columbia.edu